Edition 1424
20 May 2017
Edition: 1424

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The writing’s on the wall

in News · 02-08-2008 00:00:00 · 0 Comments

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and, if so, the beauty of graffiti has divided the views of those beholders for centuries.

The writing’s on the wall

What some shun as an act of vandalism, others appreciate as a true form of art worthy of its public showcasing. However, it is, in essence, an attempt to break free from the constraints of conformity and attain individuality and recognition by literally, and even figuratively, leaving a mark on this world.
Through cinema and the like, graffiti has long been associated with images of rebellious teens from impoverished ghettos shifting under the veil of night to attack clean surfaces with political or social libelling in spray paint.
This could not be further from the truth, The Portugal News found following an in-depth investigation in the run-down areas of the Portuguese capital.
Within the sophisticated workings of the world of graffiti there seems to be a hierarchy based on respect and talent, with its own codes of conduct and rules that set real artists aside from those with a simple inclination to scribble.
Derived from the Italian word ‘graffito’ (scratched), graffiti has existed throughout the millennia earliest forms being found in Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire and Egyptian hieroglyphics.
However, within Europe, Portugal was a late starter when it came to this ‘trend’. Whereas in other northern European countries it had been the cause of social debate for decades, in Portugal it was not widely adopted until the 1980’s.
One of its first uses was during the 1974 revolution, when red carnations and political verses about democratic freedom adorned walls.
The Portugal News spent a day with some of Portugal’s best known ‘writers’ (or graffiti artists), in an attempt to clarify one of society’s longest-standing indecisions. Graffiti: art or vandalism?
Carcavelos, Cascais, was the crib of graffiti in Portugal. Once a bohemian hot-spot favoured by French surfers who brought with them the concept of graffiti in the late 1980’s.
From then onwards it expanded from the confines of Carcavelos, slowly becoming a pastime favoured by those looking to defy society and encourage it to open its eyes.
Contrary to popular belief, graffiti is not generally based on political or social criticisms, nor is it a territorial marking, artists tell The Portugal News.
It is a process of repetition through which a ‘writer’ will get their name seen, their work recognised, starting off in a small way and working up the internal ladder of appreciation.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that graffiti is the result of a troubled youth or poor upbringing.
In fact, up to ninety per cent of all those who practice graffiti are from comfortable middle-class families, have a good education and hold down respectable jobs.
“And there is a simple explanation for this”, says Luiz Pariz, a 23-year-old writer from Benfica, Lisbon, who is fast making a name for himself despite being considered by his older peers as ‘new school’.
“People who live in the ghettos don’t have the money to buy the cans”, he explains bluntly.
Luiz Pariz, a cameraman for an events company, first experienced the thrill of graffiti after decorating a window at home with Christmas snow-spray. From there to becoming addicted to the adrenalin of publicly ‘writing’ without being caught was a matter of months and has now gone on for years.
One of the most intriguing things about graffiti and its authors is the mysticism surrounding it.
Once carried out only in the depth of night, despite growing social tolerance, and even encouragement, identities are still ‘protected’ with aliases, each artist’s work based on that alias.
“Graffiti is essentially all about letters and writing”, he explains.
There are various forms of graffiti, mainly ‘tags’ (simply-drawn aliases), ‘bombing’ (more elaborate, usually two-tone aliases, still kept simple as they are done in non-legal places and in as little time as possible), and ‘Hall of Fame’ (highly elaborate, multi-coloured pieces, incorporating aliases and ‘street-art’ that cover large stretches of authorised property). A ‘writer’ aims to work his way up from simple ‘tagging’ to the most creative masterpieces possible.
Odeith, born and bred in Lisbon, is one of Portugal’s oldest graffiti artists, his work widely recognised amongst those in the know.
A tattoo artist by profession, he has been decorating the city’s streets since 1995.
“I was attracted to graffiti because I saw people shared the same interests, the same ideals, like music and art and the same attitudes” he says.
These ‘people’, other writers, form ‘krews’, tight-knit groups of graffiti artists that act together, guided by their own codes and rules.
Normally a ‘Hall of Fame’ is the collaborative work of one single ‘krew’. Other krews and their members are allowed to add to that particular piece by invitation only. Drawing over any writers’ work would be seen as a personal attack and lead to krew rivalry, though this is apparently uncommon in Portugal’s respectful world of ‘writers’. In the USA, however, it has lead to threats, on-going hostility, and even killings.
Luís Pariz was recently made a member of the GVS Krew (Graffiti Vandal Squad), Portugal’s oldest krew, initiated in 1995 by legendary founders Rote and Art.
Despite working alongside GVS for nearly three years, only last year was his work recognised as worthy of membership. One of the rules within a krew is that a new member can only be admitted if all existing members are in agreement.
GVS comprises 25 members from all over Portugal, so initiation generally takes place during a regular group meeting, often a dinner.
“Being part of a krew is like being part of a family”, says Luiz, “in fact, sometimes it is more important than family. You spend hours on end with these guys, working on your art, drinking a few beers, talking and laughing. You end up sharing your problems and talking about your life.
“Having a relationship is harder. To start with it’s all nice; ‘my boyfriend is a graffiti artist’, but then your partner sees that doing graffiti can take up most of your days and it’s not just a hobby, then it is not so nice any more.”
Hélder ‘Bamby’ José was born and raised in Dortmund, Germany, and now lives in the Algarve. He moved to Portugal 11 years ago, though has been ‘writing’ for over two decades. He is also part of the GVS Krew, belonging to a different generation of ‘Old School writers’.
Through his graffiti he now earns a living, being commissioned to decorate walk-ways, façades and interiors. He also owns a shop in Portimão – StyleSpectrum (www.stylespectrum.com)– selling everything from graffiti equipment to street-clothing.
To Hélder, “graffiti is a mixture of art and friendship”.
“In Germany, when I started out it was different. We were more controlled. Police would often follow us and we had to learn not to leave fingerprints on cans as they would pick them up to identify us. They would find out where we lived and go to our homes. When I came to Portugal there were only half a dozen writers. In Oporto it didn’t even exist”.
Despite an obvious shift in mentalities, meaning graffiti is now largely accepted, in some cases even celebrated, why are there still illegal connotations?
He reasons, “In France and Spain the government supports graffiti and its artists. In Germany it still entails vandalism. Here in Portugal, despite local City Halls claiming graffiti is OK but in the right places, they don’t explain where those places are”.
According to Luiz Pariz, “It’s a way of expressing our art, our thoughts, of getting our name out there. Standing out and being different. It’s an adventure and opens the door to travel. You have famous musicians, actors, dancers. We do graffiti. Initially I think people thought it would be a passing trend, but its not, graffiti is here to stay”.
(For more information, see www.odith.com, or www.myspace.com/pariz_one).
Carrie-Marie Bratley

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Edition 1424
20 May 2017
Edition: 1424

Read this week's issue online exactly as it appears in print.

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