These tin-glazed ceramic tiles, decorating the country’s streets, come in different sizes, patterns, and colors, ranging from black, to blue, green, and golden yellow. Just like bacalhau or Fado music, azulejos are deeply rooted in Portugal’s culture and history.
These mosaics can be traced back to the 13th century when the Moors invaded Spain and Portugal. It wasn’t until the 16th century, when King Manuel I, back from a trip to Seville, truly adopted these “small polished stones” (which is the Arabic meaning for azulejos) into Portuguese culture.
Once used to cover up the blank parts of Portugal’s Gothic walls, this artwork can now be found anywhere and everywhere in Portugal, whether on pavements, walls, restaurants, bars, and subway stations. You might even see them on bodies. If you do, they are probably tattoos by Fabiano Bernardo.
Ironically not too far from the National Museum of Azulejos, is the Route Lisbon tattoo and piercing shop, owned by Fabiano Bernardo. A bit hidden in the streets of the Cais do Sodré district in Lisbon, you can see a rock and roll theme inspired store with the artist’s motorcycle parked out front. Due to the Covid-19 restrictions, the shop only re-opened on 15 March, along with hairdressers and barbers, but has been in the city for seven years now.
Fabiano Bernardo, the 45-year-old Brazilian tattoo artist and owner of the Route Lisbon, has been designing and tattooing azulejos for five years now. “I’ve always liked azulejos, I find them very beautiful”, he tells me while he’s preparing all the equipment he needs for his next appointment. He was surprised when, a few years back, a client asked for the famous Portuguese tile to be tattooed on his shoulder.
After that tattoo, the demand skyrocketed and the pattern can often be found inked on people’s skin. Fabiano was the first to start this trend, even innovating the designs. “Sometimes people will ask for a sardine or a galo de Barcelo, which are common Portuguese symbols, with an azulejo pattern”. Now, other tattoo artists are jumping on the azulejo-decorated bandwagon.
“A piece of the country” on your skin Tiffany recently moved to Lisbon, from France, to work in a call centre for a year. Her motto is “one country, one tattoo”. Tiffany wanted to get a tattoo “connected to Portuguese culture”. So when she stumbled upon Fabiano’s Instagram page, she fell in love with his azulejo designs: “the perfect tattoo”. Many expats and tourists come to get these tiles inked on their skin because “people want a piece of the country” with them, says Fabiano.
This symbol of Portuguese culture is very important to him, and preserving it is the reason he started doing these tattoos. “I noticed no one cared about azulejos, often broken or stolen to be re-sold in fairs and markets”, tells the artist with hair styled like a modern-day, salt and pepper Elvis. “The idea was to preserve this part of Portuguese culture and remind people of the beauty of azulejo’s”, often taken for granted in the country. He wanted people to respect the artwork more.
From the shop’s name, to his famous galos de Barcelos tattoos and now his azulejo designs, his work is a clear homage to Portuguese culture. His ink and needle are his weapons to defend it. Fabiano Bernardo says that at one point, “people just kind of abandoned the idea of making and taking care of azulejos”. After living in the country for 20 years, he noticed the trend suddenly reversed, and people started to realize how precious they were to the culture, and how extraordinarily beautiful and unique this artwork is. Kind of like the tattoo industry.
However his shop manager, receptionist, and my translator for the day, Sara, was born and raised in Portugal, in the Ribatejo province. She on the other hand, didn’t appreciate the beauty of azulejos whatsoever before. “I never really liked them, I felt no connection to them” she tells me. But that was before she started working for Fabiano Bernardo. Now, her views on them “have completely changed”. That’s the Fabiano Bernardo effect. Through his passion, his art, he is trying to preserve this once unappreciated symbol of Portuguese culture. Reminding all, local or foreign people, that azulejos are worth taking care of, worth our admiration.
From time to time, he’ll nod his head, or stomp his feet to the beat of the country music playing in the background while he tattoos Tiffany. “He takes his time, and you can really tell he loves what he does. He’s very gentle about it, it’s almost soothing.” The tattoo finished, Tiffany is amazed. “I love it! It’s even better than the drawing. You can’t tell with my mask on, but I’m smiling” she says. Sara, amused that someone could be so excited by azulejos, just giggles.