There’s just something about street art that makes you feel like you understand the locals a bit more. One of the first things I noticed when arriving in Lisbon, is that the people here can be quite discreet – contrary to their Italian and Spanish neighbours – but their streets tell a different story.
You can find little ticking green clocks, symbolising time running out when it comes to confronting climate change, slogans like “the feminist revolution” written near the Fonte Luminosa, “I can’t breathe” on Almirante Reis Avenue, or small red and black raised fists, plastered all over the capital’s streets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Lisboetas may be quiet but they know how to make their voices heard: through their art.
Lisbon is known today for its colourful walls and original street art, but back in the 18th century, buildings were all-white. It was only after the earthquake of 1775 that the richer neighbourhoods started to add colour and tiles to their walls and pavements. When the democratic revolution hit in 1974, expressing oneself through art and colour in the streets became common and often accompanied by political messages. Today, the tradition remains, and hour-long tours are offered to tourists who want to discover all the unique street art the city has to offer, whether outside, in art galleries or even bar crawls.
When I arrived, I couldn’t visit any museums due to Covid-19 restrictions. However, it didn’t talk long for me to realise that Lisbon is already an open-air museum and every street is a work of art in its own way. Almost every little cobblestone street or big avenue (even parking lots!) has a work of art. You might even miss a few gems if you’re not careful or too busy looking at the amazing tilework under your feet.
Like many people who have just arrived in Lisbon, I was told by locals to go to the Alfama district, to see what a “traditional Portuguese neighbourhood” looks like. So naturally, that’s what I did. Despite the empty streets due to the lockdown, you could tell that Alfama is a very lively neighbourhood. Between the colourful streets, the Easter decorations, the sardine stickers on people’s windows, it truly is a quaint and charming place to visit.
If you pay close attention to detail, you might be able to spot old-timey portraits on some street corners and alleyways. These portraits of Alfama’s elderly are the work of Camilla Watson, an English artist, who collaborated with the Borough of Santa Maria Maior to give birth to this project she calls “Alma de Alfama” (or Soul of Alfama in English). According to the artist, Alfamistas represent “the identity of the neighbourhood” and these portraits of them, along with little texts explaining in detail their lives, were made “in the intention of preserving traditional values”. In case you want see all the portraits, there is a map on the artist’s website (http://camillawatsonphotography.net/alma-de-alfama/#).
If you’re lucky enough, you might even be able to see one of Alfama’s stars. I had the chance to briefly talk to Maria Emilia, a fishmonger. Like most, she’s lived in Alfama all her life. In her portrait, she’s standing in front of a fish (almost the same size as her) and smiling with her mouth wide open. You could almost hear her laugh, just by looking at her. As I take pictures of Maria Emilia’s portrait, I notice someone staring at me from their car. Turns out, it was Maria Emilia herself. She slowly rolls down her car window, and waves at me like she’s the Queen of Alfama. Like a groupie spotting the member of her favorite boy band, I ask if I could take a picture of her. Even though she was in a hurry, she took some time to chat and try to understand my broken Portuguese, promising to take a picture with her portrait next time our paths crossed, before driving off.
This served as a reminder that, you don’t necessarily need to go to museums to learn about a city. Talking to the locals, getting to know about their lives and habits, teaches you just as much about someone’s culture than going on some tour or expo. Street art allows that to happen, to reconnect people with the streets, with the locals, without having to pay tens of euros for a museum ticket. Street art is everywhere in Lisbon, and you can spot so many different artworks, each of them unique… as long as you remember to look up from time to time or you might just miss something special.