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Brooklyn Street Art

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Lisbon Part II: Where Street Art is Becoming “Urban Contemporary”

Posted on April 24, 2018

Street Art, graffiti, and murals are adding to the cultural character of Lisbon streets, this is undisputed. A quick tour of a museum show, a gallery exhibition, a hybrid art supply store/residency, and an artist’s studio give you an idea of the spirited and inventive contributors who are affecting the cityscape from behind closed doors as well.  Just ask artists and organizers here in the Portuguese capital a few questions and you’ll hear (and see) how the Street Art and graffiti scene graffiti scenes are also evolving to fine art and “urban contemporary”.

An Escher Show Reminds Us of His Influential Eye


Our look inside Lisbon begins with a visit to the M.C. Escher exhibition at the Museu de Arte Popular, which lays on a tract of land between Avenida de Brasília and the lapping waves of the waterfront. For some reason you always start or end near the water here, perhaps because this is where the city’s complex history brings you with nearly three centuries of international trade, culture and maritime lore forms the the foundation of this rich culture.

What brings us here today is the eclectic Dutch graphic artists work that is in our minds directly related to Street Art for a couple of reasons. A serendipitous intersection of visiting while the traveling exhibition stopped here, we had no idea that Escher’s original drawings of architecture and impossible spaces would be so handily on display for us to visually interrogate – and the artists’ wit and guile locked us into his gaze for an afternoon.

M.C. Escher. Museu De Arte Popular. Lisbon, Portugal. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Known perhaps best for his works popularized during the surrealist and op art youth culture of 1960s and 70s, his mathematically-inspired illusions on famous rock album covers, posters, and advertisements are often reflected in the works of Street Artists today who also play with photorealism, hyperrealism, and flights of rhythmic visual fancy.

M.C. Escher. Museu De Arte Popular. Lisbon, Portugal. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Secondly, as we had previously learned from architect Dennis Leo Hegic in Berlin, who was deeply involved in the design of the Urban Nation Museum for Urban Contemporary Art (UN) interiors, Escher’s famous drawings had inspired the museums walkway that wends its way overhead throughout the space. We were eager to examine many of the drawings which effectively play on bending perspective.

At any given point along the path of that walkway you are granted views near and far but you are unsure exactly how, and as you tour the artworks on walls you feel yourself inperceptibly rising and lowering your own angle. It may give the impression that you are in some way inside an Escher riddle yourself.

M.C. Escher. Museu De Arte Popular. Lisbon, Portugal. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

As museum curators at the UN, we were interested to see the original works of visual play that inspired the Graft Architects team to create the stunning interior of the haus in Berlin. We also better understood why Hegic refers to Graft as “the Rock´n´Rollers within the German architecture.”

M.C. Escher. Museu De Arte Popular. Lisbon, Portugal. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

The darkened corridors of the exhibit itself seemed to play tricks on our bearings as we looked upon Eschers “subjects and patterns of mathematical precision, impossible objects, explorations of infinity, reflection, symmetry and perspective.”

Into the Gallery with Underdogs


Gallery Manager Raul Carvahlo leads us through the Mário Belém exhibition on display in the former industrial low-rise building that houses the Underdogs Gallery down by the river in an area of the city many remember for old factories and which is now becoming better known for its vast warehouses accommodating the city’s startup and coworking scene.

Mário Belém. Detail. Underdogs Gallery. Lisbon, Portugal. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

“He always has this surreal quality,” says Raul about the 50 or so paintings, reliefs, lazer wood-cut sculptures, and suspended mobile installations by Belém that surround three sides of the pitched ceilinged space. “He uses his work to express his fantasy world and he is quite gifted with a number of techniques.”

Owned and guided by one of Lisbon’s best known Street Artist’s Vhils (Alexandre Farto), Carvahlo says that the 400 sm space is meant to act as a platform that provides support and encouragement to local and younger artists as well as the bigger names.

Mário Belém. Detail. Underdogs Gallery. Lisbon, Portugal. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

As an internationally recognized portraitist known for an unusual technique of blasting away the façade of a building to reveal the personality hidden within it, Vhils and the gallery also partner with and feature the occasional international Street Artist sensation like last year’s Shepard Fairey show, where the two collaborated on a street wall. This spring a full-scale exhibition blow-out by Downtown New York 1990s Street Art icon WK Interact is happening in the gallery with a large scale work also on the street.

Since the Underdogs space opened in 2013 and the initiative began in 2010, Vhils and company have invited a powerhouse parade of former or current Street Artists like Nunca, Sainer, Finok, Okuda San Miguel, How Nosm, Pixel Pancho, Remed, Cyrcle, Anthony Lister, and Felipe Pantone to mount shows and murals here – effectively putting the city on the map for high-quality international urban contemporary art.

Mário Belém. Detail. Underdogs Gallery. Lisbon, Portugal. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Notably Underdogs has also provided their platform to more conceptual artists in the Street Art/public art scene like Pedro Matos, Wasted Rita and ±MaisMenos±, perhaps indicating a healthy respect for cerebral engagement and interventions that are not primarily aesthetic.

Among the local talents, the gallery also gives support to artists like André da Loba the illustrator and sculptor known for his 2-D emblematic works in publications like the New York Times and Washington Post as well as the illustrator AkaCarleone, a 33 year-old Portuguese former graffiti writer now commercial illustration/graphic artist who has worked commercially with a number of international brands. He has also created a municipal wall mural in the city and elsewhere.

Mário Belém. Detail. Underdogs Gallery. Lisbon, Portugal. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

“We’ve been working with him for quite a few years now and in 2018 we will be doing a big show with him,” says Raul of the poppy bright politics-free collages of typography, characters, and geometric forms. Later when touring with Carvalho through Lisbon streets we see on a rising hillside in the more historic part of town a large mural by AKACarleone overlooking the valley below, visible from many vantage points.

Mário Belém. Underdogs Gallery. Lisbon, Portugal. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Propaganda Posters, Art Supplies, and Street Art Tours


As a more accessible and commercial extension to the brand The Underdogs Gallery works collaboratively with their storefront space on Rua da Cintura in Porto de Lisboa only a 15 minute drive along the waterfront from here.

20th Century Propaganda Posters culled from the personal collection of Alexandre Farto AKA VHILS exhibited at the Underdogs Store. Lisbon, Portugal. (photo © Steven P. Harrington)

Shaped like a red brick channel that opens on one end into the Tagus River estuary that flows past into the Atlantic, the Underdogs store is part art supplies, print store, exhibition space, café, and mural tour company. In addition it just happens to have two small artist residencies above looking over (and on display for) art fans and tourists who make the small spot into a bustling and vibrant hub.

20th Century Propaganda Posters culled from the personal collection of Alexandre Farto AKA VHILS exhibited at the Underdogs Store. Lisbon, Portugal. (photo © Steven P. Harrington)

Raul tells us it is a family affair for Farto, with a father in business who acts as integral advisor and guide as Vhils continues to expand an international presence and nutures the business on many aspects of Street Art-graffiti-contemporary art here.

A member of an early 2000s loosely formed artist collective called Visual Street Performance that held annual exhibitions, a co-organizer of the seminal Crono Project in 2010/11 with Pedro Soares Neves and Angelo Milano, and more recently co-curator of the MURO Urban Art Festival, his is a formidable creative force that influences the flow of this multi-player and quickly professionalizing scene.

Prints for sale at the Underdogs Store. Lisbon, Portugal. (photo © Steven P. Harrington)

Beginning as a graffiti vandal writing his name in Seixal on the outskirts of Lisbon, Vhils now works with the government on occasion to facilitate public art projects and uses his own high profile art practice to spread socio-political goodwill internationally while proudly promoting his own heritage and city.

Underdogs Store on the foreground with the Montana store on the background sharing the same space. Lisbon, Portugal. (photo © Steven P. Harrington)

Underdogs Store. Lisbon, Portugal. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

In Studio with Add Fuel


Another local talent that Underdogs works with is Diogo Machado, otherwise known as Add Fuel. A trained graphic designer and illustrator well versed in the language of skating and his own youth as a graffiti writer, he’s become known internationally for his characters and his large-scale stencil-painted murals that incorporate the classic and traditional visual patterning of Portuguese tile work, or Azulejo.

On an overcast day his buddy and slightly younger peer, the sculptural Street Artist who works with recycled trash, Bordallo II, offers to take us to Cascais, a coastal town 30 kilometers west of Lisbon, where Add Fuel lives and has his studio.

Add Fuel. Studio Visit. Cascais, Portugal. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

The brightly lit and spotless split level studio has a public viewing room in the front and his office/studio in the back, where a firing kiln that Bordallo II likes to experiment with sits in the corner. The two of them assemble a number of materials together and load them into the kiln while we gaze at the primarily blue and white artworks of symmetrical repetitions interspersed with Pop and cartoon elements that he is better known for in galleries.

While we visit the two of them break off into rapid-fire Portuguese conversations about some collaborative projects they are working on – and we learn that Add Fuel often gives his rejected tiles and discards to the recycling Bordallo II. “For me there are no mistakes,” says Bordallo II, “I love mistakes.”

Add Fuel. Studio Visit. Cascais, Portugal. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Add Fuel shows us screen prints, giclee high definition prints, lithographs, and multi-tile mounted works that he has for sale or is shipping to galleries and art fairs throughout Europe and the US. He even has created textiles – covering a chair using a technique called sublimation on fabric to reproduce the patterning of his tile creations.

“I think I have a lot of inspiration from cartoons and from 80s skate culture,” he says. “I also like Jim Phillips’ work. He made so many great skate graphics at that time. I sort of mix and match and create my own cartoon style. There are always some elements that people will recognize like some Disney character’s hands or some old cartoon characters’ eye but they are all sort of mixed together.”

Add Fuel. Studio Visit. Cascais, Portugal. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Working with the DNA strands of Portuguese design that go back centuries may scare some artists, but Add Fuel considers it an inheritance that he respects and has the latitude to mess with to make it accessible to modern audiences.

“I also use similar elements of the original tiles,” he says showing you the tiles that Lisbon buildings are skinned in. “Like this geometric one is a very traditional Portuguese or Mediterranean pattern and I just added some small details, why not?”

Add Fuel. Studio Visit. Cascais, Portugal. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Bordalo II interjects, “You just f**ked it up.” The chide is answered rapidly.

“Yeah I just steal stuff, you know?,” Add Fuel retorts playfully. “Its not all from my imagination, I just stole it.”

Add Fuel. Studio Visit. Cascais, Portugal. (photo © Jaime Rojo)

Then he turns to another tile work. “This one here is actually a two model pattern – is based on 13th century Portuguese leather work- small details that were in leather belts. But once tile making began the tile makers often took patterns from leather making and iron making as well. So many of the ornamental aspects that you see in tiles come from other artisans as well. I also grabbed them and then made them into something new.”

This moment is ripe for art in the streets for Lisbon, and based on the conversations we had and the artists and curators we met in galleries, museums, and studios, the collaborative action inside the door is as lively as the stuff out in public.

 


With most gratitude to Raul Carvalho, General Manager of Underdogs Gallery and to Pedro Soares Neves for taking the time to talk to us, for sharing their knowledge and insights with us and for showing us around Lisbon. Sincere thanks as well to Diogo Machado AKA Add Fuel for letting us visit his studio and for Bordallo II for taking us there.

 

 

This is the second of two articles with BSA in Lisbon in collaboration with UN Berlin, it was originally published on the Urban Nation website, and the project is funded in part with the support of Urban Nation Museum for Urban Contemporary Art (UN) in Berlin.

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