Today was really special. Not only was I able to dive deep into my love for art, but also see how cultures can shift through people sharing their gifts. I signed up for a street art tour of Lisbon and was brought to places I would had never explored on my own. The first stop was at one of Europe’s most infamous psychiatric wards called Julio de Matos Psychiatric Hospital. It used to be surrounded by a really ugly blue wall until the city commissioned artists to come and make graffiti murals. The only criteria for each artist was to use their spray cans of paint to depict emotions. What an amazing concept I thought. It took us about two hours to walk around this gate that had murals of skeletons, people with no faces, children laughing, and other bizarre, creepy, and beautiful works of art.
One of my favorite urban artists tags his work as Smiles. He is a genius at creating realistic portraits of people using graffiti. One of my favorite stories I heard was how Smiles was commissioned to do a piece for the hospital. He had an exact sketch in mind and was busy setting up to start his craft. Some of the mental patients (depending on their severity) are able to walk the premises of the hospital to get some air. One lady came strolling down the street, nonchalantly, and began tinkering with Smile’s gear.
There was a gopro on his art table and she kept peering into it…not quite sure what she was going to find. Smiles realized this had all been caught on camera and decided to ditch his original sketches and began painting this mental patients image from the gopro video. I love the woman’s look of curiosity and wonder.
The major highlight of the day for me was when we took a trip to the Projects (a sentence I would have never thought to mutter). On the way over to the other side of the city, my tour guide (Fletcha) explained that while we were heading into the slums, we would be extremely safe. Portugal is the 5th safest country in the world. This piqued my interest and I asked him why he thought that was…why did his country have so much less crime and violence than mine? He gave an incredibly astute and honest answer.
He began by stating that the Portuguese have been the mighty explorers from the beginning of civilization. They were the jumping off point to explore other worlds and other cultures. This tradition stuck as the Portuguese people love to travel and are accepting of other cultures living amongst them. He explained that “the more you know of the world, the more connected and less racist you become.” I could not agree with him more. Portugal was the first country to abolish slavery, paving the way for equality and human rights. Fetcha explained that there were no issues in the LGBT community and that rape statistics pretty much were non-existent. Rest assured there are still case by case instances as there would be anywhere, but the mentality of the people is to mind their own business and don’t meddle with others. “Tensions just don’t exist here” he said.
He continued to say that the Government is proactive and puts programs into place to help foster growth in its residents. For instance, years ago they decriminalized drugs. It is still illegal to buy narcotics, but not to take them. The Government set up housing (just like the U.S.A) and gives businesses incentives to hire ex criminals to help them back on their feet. These drug addicts are scattered in different areas throughout Lisbon, making it more difficult for them to acquire drugs. Once drugs were not illegal, crime dropped dramatically.
They did a similar tactic with “legalizing” graffiti throughout Lisbon. Urban street artists were creating illegal works of art on property that did not belong to them. Many times the art would be half ass….as they had to paint in the dark at night or had to run from the cops, leaving the murals unfinished. The Crono Project was born and was commissioned by the city to make certain areas accessible to graffiti artists. Fletcha explained how the quality of the art has increased exponentially ever since legalizing it.
A new project emerged called Growing with Colors and we were headed into the slums to see what it was all about. Local graffiti artists had been commissioned again by the city to paint humongous murals on the walls of the projects. A neighborhood that had never been visited before and had been looked down upon was now a major tourist highlight….they had been put on the map. As we parked the car, I could see some of these pieces from hundreds of feet away…they were unbelievable! Walking around the grounds local residents who lived there would smile as I walked by their windows or would ask me if they could show me their favorite mural. There was a sense of pride in these people who were now feeling seen and part of society.
As I walked around this man came up to me and asked me if I was the tour operator. He had a deal to talk to me about. It turns out this young gentleman came up with the idea to work with the local graffiti artists to create merchandise for the tourists to purchase. All proceeds would go back into helping the local residents in the projects. I LOVED this idea! All he had on him that day were pins with the murals on them so I bought four.
One pin that I had picked out wasn’t necessarily my favorite aesthetically, but it had caught my attention as I walked the grounds of the projects. It was an image of a child who was drawing pictures on the wall. The man selling me the merchandise explained to me that the graffiti artist that made that mural held a competition within the projects and asked all the local children to paint a picture. The winner would have his work shown on the wall. Two children won… so the little house is one child’s picture and the sun and clouds is another. I absolutely loved this idea of how art can foster passion in ones community and a sense of pride. Children that did not have much hope in the world before this were moved to create something and believe in themselves. I so wish we could do similar projects in the United States. It would be such a transformation. I can almost assure you that in 5 years those will no longer be projects and will be a central part of Lisbon’s booming atmosphere. Art can make us free.