It’s rare that we venture to a big city anymore and don’t immediately find the street art. I’m not sure if murals gravitate toward us, or we to them, if it’s become a global movement or if we’re just more attune to our surroundings than most. Whatever it is, the world has become more colorful and I, for one, love it.
“The only thing one can give an artist is leisure in which to work. To give an artist leisure is actually to take part in his creation.” —Ezra Pound
However, when we arrived in Lisbon in July, a startling thing happened. We saw relatively no murals. OK, maybe “none” is a bit of an overstatement, but “hardly any” is accurate; there’s graffiti everywhere, but actual intentional murals are harder to come by, other than a Vhils installation here and there.
We spent the first three days roaming around keeping our eyes peeled for signs of urban art, and only spotted a couple, mostly in the more heavily-traveled tourist districts. And I’m convinced we would have never seen any beyond this were it not for a chance encounter with a cafe owner.
On day four of our workshop, we took the afternoon off when the crew headed to a styled shoot on a beach. The WiFi in our Airbnb was virtually non-existent, so we posted up at Brick Café near our accommodation in Anjos to get some work done. We’d been there nearly two hours when the owner came and kindly asked us to leave; at lunchtime, apparently, they don’t allow those with laptops to use the Internet.
SVV, immediately identifying that the owner’s English was fairly solid, struck up a conversation about art. “Where would you go if you wanted to see Lisbon’s best street art?” he asked him. Like all the other English-speaking Portuguese we had encountered, he tried to tell us about the graffiti. “No,” SVV interrupted him, “we mean, like actual murals. Commissioned. Large-scale.”
Nuno then stopped and pondered the question. “Well,” he started, “there are some. But they’re in an area that’s not too safe and you won’t find any other tourists.” To which we responded, “perfect! Send us there.” And so he scrawled the words “Bairro Padre Cruz” across a sheet of paper he ripped out of his notepad, and off we went.
Introducing Bairro Padre Cruz
To start off, let me tell you a little bit about Padre Cruz. It’s not exactly unsafe per se—at least not in daylight hours—but you would never stumble upon it randomly. What Nuno said, that it was far from the beating heart of Lisbon, was true. It’s a good 10 kilometers—or a 25-minute cab ride—out there from downtown, and a ways walk from a metro stop. When we arrived, at high noon, there were hardly any people around. Padre Cruz is very much a residential area, so I imagine its residents were at school or work. But what we found was absolutely, positively startling.
There were, literally, hundreds of murals. Every single apartment building had one on each end of it. It was stunning. It was remarkable. It was unexpected.
We didn’t know where to start, so we took out our cameras and spent at least an hour crisscrossing between the five-story buildings, our camera shutters clicking quickly in sync, wanting to photograph every last thing we saw.
Then, we set off into the neighborhoods, two-story homes that formed a grid system just beyond the apartment complexes. Even outside of the high-rises, there were murals. Murals on every easement, murals on the side of many of the houses—murals, murals, everywhere!
Have you ever been so beautifully overwhelmed by something that you nearly cried? That’s how I felt as we soaked in it all, not another tourist around and the lone resident eyeing us suspiciously, not accustomed to seeing outsiders in the middle of a weekday perusing their neighborhood with such wonder.
But how did this place come to be? And why did it not show up in any Google search for “murals in Lisbon?” After seeing a “Boutique da Cultura” inscription on one of the murals, we did some digging when we got back home and found a few missing pieces of the puzzle.
Two years ago, Galeria de Arte Urbana organized its inaugural Muro Urban Art Festival by inviting artists from all over to come jazz up its bland buildings, transforming Padre Cruz into The Public Gallery of Urban Art, which today comprises more than 100 murals and is one of the largest street-art corridors in all of Europe.
Previously, Padre Cruz was home to some of the oldest graffiti in Lisbon, and as one of the city’s more disadvantaged areas it was an obvious target for the home of a major beautification effort like this one.
Marvila also has murals
The following afternoon, our next to last day in Lisbon, I was trying to find a neighborhood we had yet to explore. I heard about an open-air art museum in Marvila, so a few of the workshop attendees tagged along and we made our way there. The museum was closed, so—true to form—we ended up in a brewery instead.
At that brewery, I started talking to the owner and the taproom manager. A similar conversation to that with Nuno ensued, and they directed us over an old train track to the Biblioteca de Marvila, the old library, around the corner from which was a similar residential neighborhood to Padre Cruz—meaning, you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a mural.
Marvila is a similar layout to Padre Cruz: five-story apartment buildings with a mural on each end. You really have to put in your mileage to see them all, as the area is quite expansive and these works of art often hide from plain sight, despite their towering height.
In 2017, Marvila was the site of the second Muro – Festival de Arte Urbana de Lisbo, the same festival that transformed Padre Cruz the previous year. Marvila is much closer to downtown; it was just a 10-minute cab ride, if that, from where we were staying in Anjos. It’s also not one you would accidentally stumble upon while playing tourist, so you have to actively seek it and its brilliant artwork out. I kind of like that: a mural Easter egg hunt.
While traversing Marvila, we even saw a Kobra! I’d recognize this famed Brazilian artist’s signature style anywhere. It’s clear they brought in some of the world’s top mural talent judging by the caliber and sheer size of art alone.
It was really fun guiding our group of explorers and showing them how SVV and I travel, which is by talking to actual humans—living our motto “face-to-face is the new digital”—and wandering without an agenda, particularly as they are fellow photographers who had a blast interacting with the art, too.
Portugal has figured out what so many American cities are beginning to discover—and what we’ve tried to convince our own small conservative Southern town of: that, beyond merely driving tourism, murals have the power to alter a space, to change an environment.
Sometimes all it takes is a little paint to freshen up a place, give its residents hope and turn it into a destination for seekers of beauty like us. It’s a wonder every city isn’t following Lisbon’s lead to assist in the evolution of their poorer areas.
And we found it all by striking up a simple conversation: first, with a cafe owner, and then with a brewery manager. It took some prodding on both ends—it seems mural-hunting is not something common in Lisbon, so they were both a bit suspect as to why we would go to these “ghettos” (their words, not ours) voluntarily—but had we not put in the time, we might never have found what both of us agree was our favorite part of Lisbon on this trip, these open-air urban art museums, free and welcoming of all.