It has been over a decade since I last was in Lisbon. Now, as I reacquaint myself with the steep cobbled lanes of its ancient neighborhoods and the breathtaking views from its miradouros, my eyes are also drawn to something else. Something new has been weaving itself into the fabric of the centuries-old architecture: street art.
A City Enhanced by Street Art
Lisbon graffiti and street art emerged in the early 1970’s as a form of expression for marginalized voices, and began to blossom with some political mural after the democratic revolution of April 1974. Over the past couple of decades, the genre has evolved into vibrant open-air murals that embrace socially impactful messages. Today, this transformation has become a reflection of the city’s dynamic cultural identity. Lisbon is now recognized as a showcase for some of the best street art in Europe.
The works are diverse, ranging from traditional graffiti to elaborate, large-scale murals that merge social commentary with stunning visual expression. From the environmentally conscious works of Bordalo II, who creates art from trash to depict endangered species with striking realism, to the faces carved on the walls of the politically charged pieces by Vhils and the colorful optimism of Mário Belém’s whimsical scenes, each is a vivid reflection of Lisbon’s artistic heartbeat.
Bordalo II’s Environmental Message
The first piece that draws my attention is a striking young panda beseechingly staring at me from the side of a building high up in the Alfama, right across the street from the Miradouro das Portas do Sol. It could be an effective poster-child for any organization for the preservation of endangered species .
It turns out to be one of the latest creations of Bordalo II, a prominent figure of the Lisbon street art scene, famous for his compelling, environmentally conscious installations. His work is unique not only for its visual impact but also for its powerful message. His giant animals are crafted from salvaged plastics, metals and other urban detritus, to focus on the ramifications of consumerism and environmental neglect.
His Young Panda was created in 2022 as part of his “EVILUTION” (not a typo) exhibition, a retrospective of his work of over a decade, reflected through his signature Trash Animals. My attention now peaked, it doesn’t take me long to spot another of his compelling compositions: Pelicans (2020) in the central Baixa neighborhood. Created of trash cans, car parts and construction materials, they stand at the intersection of Santa Justa and Carmo streets on the wall of the bank that commissioned the work.
A Mosaic of Artistic Expression
Soon, I “discover” more street art at every turn. In the Graça neighborhood, east of the city center, on my way to the National Azulejo Museum, I come across a stunning collaborative work by internationally known local urban art legend, Vhils, and his American counterpart Shepard Fairey (of Barack Obama ‘Hope’ poster fame). In this mural, realized in 2017 as part of the artistic project “Universal Parenthood”, aiming to promote peace, equality and humanity worldwide, Fairey painted half of a female face, while Vhils carved the other half to address the discrimination against women’s rights in Arab countries.
A little farther on, Poseidon, the god of the sea, towers over the Tagus Estuary. This colorful five-story high mural was painted in 2018 on the side of a building overlooking the Santa Apolónia Station, the oldest train terminal in Lisbon, by a group of artists known as PichiAvo.
Then Mário Belém celebrates life with his bright, optimistic mural created in 2017 to mark the 150th anniversary of the abolition of the death penalty in Portugal. And moments later, another of Belém’s works, this one in dreamy pastel colors evokes “Saudade” (the Portuguese word for a feeling of yearning). Painted in 2021 and known under the title “Better to be lost here somewhere than on my way to nowhere,” the mural is a nod to the 2020 pandemic lockdowns.
In the Grand Azulejo Style
At the corner where the Alfama’s Jardim Botto Marchado meets Baixa’s Campo Santa Clara, a magnificent panoramic work unfolds. Some 188 meters (620 feet) in length and covering an area of 1010 square meters (10,900 square feet), it is the largest piece of street art in the city, made up of over 50,000 small, hand-painted azulejo tiles. Two years in the making and completed in October 2016, it is the work of André Saraivia, a Portuguese visual artist who came to fame for his street art in Paris in the 80’s and has been a central figure on the urban art scene ever since.
Here, through images such as Lisbon’s 18th century Águas Livres Aqueduct, the Eiffel Tower, and New York City skyscrapers, Saraiva (a.k.a Mr. A) captures the story of his personal life and travels.
The Legacy of Fado in Contemporary Arts
Back in the Alfama, my path crosses again with Vhils and one of his works that creates the connection between my newly discovered interest in Lisbon’s street art and my life-long passion for its other popular art: Fado, the poignant melancholy music that is the soul of the city. I was still a child when my parents took me to an open air concert in the suburbs of Paris. On stage a lone woman in a black dress and shawl began to sing. The power and pathos of her voice filled the night and stayed with me forever.
Her name was Amália Rodrigues (1920-1999). She was to become the revered Queen of Fado, whose iconic voice popularized around the world the music of the docks and the poorest neighborhoods of Lisbon. Mainly thanks to her, from these humble early 19th century beginnings, Fado has gone on to be recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2011. In 2015, Vhils paid tribute to Amália Rodrigues by crafting her portrait in traditional paving stones on the sloping edge of a tiny square along Calçada do Menino Jesus.
There are Fado-inspired works of all kinds throughout the Alfama. Another notable one is Fado Vadio, created by a collective of neighborhood artist at the Escadinhas de São Cristóvão (Stairway of Saint Christopher), in the Mouraria district. Story has it that the building where the Fado Vadio mural is located is owned by a public company that encouraged the project because it didn’t have the funding to restore the wall.The paint was donated and the artists completed the work in 48 hours.
The Fado Tradition
The singer of Fado (Portuguese for “fate”) speaks of the harsh realities of everyday life, sometimes with a sense of resignation, sometimes with hope and resolve.The performer can be either a female or a male vocalist, typically accompanied by a guitarra (10- or 12-string guitar) and a viola (6-string guitar). Often enhanced by gestures and facial expressions, Fado aims to evoke the deep sense of saudade of the Portuguese soul.
There are countless Fado restaurants scattered around the city, their offerings ranging from long, traditional evening meals interspersed with professional Fado by advertised performers, to casual local eateries where up-and-coming Fadistas give impromptu performances. The best places can still be found in the two most traditional neighborhoods: the Alfama and the Bairro Alto.
On my long ago first visit to the city, I came across the São Miguel D´Alfama, and it has remained my personal favorite ever since. Located in one of the oldest houses in the Alfama (witness the ancient Roman pavement floor and the massive brick arches), it has been a family business since 1945, with the current owner, Fátima Moura, having inherited it from her mother. This is an authentically Lisboate place where local patrons usually far outnumber the tourists, the menu features well priced traditional local fare, the Port wine is excellent and the Fado exceptional.
Contrary to most Fado clubs and restaurants who consistently feature the same one or two “names” every day of the week, each evening is a surprise at the São Miguel: it’s the Fado equivalent of a jam session. The only constants are the two guitars that traditionally accompany the singers. Established local stars and rising talents alike drop in and discretely visit with their friends while they wait for their turn to perform a set (usually four songs) before moving on.
The Fado Museum
For those who still want to learn and hear more, the Museu do Fado opened in 1998 to document, preserve, and promote Fado history from its origins to its current form. In practical terms, it’s a collection of music scores, records, posters, musical instruments, and other arttefacts. It also features a wide array of music samples from different eras that help understand the evolution of the genre.
Good to Know
Visiting — The Museu do Fado, Largo do Chafariz de Dentro 1, 1100-139 Lisboa is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. It is closed on Monday, January 1, May I and December 25. Sao Miguel D’Alfama 9,Rua de São Miguel 9 – Alfama 1100-542 Lisboa. See website for opening hours and reservations.