Generously Good Graffiti

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Dawn Starin

Our urge to create graffiti has probably been around since the beginning of humankind. Certainly in Portugal, it has been around for tens of thousands of years. At the Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley on the banks of a tributary of the river Douro, hundreds of panels of graffiti depicting thousands of animal figures were carved over several millennia. Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1998, this site represents “the most remarkable open-air ensemble of Palaeolithic art on the Iberian Peninsula.”1

And now a modern take on this millennia-old art form thrives in another UNESCO designated, Portuguese world heritage site—the fascinating riverside, seaside city of Porto. Here, on the banks of the Douro River, architectural gems rest side by side with bold contemporary graffiti to create a marvelous mélange of creativity.

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Dawn Starin

Porto, Portugal’s second largest city, is a patchwork quilt of lofty bell towers, Romanesque, gothic, rococo, and baroque churches, and elegant art nouveau facades and interiors. The city also contains a number of derelict and deserted historical buildings. Now, a group of young and enthusiastic graffiti artists have added their creative threads to this quilt. A graffiti renaissance is filling the streets with vitality, merriment and exuberance, and adding bold, colorful designs to the facades of many of the deserted buildings.

While graffiti often conjures up images of vandalism and/or the mindless destruction of property, this is not the case in Porto. Here, graffiti has enhanced the landscape and instilled wonder and awe in those lucky enough to see it. What was once, and often still is, seen as an eyesore in many countries and cultures now lures visitors in and offers a positive future for Porto as a youthful, and vibrant cultural hub. Today its inhabitants, known as tripeiros, tripe eaters, appreciate and even celebrate good graffiti. One of the most gifted graffiti artists is 34-year-old Hazul Luzah (both a pseudonym and a palindrome). For almost two decades, Hazul, with his sweeping sense of humor and design, has spray painted hundreds of pieces of graffiti around Porto. At the moment, about 80 of his designs survive.

On the streets, Hazul paints only on abandoned buildings or on walls legally set aside for graffiti. With his kaleidoscope of color and wit, blocked-up concrete facades and metal gratings develop a life of their own. Crumbling, deserted buildings come alive. Dull, grimy surfaces blossom.

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Dawn Starin

Hazul, however, has not limited his work to the streets. When FAP Wines launched their Giroflé Espumante Bruto, they hired Hazul to design their label, and Yours Guesthouse commissioned a painting for the front entryway in their UNESCO World Heritage building. And while Hazul describes himself as “100% Porto,” Porto is not the only city displaying his art. His work can be found at Le Mur, the birthplace of the street art movement in Paris, in Wittenberg in Germany, and in Logrono and Barcelona in Spain.

Like the ancient graffiti artists who worked at the Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and will always remain nameless, the modern day graffiti artists also have hidden identities as they create sparkling, fun, colorful works of art along the narrow cobblestone streets. Hazul says a pseudonym is “an advantage.” He feels it allows him personal security and complete creative freedom, and while he normally paints alone, he does not consider it a lonely calling since he “is open to all the world’s influences.” He also feels that people should “appreciate my work as it is and not because of who I am and what my personal life might be. It is not important or necessary to know who I am.”

While being labeled a UNESCO World Heritage site brings tourism that boosts the local economy in Porto, it also places expensive restrictions on property owners to maintain historical buildings according to UNESCO rules. These restrictions create a large number of abandoned buildings that could possibly be used to house the homeless and the needy. In order to prevent squatters entering the premises, the city blocks the entrances to these buildings with concrete. In order to bring attention to this issue, Hazul spray paints his artwork over the concrete-barred doorways.

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Dawn Starin
A handwritten message on the wall to the left of Hazul’s artwork demonstrates local support for his work.

Since part of the process of rehabilitating an abandoned building is erasing the graffiti, I wondered whether Hazul ever felt sad when a piece of his creativity disappeared. According to Hazul, “I never feel sad. I’m used to my paintings being erased sooner or later. It is normal that the city changes, so nothing is forever. The ideal situation is that the piece is destroyed once the building is renovated. Of course, I would prefer to have more public walls legally available for all artwork—be it historical, graffiti lettering or street art—where it stays for a long period of time and gets seen by many people. All kinds of works and all expression should be public, and they should exist in the open, side by side for all to see and appreciate. But, to keep a building unoccupied simply for the sake of a painting is ridiculous.”

Hazul feels his artwork comes from his search “for a sense of harmony, both artistically and socially.” He also feels that while his art might brighten up parts of Porto by adding “novelty and surprise,” it is not a solution to the housing problem.

For Hazul, repairing old and damaged buildings is the only way to address the issue. “It is necessary to repair the deserted houses so that people have places to live,” he says. “That is what is important. If my art makes people smile, if it makes them think, if it makes them appreciate graffiti, that makes me happy. If the buildings I have spray-canned, however, are rehabilitated for the homeless, that would make me even happier.”

References

  1. Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega Verde. UNESCO [online] (2015) http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/866.

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Dawn Starin