the rough and the smooth

Olá from Lisbon, Portugal,

At what point does a city give up on the fight against graffiti? It must be a drain on precious state resources when the graffiti keeps coming back. In Lisbon, the city has succumbed and there is a huge amount of it. Perhaps they argue that it’s urban art.

We’ve always had a difficult relationship with graffiti. There’s the obvious tension between the perception that it’s a blight on a civic landscape and the impulse to accept it as an expression of a city’s anonymous but worthy underclass.

We city dwellers often face the dilemma of how to feel sitting at a railway station bespattered with graffiti. We often feel as though we are wallowing in our own filth. The ugly defilement of something built for the common good represents an unexplained puzzle. The notion that it provides an outlet for artistic expression doesn’t quite cut it. It’s a wanton disregard for the public good, is it not?

Some cities (like Paris) still have patrols to remove any new graffiti on the thinking that tolerance of one example will beget companions. In Hobart, Australia the local government has designated a partcular zone for graffiti artists in the hope that they will have all their creative juices exhausted there and won’t defile the city’s sandstone edifices (any more than they already have). Some cities have given up what seems like a futile cat-and-mouse exercise. It doesn’t help the cause when Banksy and other anonymous practitioners have successfully blurred the line between graffiti and art.


In Lisbon, the ubiquitous public art is even on places you might not expect to see it, like private buildings, the beach and even on the statuary. There seems to be no distinction between the old and the new.

Perhaps the city illustrates the notion that in every urban settlement we end up with good and bad cohabiting in the same spot. Lisbon is a city like no other I’ve ever seen. There’s a vivacity in Lisbon which says that most people are not just busy, but they seem to be happy about it. Music is everywhere: buskers and live shows, and not only Fado. You get the impression that Lisbon – and Portugal in general – are living it up, making the most of their freedom since 1974 when the (largely) peaceful coup emancipated the nation after five decades of repressive dictatorship. There’s a vibrancy here which is palpable; more so than in most cities, and not exclusive to the evenings.

Perhaps Lisbon represents the trade-off. You want the vibrancy, you get the graffiti. You get the rough with the smooth. What was once the scourge of maintenance teams is a permanent presence, one of the costs of living in an urban environment. If the defilement represents a silent protest against the establishment, perhaps the establishment accepts that such disillusionment could manifest itself in a much more damaging vogue. The graffiti is a better result than that. Taking the rough with the smooth is probably for the best.

Adeus from Lisbon


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