Struggles on the walls: Political graffiti in Portugal
by Ricardo Campos on
These forms of vernacular expression are commonly satirical and include oppositional messages. Their affront to power and social norms has turned writing on walls and other anonymous forms of communication into a creative stronghold.
Graffiti marked onto public spaces can be particularly powerful because it has the potential to reach immense audiences. The fact that its intended audience is unidentified makes this form of communication even more curious, as it resembles the communicative strategies used in the dissemination of propaganda and advertising. But in contrast to these more deliberate forms, which are usually produced by institutions and companies, graffiti is manifest by ordinary citizens, usually in secret.
Recent history has thrown up some examples of graffiti that deserve mention because they have caught our imaginations. These examples that we find in our streets and public spaces today cannot be separated from their historical antecedents.
Joan Gari, a Valencian academic who wrote an excellent book on the semiotics of contemporary graffiti, identifies two main traditions: one European and the other North American.
European graffiti primarily takes the form of maxims or adages, rendered in writing, that have a poetic, philosophical, or political nature. A representative example of this kind of graffiti would be the graffiti that emerged during the French revolution of May 1968.
By contrast, the American tradition is strongly tied to mass culture and its pop iconography, and is marked by a eminently figurative expression and imagery.
Portuguese cities, especially the large urban centres, have been invaded in recent decades by graffiti of the North American tradition. Composed primarily of tags, throw-ups and large figurative murals, it is a visual manifestation that now is part of our global landscape.
The globalization of this kind of graffiti suggests that we find, dispersed around the planet, a common language and shared mechanisms for the production and evaluation of an identical aesthetic.
The fact that graffiti is so widespread should not cause us to forget that it has occupied an important place in recent Portuguese history. For example, it was an important site for expression after the Carnations Revolution on April 25, 1974. The period following this peaceful revolution was marked by a profusion of political propaganda that depended on walls for its dissemination.
The iconography of the time, which often borrowed elements from Marx, Lenin, and Mao, was accompanied by collective representations of the people, the working class or peasantry. Over the years, however, it gradually gave way to politically inconsequential tags.
But in recent years a new willingness to engage in political communication has emerged, and is appearing on Portugal's urban walls. The serious economic and social crisis that broke out in response to the heavy austerity measures imposed by the ruling coalition of the Portuguese Social Democrat Party (PSD) and the People's Party (CDS) seems to have mobilized citizens to act politically on the margins of conventional mechanisms of expression of political will.
The numerous large demonstrations that have been held in the past years, organized by non-partisan associations and collectives, are a good example of the emergence of informal political expressions in recent times.
The walls of Portugal appear to increasingly serve the purpose of expressing not only a widespread revolt, but also of stoking political power, satirizing the ruling class, and defying the status quo. Words, slogans, spray-painted murals and stencil techniques are among the forms of protest that run through the streets of Lisbon today.
The photographic images below portray this dynamic style of popular demonstration.
In recent years a new willingness to engage in political communication seems to have emerged, and is appearing on Portugal's urban walls.