In almost every European city street art is on trend. But legal street art, supported by the city council and a gallery where you can buy the pictures, is unique to Lisbon.
Pauline Foessel is standing in an empty and dusty garage in her chic dress. It’s a huge 288 square meter room, a builder is standing on a scaffold spackling the walls. The neighborhood Porto de Lisboa, close to the renovated and modern Expo area, is very rundown. Many buildings are unoccupied and from the outside you wouldn’t expect the amazing view of the sea, which you have from inside. Most of the locations have potential. The Underdogs know how to transform a lost garage into a lovely gallery. In July their exhibition of street art will open in this place for six months.
The Underdogs are a team of 15 people; nine are international artists, while the other six are busy with the organization of the platform. Foessel is from Grenoble, France, studied in Lille and has already worked in China. She’s 25-years-old and, together with Alexandre Farto, also known as Vhils, is one of the main managers of the Lisbon-based platform. “We wanted to create space in the scene for legal street art,” she explains, “the idea is to facilitate communication between several street artists from different countries.”
The Underdogs started in 2010, when they chose artists that in their opinion represented different trends and made a book out of it. While this book presents a general idea of graffiti in Portugal, today they are mainly working on galleries, exchanging ideas and doing international art shows. The Underdogs now also offers a forum where artists can find inspiration for their own work, from the spaces as well as from the people and country itself. To describe The Underdogs Foessel prefers the four words; “partner, artists, communication and preparation.”
To facilitate the project, The Underdogs get support from different partners. For one of the last shows a Ukrainian airline sponsored flights for the artists. Also the Urban Art Gallery, managed by the Cultural Heritage Department of the Municipality of Lisbon, is supporting the network.
In the current project the municipality helped identify potential locations and a range of suitable spaces for the artistic interventions, obtaining necessary permits from the City of Lisbon and any other owners. They provided security and logistical support, as well as a level of dissemination through the government media. It’s the first year in which they are assisting The Underdogs, but before they worked together with Vhils on other projects. “The previous experience motivated us not only to continue to support projects organized by Vhils, but also involving the participation mainly of foreign and authors of great prestige, considering that this is one of the priorities in the activities of the Urban Art Gallery, to provide the city relevant works in international terms,” explains Silvia Camara from the City of Lisboa.
So far nine artists belong to The Underdogs. “You can’t compare our artists, everybody has his own style,” explains Foessel. One of the artists involved is Interesni Kazki, a duo of Ukrainian artists, in whose work everything is colorful and surrealistic. What defines Pixelpancho from Italy is the theme of duality as embodied by the interaction between human and robots. How and Nosm are twin brothers from Spain who only work with red, black, and white. The Portuguese ± works always with those two symbols (plus and minus) and uses his work to be highly critical of society.
Not only the style, but also the technique and the duration of the works depend on the artists. To finish an art piece can take from one day up to several weeks and depending on the technique there can be more or less obstacles. “You never know what you’ll get, you have to deal with it,” explains Foessel, describing the situation of working outside on walls instead of in a studio. The Underdogs are between 25 and 35 of age, which makes them the older generation, because they were some of the first street artists. Many of them started doing small tags or painting trains. Now they have come together and organized this network for legalizing their passion and spreading their message further. It’s a full time job from which they’re able to earn a living. Foessel summarizes, “they were always living for art and today they can live from it.”
To manage The Underdogs means facilitating communication between the artists, partners and followers. But the art itself is also communication. “List people you’re afraid of,” is sprayed on a wall next to the main shopping street of Lisbon, underneath people filled out a list and the sign ± gives the hint to the artist. “All over the city you can see street art and it’s always a message. The idea behind every work is to spread your name over a city,” Foessel states, â€œsometimes the artists express political messages and sometimes it’s just to make people smile. Most of the newspapers show only the worst aspects of Portugal in the times of the crisis, but we’re still alive and this is also what the artists show. In street art you can express yourself.”
Before an exhibition, like the one that will open in July, can come together, a lot of preparation is required. This begins with looking for a location. “I walked around for days, but when I saw this garage, I knew immediately, that my search was over for now, do you know the feeling?” Foessel is smiling wholeheartedly, “you walk into a room and you see the final result in front of you, than you know – that’s it!” All around this place are huge and empty walls. This was an incentive to take this location and a dialogue with the neighbors about painting the walls has already begun. From the lights to the opening event; everything has to be planned by the team.
All those aspects run together for Foessel, who knows why she is doing this job; “I love art and especially street art, because everybody has to see it. I would love to have galleries in all those lost places, but in fact I know that not all people would go to the galleries. But everybody is on the streets and sees street art, the way to show who you are.” She finishes speaking with her friendly French accent and a gentle smile and leaves the garage. In her head every detail of this place has already been planned.