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Quinta do Mocho — The Largest Open-Air Street Art Gallery in Europe

By June 21, 2020 No Comments
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Wendy Werneth

The Incredible Street Art of Quinta do Mocho

A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable for anyone to recommend that tourists visiting Lisbon should go to Quinta do Mocho. It was a rough neighborhood with the worst possible reputation, and even most Lisbonites wouldn’t dare to enter it.

But fast forward to today, and not only is Quinta do Mocho safe, it’s also been transformed into the largest open-air street art gallery in Europe! There are more than 100 murals here, most of which are several stories tall. 

If you like street art, then you really should carve out half a day in your Lisbon itinerary to visit Quinta do Mocho. It’s pretty spectacular.

So how did Quinta do Mocho make this 180-degree shift?

Quinta do Mocho Before the Street Art

Street art in Quinta do Mocho Lisbon Portugal

Previously painted a uniform yellow, the buildings of Quinta do Mocho now burst with color.

Quinta do Mocho was built around the turn of the 21st century to house people who had been living in a nearby slum that was not unlike the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Their shacks and haphazard houses that they had built themselves were torn down, and they were relocated to this group of high-rise buildings.

Though the housing was an improvement over the shoddy self-built homes they’d been living in before, they remained quite marginalized and isolated from the rest of Lisbon society. Quinta do Mocho is technically not even part of Lisbon; it’s in the neighboring district, called Loures.

Most of the 3,000 or so residents were, and still are, immigrants from former Portuguese colonies in Africa, such as Angola, Mozambique and São Tomé and Príncipe. It was difficult for them to catch transport into the city, as the bus company refused to install a bus stop near the housing estate.

Such was Quinta do Mocho’s reputation for crime and violence that businesses like bus companies, supermarkets and pharmacies did not want to run the risk of opening in this area.

The Transformation

Street art in Lisbon Portugal

Some of the murals tell inspiring stories of people who overcame difficult odds.

Then in 2014, the local government brought in national and international artists to cover the buildings in colorful murals, and things quickly started to change. Residents embraced the initiative, so it continued.

A street art festival has been held here almost every year since then, and the number of murals continues to increase. Currently, there are 111.

Instead of being ashamed of where they live, local residents have started to take pride in being from Quinta do Mocho. They have created an association of local guides to lead tours of the neighborhood for tourists, school groups and visiting dignitaries. Even the President of Portugal has made a visit.

And while life remains difficult for many of the underprivileged people who live here, at least they now have a supermarket nearby and a bus stop right across the street from their complex.

Unlike in other street art neighborhoods like Wynwood in Miami, Florida, the art has not led to gentrification here. That’s because Quinta da Mocho remains a social housing project, or “bairro social” as they’re known in Portuguese. 

All the buildings are owned by the local government and are rented out to low-income families on a sliding scale, depending on their situation and their needs.

How to Visit Quinta do Mocho

Lisbon street art

This mural by a collective of artists from Porto reads: “This is the Neighborhood”.

Nowadays it’s safe to wander around the neighborhood on your own, but I highly recommend booking a tour through the local guides association, Guias do Mocho. 

By taking a tour, you will be supporting the local community and will also learn much more about the symbolism behind the art and the history of the place.

Tours cost 10 euros per person and are available in English and Portuguese. You can book a tour for your preferred date directly on the Guias do Mocho Facebook page, or write to them at their email address: [email protected]gmail.com.

Even though buses do stop right outside the complex, it’s still pretty isolated from Lisbon. The easiest way to get there is to take the red metro line to Encarnação and take an Uber the rest of the way. You’ll pay about four to five euros for the Uber ride, and 1.50 for the metro.

Quinta do Mocho is very close to the Lisbon airport, so you may even spot some of the murals from the plane if you’re arriving by air!

Like all tours in Lisbon, the Quinta do Mocho tours were shut down for about three months during the COVID-19 lockdown and have just reopened. In fact, when Nick and I booked our tour for 8 June 2020, we found out we were the first visitors since the reopening. 

The guides were happy to be back in business! Our guide was Kedy, who is originally from São Tomé and has lived in Quinta do Mocho for 18 years. 

Tours leave from outside the Casa da Cultura de Sacavém, which is not actually open to the public. There’s a room here where artists stay when they are working on new murals. Generally, the artists work for free, but the government provides them with room and board and all the necessary supplies.

The Art and the Artists

Portuguese as well as international artists have left their mark on Quinta do Mocho, and some of them are quite well known. Among the Portuguese artists, the biggest names are Bordalo II and Vhils. There’s also a mural by Colectivo Rua, a Porto-based collective that includes Contra, Frederico Draw and others.

Many of the earliest works from 2014 are starting to fade and peel. These buildings are not very sturdy, and chunks of the façades have fallen away, damaging the paintings. But that’s the nature of street art; it’s not meant to be permanent.

Some artists return again and again, either to paint a new wall or to paint over one of their previous works with something new. Sometimes this backfires, though, like when the artist Styler replaced one of his older works with a portrait of Eminem.

Many of the wives and mothers who live in the neighborhood said that they preferred the old mural, and I have to say I agree with them.

Styler mural 2020

Styler mural 2020

Realizing he had made a mistake, Styler then scribbled over Eminem’s stomach with a crude tag. This was his way of defacing his own work out of remorse.

In 2020, the public street art festival will be cancelled for obvious reasons. Hopefully, though, artists will still be able to come and create new murals, even if the event is not open to the public.

Of the dozens of murals we saw touring our tour, here are 10 of my favorites:

Vhils

Street art by Vhils in Quinta do Mocho

One of two murals by Vhils in Quinta do Mocho

Probably the most famous of all Portuguese street artists, Vhils is famous for his unusual technique of “creative destruction”. Instead of painting onto a wall, he creates art by chipping away at the wall, using drills or even explosives, to carve out an image.

It was impossible for him to use this technique at Quinta do Mocho, though, because the buildings are too fragile. So instead, he used stencils to simulate the look of his other works. 

There are two murals by Vhils in the neighborhood, but this one is my favorite. The buildings in the background behind the eyeball represent the slum where the residents lived before Quinta do Mocho was built.

Nomen

Mask worn by residents of Quinta do Mocho

Mural depicting the mask worn by residents of Quinta do Mocho

This 2014 work by Nomen represents the spirit of Quinta do Mocho better than any other. At that time, residents still had to hide the fact that they lived here. If they were applying for a job, for example, they would use the address of a friend or relative in Lisbon instead of their real address.

Nomen portrays this idea in the form of a Black girl taking off a white mask. In the outside world, she has to pretend to be someone she’s not in order to be accepted. Only when she comes home to the Quinta da Mocho is she allowed to be herself.

Untay

Saudade - a tribute to fado

Saudade – a tribute to fado

This artist is from Tel Aviv in Israel, and when he painted this image of a woman he didn’t know anything about fado — the soulful, heartfelt music sung in Lisbon’s historic neighborhoods. 

When the locals told him that his painting looked like the famous fadista Amália Rodrigues, he started researching fado and learned how important it was to Lisbon’s culture.

And so, he added the word “saudade” — a word that is typically Portuguese and has no adequate translation in any other language. Saudade is used to express a feeling of nostalgia and longing for the past, and it’s a central theme of many fado songs.

Colectivo Licuado

União faz a força

União faz a força

The Licuado collective is made up of two young artists from Montevideo, Uruguay. Their portrait of a multiracial couple is titled “união faz a força”, which translates to something like ‘there is strength in unity”.

Utopia

Giant street art mural by Utopia

Giant street art mural by Utopia

Utopia is one of my favorite street artists, and his works can be found all over Lisbon. He’s Brazilian but spends a lot of time in the Portuguese capital.

This ambitious work, which stretches across multiple buildings, is the largest at Quinta do Mocho. It took him a whole week to create, working every day from 9 am to 8 pm.

Bordalo II

White heron by Bordalo II

White heron by Bordalo II

This well-known Portuguese artist calls himself an “artivist”, and there is always a strong environmental message behind each of his works. 

To highlight the destructive nature of our materialistic, throw-away society, he makes all of his art out of trash. And moreover, he uses this trash to create images of the animals whose habitats are in danger because of our destructive habits.

The Bordalo piece in Quinta do Mocho is a white heron. Since its creation in 2014, a palm tree has unexpectedly taken root at the heron’s feet.

Adres

Mural inspired by drawing made by the children of Quinta do Mocho

Mural inspired by drawing made by the children of Quinta do Mocho

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this mural was the work of Bansky, but it’s actually by Adres, a local Lisbon artist who paints in a Banskyesque style using stencils. The child’s drawings are based on actual drawings made by children from a local preschool in Quinta do Mocho.

Maye

One of the smaller street art works in Quinta do Mocho

One of the smaller street art works in Quinta do Mocho

While most of the artworks in Quinta do Mocho cover whole façades of multi-story buildings, don’t overlook these much smaller (but still close to life size) images scattered around the complex.

In many cases, they are modeled on real people who live in the neighborhood. Like this guy who went out to buy bread after watching a World Cup match on TV.

Miguel Brum

The first street art mural in Quinta do Mocho

The first street art mural in Quinta do Mocho

According to our guide Kedy, this work by Miguel Brum was the very first mural painted in Quinta do Mocho. The word “mocho” means “owl”, and you will see owls depicted in a few of the artworks.

In this one, an owl is portrayed together with two mothers, one of whom is crying over the many tragedies that have occurred in the neighborhood.

Risca Com O Que Há

Risca com o que há mural in 2020

Risca com o que há mural in 2020

This is a great example of how the artwork at Quinta do Mocho is constantly changing. While researching this article, I came across the photo on the left, taken in 2017.

When I saw the same wall in 2020, it looked very different, although the original image of a veiled face is still recognizable. Also still present are the mushrooms, which represent the strength of a community when its members work together and help one another.

The photos in this article represent just a small portion of the art that covers the walls at Quinta do Mocho. To see more and read the backstories behind the pieces, check out the @louresartepublica Instagram account. Captions are in Portuguese, but you can use the automatic translation feature in IG.

If you like street art and you’re planning to travel to Lisbon, I highly recommend that you set aside half a day to visit Quinta do Mocho. There’s some great street art in the city center of Lisbon as well, but it can’t really compare to what you’ll see in Quinta do Mocho.

Food at Quinta do Mocho

An African restaurant in Quinta do Mocho

An African restaurant in Quinta do Mocho

Scattered around the complex are several African restaurants run by local residents who serve up dishes from their homelands. Since we visited in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, these restaurants were all closed.

But if you’re reading this after things have opened back up, this could be a great opportunity to taste authentic dishes from little-known cuisines. And it’s also a way to further support the community.

Guias do Mocho does offer a street art tour combined with lunch at one of these restaurants. They can recommend a couple of eateries that serve vegan African dishes.

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