As I walked through the eroding, yet beautiful and mysterious streets of Porto, the emotions and stories of the Portuguese people surrounded me.  I felt like this place had something very special. It was very “raw,” unlike many of the other cities I visited in Europe. The core of the City is full of ornate porcelain-tiled churches and beautiful buildings that are slowly falling apart. Due to strict laws within Portugal, property owners are forbidden to destroy historic buildings, leaving many to decay. All that is left is a beautiful facade that hides the ruins within.  You would think a City like this might be a bit depressing, but it is quite the opposite. These broken facades act as canvas for many artists within Porto, turning a crumbling city centre into a rich story told through art.

While on a walking tour of the city, the guide told me, “Portuguese people leave nothing hidden, we share our emotions. Live with our hearts on our sleeves.” Portuguese people not only share their emotions and stories through their words, their stories are told through their art. Murals cover the City,  filling the blank walls with unique forms, words and people that are inspirational to the Portuguese. They truly leave nothing hidden. It is all out in the open, painted across their deteriorating buildings, for everyone to see.

But this wasn’t always the story. Taking you back to 2001 to 2013, the City was run by Mayor Rui Rio, who focused on economic efficiency and disregarded the arts. The “anti graffiti” squad hit the streets removing street art, and even covering up Hazul’s, one of Portos prominent artists, murals in the City Centre. This event soon went viral and the local artists began to fight back after many years of being repressed.

During the day the squad would paint over beautiful murals and during the night artisits would hit the streets to take back their art, painting a straight black line with the words “Continua a pintar (keep painting).” And keep painting is just what they did. 

It wasn’t until Rio was out of office that things changed drastically within the Porto. In October 2013, a new mayor was elected, Rui Moreira and the city became a canvas again. The new mayor had a deep passion for the City and a love for the arts. He wanted to restore Porto to its former glory and spirit that it had for centuries. He wanted it to become a fluid city, where art and festivals could happen anywhere at anytime.

The first legal mural in Porto was inaugurated at the gateway of the city’s art gallery district. Many believe that legal murals are the way to move forward with the city. Various societies were created as the movement grew, such as the Circus Network. I visited the space that houses this society while in Porto, and it consists of an art gallery, co-working space and a great place to learn more about the arts. 

Some of the artists that are showcased through the Circus Network and that you can find brightening the streets of Porto are:

But questions begin to arise when one thinks about the future. 

What happens when the buildings fall apart or are rebuilt? But many Porto artists believe that is the beauty of it. This art is not forever, it will only stand for as long as the walls stand. Creating an even more unique narrative around the art pieces. Another question is, “Who can paint and where can the art take place,” this is a question that the city still deals with and there is no clear answer. For now, there seems to be a lot of freedom to who can paint and where.  “What is street art and what is not?” The answer to this question just depends on who is answering it, but most of the art I saw in Porto was truly beautiful. “How much art should be allowed?” I think that this is a question that many cities struggle with. It there a point in which too much art covers the city?

It is these questions that make the street art in Porto such a fascinating topic. One thing is for sure, this movement has created a truly unique narrative and has brought the story of the Portuguese people alive. The foundation of the City is held together by art.

What about street art in Canada? I think that we can look to Porto as an example for our cities. I think many Canadian cities are on the opposite spectrum and really lack art that will help bring more life to our cities. Instead, our cities are full of blank and often stark walls that tower way above our line of site. In Vancouver, there is slowly more art appearing, but it is often hidden within the fabric of the City. Why not make the city a tapestry of artwork, found at all levels and corners. I believe that Porto is very unique and most Cities would not be able to act like a canvas in the way Porto has, but I think we can be inspired by their tenacity to bring their culture and story to the forefront through art.