Thirty thousand years ago, in the recesses of caves that were dimly lit by torchlight, prehistoric people painted on the walls, outlining their own hands and creating lifelike animals and hunters that still inspire and haunt viewers today. Ten thousand years ago, artists picked, carved and abraded rock surfaces, leaving behind mysterious symbols, signs, and animal imagery that give us a glimpse into the layered and complex world of the creators. Several hundred years ago, explorers and travelers carved their names onto rock surfaces already incised by native populations. Two years ago, in the city of Ponta Delgada in the Azores Islands, a young man who went by the name of Jessie James started a protest against the blank, empty walls of his city. Like artists who preceded him for millennia, he felt the calling to adorn walls and rock surfaces with graffiti art.
Jessie James's vision was not about local kids with stencils and spray paint, sneaking out of their parents' home in the middle of the night to leave their marks. He wanted to reach out to accomplished graffiti artists around the globe, inviting them to pack up their imaginations and come to Ponto Delgado on Sao Miguel Island, in the Azores—a dramatic, volcanic Portuguese archipelago of nine islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Amazingly, he convinced the local government to jump on the skateboard of his vision. Together they worked to navigate and negotiate for permission to display art on public and private empty spaces.
It's not surprising that anti-graffiti sentiment was strong at first. "Most people perceived graffiti art as the work of vandals," a local man told me in perfect English. "But when the first works of art appeared, they were so fresh, creative and appealing that suddenly everyone wanted to get on board." Word traveled fast along the global graffiti network, and graffiti artists started arriving on the island. Locals sat with them, fed them, provided materials and equipment. Now in its second year, the art project is attracting camera-toting tourists from Europe. It's common to see visitors cocking their heads, stepping back or approaching works of art, commenting on the meaning and the techniques employed.
Art Without Fanfare
There was nothing about the graffiti art in any guidebook or pamphlets I saw. Actually, I stumbled across the phenomenon when my husband Paul and I were walking around the city, admiring Gothic and Baroque stone carvings on churches and monuments. We came to a semi-industrial area, and saw two huge, brilliantly-executed portraits on the wall of a trendy club. Across the street, near the ocean, was a jumble of oddly-shaped concrete blocks that acted as a breakwater. Surprisingly, people were perched on several of the blocks. We approached them and realized they were plaster sculptures. I burst out laughing, delighted at the sheer whimsy of the plaster men straddling the concrete.
We strolled past the city port, which was like a sprawling, outdoor art museum: huge murals of sea life and mythological creatures were emblazoned on the once-empty walls. It started to rain, and we were so engrossed in the art we forgot to open our umbrellas.
The following day, we went to Lake Furnas, where we watched as our lunch was cooked in volcanically heated steam holes, and we stopped at the nearby Mulher da Capote liquor factory. The owner invited us into his office, and I asked him whether he was in favor of the graffiti art on his island. A broad grin covered his face and he showed me dozens of porcelain bottles that had been decorated by international graffiti artists. "I have a project in mind," he said. "I am going to create a museum to display them."
On Faial island, I started babbling to our guide about the art of Punta Delgada, and how amazed I was that no one seemed opposed to the graffiti art.
"Have you heard about the murals at our marina?" she inquired. When I shook my head no, she led us to the yacht basin, where we were surprised to see the concrete walls covered with hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of small murals. They certainly were not high art, but they were varied and lively and the sheer number of them made me stop, look, and listen to locals at the marina who explained their origin.
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