Hauke Vagt and his partner Gui run Atelier 49 in Alfama, an art studio that puts out a steady stream of whimsical musings on their favorite city. From mechanical steampunk bacalhau to runaway trams, this quirky duo has a little something for everyone. I got a chance for a quick tour of the place where the magic happens and to get the story behind this pair’s creative explosion.
Vagt has been in Lisbon for 22 years, having first discovered Portugal at 16 thanks to a lot of hitchhiking and little Interrailing. He started selling his artwork in postcard format on the beach at Zambujeira do Mar while working at the Café Fresco (which has since been washed away) and squatting at a nearby shack with no electricity or running water. According to Vagt, “In the summer it was alright except for getting lonely, but the winter was horribly cold and depressing.”
All that changed when he decided to move to Lisbon to attend AR.CO art school for a three-year illustration course. “I’m not the type to go for fine arts and gallery shows. I wanted instruction on how to draw. They didn’t really give me that, so I just practiced on my own. I paid for a license at the Camara Municipal to open a booth at the Castelo São Jorge while I was in art school. But it wasn’t until I graduated that I was forced to think commercially.”
Luckily in the years surrounding the 1998 Lisbon World Expo, it was a good time to be involved in the arts. Vagt saw an opportunity to expand his creativity to include performance art and other more experimental disciplines.
“At that time, there was good money from the state for cooperative spectacles and much more support for creative expression than there is now. Of course, all the projects were smashed after the Expo, but no one was surprised.
“After that, I went to work washing dishes in a pub for a while. It was fun until I broke my foot— it was the slap in the face I needed to get another license, good for 10 years, and to go back to work at the castle. I ended up leaving in 2000 because they got some weird ideas about how the artists should behave, but it got me back to focusing on drawing.”
With the help of Startup Lisboa‘s New Direction lectures funded by EGEAC, Vagt turned his hand to business, which helped him set up permanent residence in Alfama. “Now we have an atelier and we sell to shops like CCB, a shop in Rossio, and yes, the gift shop at the Castelo. The only thing is, now I worry about recibos (receipts).”
Going from working under a tree to sketching behind a desk has been a strange transition for Vagt. “Gui and I met in 2004. She started doing the connecting and selling and I stayed here doing digital paintings. I got some crazy illustration jobs like the cover for The Amazing Stories of the Flying Spaghetti Monster for Eraserhead Press out of Portland, Oregon, I got on DeviantArt, Concept Art, did the label art for Baltic Anomaly Beer, and I even did some youtube videos for a Swiss treasure hunter. But now, I’ve gone back to the simple stuff. I don’t need updates on my computer, I only need a pen. It’s about sitting down and making the lines.”
And make the lines he does. You’ve likely seen his drawings around town, most notably on the recent advertisements for Porta 6 wine, which feature his favorite subject to draw: the trams. Perhaps it’s ironic that these ads are being run on the trams themselves. “I get the urge to draw [trams] and then I get stuck because I’m very hard on myself. I ask myself, ‘Why must you always draw those damn trams while you are failing at other scenes?'”
When asked what his favorite thing to draw is, Vagt says, “Random street corners. I like the empty weird spaces between the cables, the antennas, the stones, the clothes on the line, even the garbage cans. It’s the life of the people in it I like to capture, not the architecture — it’s about the city as a character. It’s the movements of the dust sparking from under the rumbling tram line, the old ladies with the heavy shopping bags climbing mountainous hills. I build on nostalgia, the kitsch, the simple stuff.”
Before I arrived, I had noticed a little urban art outside in an alley that had Gui and Vagt’s style all over it: It was Fernando Pessoa riding inside a teacup alongside a cat and a bacalhau. I asked him if this was his idea to bring the Atelier’s art back to the streets.
“Gui does the urban stuff. I’m too nervous and German to do it. I draw graffiti in my drawings only. I’m a pussy sometimes.”
Visit Atelier 49’s facebook page for more information.