Quinta do Mocho is located in the district of Loures, with rows of identical apartment blocks surrounding central squares — a stand-alone estate designed to hold those with nowhere to go. Originally populated in the 1970s, its residents are predominantly from ex-Portuguese colonies, with reports in 2008 showing that 90% are of African descent.
The neighborhood was built as social housing, with lower rents to help support those in need of more affordable homes. Historically, the neighborhood has had a bad reputation, and one newspaper summed it up in 2005 in just a few lines:
“It is one of the most problematic districts of the county of Loures, known for the existence of organized groups that are dedicated to robbery and trafficking narcotics. There are also cases of domestic violence, although most are not reported. Not even the relocation of the residents to a new neighborhood (built next to the old one) ended the bad reputation of Quinta do Mocho.”
The problems that plagued the neighborhood were pushed to the forefront of national issues in 2008 after a night of particularly gruesome violence. A group carried out a drive-by shooting, which left several injured at a party. They then stormed a house, locking the family in a room and shooting a young man dead. Marred by these kinds of events, the neighborhood looked set to continue in a cycle of poverty, violence, and crime.
However, 10 years on, Quinta do Mocho seems transformed. One impetus for the change was a festival called O Bairro i o Mundo, which first came to the neighborhood in October 2014. The festival was a collaboration between the Loures municipality and the theatre company IBISCO. It aimed to “show the neighborhood to the world, and bring the world to the neighborhood.” The organizers invited street artists to paint the blank walls of the apartment blocks, while at the same time putting on theatre, music, and dance. The project aimed to rejuvenate Quinta do Mocho through art, hoping to remove the stigma that had existed for so long.
The neighborhood now has over 67 murals and is the largest open-air urban art gallery in Europe, with work from artists including Vhils, Smile, and Astro. Additionally, there is ongoing work to renovate the shared green spaces. The first tour organized by the municipality was in February 2015, and it has taken place on the last Saturday of the month ever since. We decided to join one of these tours to see how the neighborhood has changed, what problems remain, and of course, the art.
“They wanted to connect us to the world,” Kally tells us, “now the world wants to connect with us.”
A long-running complaint is not only the social exclusion of the residents but the geographical exclusion, too. It is easy to see how this can happen. Quinta do Mocho is set away from the rest of the city, and while public transport has improved, it is still a challenge to get there without a car.
As you arrive, the uniform buildings loom up, but soon the assortment of murals start to add bursts of color to the otherwise drab walls. We head to the Casa da Cultura de Sacavém, a modest place with a very local-government feel. Even this building is adorned with amazing works depicting animals and people, and to the side, there are portraits in chalk, so faint that they could be missed — if it weren’t for the local guides.
There are three guides for the tour, all of whom live in the neighborhood. They divide up the explanations between themselves, and Kally, one of the guides, translates to English. Kally (aka José Carlos) arrived in Lisbon from Porto in 2012 and has helped with the Galeria de Arte Publica for several years. He has a background in writing and was a long-time member of a Porto-based urban art group, which has made him more knowledgeable than many art historians I have met.
“Graffiti has a message, not only what the eyes can see,” he tells us, and for this reason he had joined the project, asking the artists what their work meant, as well as interpreting it himself. On top of this, Kally and his partner now host the artists who come to the neighborhood, “building bridges” between the artists, the art, and the residents. This stops the artwork from being “like pieces in a museum” which people “don’t feel, and don’t sense,” and instead follows the original idea of connecting the neighborhood to the world.
After shooing away a pair of goats that were trying to eat municipal flowers, we head to the first street in Quinta do Mocho. Many of the pieces have overt socio-economic messages, and these are often connected to problems faced by the neighborhood itself. Walking down Avenida Amilcar Cabral, we’re guided to a piece by Nomen showing a woman removing a lighter-skinned mask. Kally says that this isn’t only about tackling the obvious discrimination, but the more specific discrimination faced by residents of Quinta do Mocho. It is said to reflect the practice of residents hiding where they live. Residents were once forced to change their address on job applications because if an employer saw Quinta do Mocho listed, they would be immediately excluded from selection.
These preconceptions are supposedly changing, and while unemployment here is exceptionally high — some residents say it’s as high as 80% — there was a significant drop following the project, according to Kally.
Not all the art shows hardships, however, with one piece by Smile depicting a little girl with a realistic-looking giraffe mask. Kally says how the giraffe is the lookout of the animals, the first to raise the alarm if predators approach. In the same way, the people of the neighborhood watch out over the streets, over each other’s children, and know each other to keep the community safe.
This community has not always been so strong, however, and Kally tells us that part of the project is to try to rebuild it. “It used to be that nobody entered or left the neighborhood,” he says, motioning toward the barred windows of a building, “and that meant that people used to rob each other.” But now, that is changing and people are coming together and “fighting again for a community.”
The paintings themselves are beautiful, but the buildings have seen better days. Many have broken doors and windows, and while the project has gone some way to rejuvenate the reputation, it seems to have done little to rejuvenate the structures. Kally compares the buildings to the recent Grenfell Tower tragedy in London, and it’s easy to see why: holes in the façades reveal walls of polystyrene with thin layers of plaster.
Following the tour, which lasts a good three hours, we sit down with Kally in a local café. He’s proud of how successful the project has been, with the neighborhood receiving more visitors last year than half the museums in Portugal. “They wanted to connect us to the world,” he tells us, “now the world wants to connect with us.”
Kally says that just five years ago, Quinta do Mocho was considered a “ghetto, and ghetto equals bad people.” But, now it is “exemplary,” he tells us, with people’s perceptions having changed completely.
“It’s like math,” he says “you take a negative and a negative, and it makes a positive. You take a ghetto and graffiti, and it makes something great.”
Heading outside, we go to talk with a group of young men sitting on a stoop. Drinking, smoking, and listening to music, they greet us with smiles and ask how we liked the art. As more people join, our presence isn’t even questioned as we’re greeted as if old friends. The group tells us how the neighborhood had changed for them, and there’s general agreement that the biggest shift was the diminishment of once constant anxiety. “Opening the neighborhood [to tourists] means no more fear,” one man says. “We have lost the feeling of confusion and fighting,” another adds. “We no longer live in stress,” a third man chimes in, “strangers no longer mean fear and stress, before [the art project] they could have been an enemy or a cop.”
How far the project has gone in removing the stigma outside the neighborhood is harder to tell. There are certainly still harsh preconceptions, as shown by simple things like taxis refusing to enter the neighborhood. Despite the reservations that those outside Quinta do Mocho may still have, the residents push forward with this excellent project. As one mural states: “Nunca deixes que te digam nunca!”
Kally runs independent tours regularly. His breadth of knowledge, beautiful descriptions, and welcoming demeanor make them a pleasure to be on. He can be contacted here.