Ephemeral as Childhood: Street Art in Lisbon


The Golden Age of Discovery. Such a good tagline for Lisbon with its many attractions linked to world explorers, like Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan. We loved this city of light (three thousand hours of sunshine per year!) bouncing off cobblestones of pearly white, of famed attractions like the Discoveries Monument, Jeronimos Monastery and churches gilted with gold from the “new world.” But my strongest image of Lisbon has nothing to do with legendary icons. In the light of September, near the Tile Museum in a neighbourhood where poverty has engraved its markings, I found the essence of Lisbon. Small paintings on outdoor walls, the animated lyricism of a little girl in her golden years of discovery, the artistic expression of Ernest Zacharevic.

How can they compare with this?

It was in the book Street Art Lisbon that we discovered Ernest’s artwork and maps of where to find it. Though modest in size and political ambition, his drawings delighted our childhood whimsy, sparking emotions that compelled us to find the intersection of Rua da Manutenção and Rua Xabregas.

I’d be exaggerating to say that finding them a year ago matched the excitement of Portugal’s explorers when they discovered the Americas. Let’s just say

Contentment comes in small steps, like old age,
and poems written in spray paint.

Naturally, we wanted to find out more about the artist. Ernest was born in Lithuania. At an early age he was crayoning the newspaper. His parents sent him to art school when he was eleven, then to Middlesex University in London, where he graduated with first class honours in 2009. He found neither place inspiring.

In an interview I found online, Ernest says

Ever since I remember, I’ve been fascinated by animation; not just cartoons, but the ‘medium’, its ability to bend reality and bring images to life. I find myself exploring a lot of these concepts in my own paintings. I see my work more like a simple moment capturing everyday life rather than an elaborate narrative. This seems to work best with the subject of childhood nostalgia, a subject which features often in my work.

His imagery immortalizing the immediacy of children at play has been described as “unpretentious and sometimes ingenious, while steadily staying away from being cloying or overly sentimental.” Ernest works from photos, but he begins by listening to the history of the walls and surrounding neighbourhood. He says too many people travel to go from one shopping mall to another, missing the beauty and charm of everyday life in the streets, the emotional connection to an area. He first attracted international attention with murals he created in the old town of Penang, where he now lives. In a TED Talk, Ernest emphasizes the ephemeral nature of his street art, that its tagging or disappearance is just part of life. Readers of StreetArtNews have ranked him among the top 25 street artists in the world. And “Splash and Burn,” a public art project that Ernest curates, has been profiled several times in The Guardian.

The piece we searched out in Lisbon is part of Ernest’s Floor is Lava series, created in 2015. Magellan and I saw it on a hot September afternoon. Few people were on the sun-beaten sidewalks, and no children were out playing. Yet the walls were alive, bursting with vigour and drawing us back to take one last photo.

When writing this blog, I found a YouTube of Ernest’s process in creating Floor is Lava. You’ll notice the inscription above the paintings:

Rua da Manutenção (opposite no. 32)
2015 – Destroyed, November 2017


Wright, Charles. “Chinoiserie VI.” Caribou. New York: Farrah, Straus and Giroux, 2014. The poem we quoted was written by this Poet Laureate of the US,  Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets and Professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He’s won the Pulitzer and  the Griffin International Poetry Prize. Caribou feels like it’s written for jubilados and those who believe in the fleeting nature of life.

Design Boom has a good interview with Ernest Zacharevic.

Splash and Burn is an ongoing public art project curated by Ernest Zacharevic and coordinated by Charlotte Pyatt,in association with the Sumatran Orangutan Society and the Orangutan Information Centre. By inviting international artists to create murals/sculptures in Indonesia, it aims to raise a wider consciousness of global conservation issues while facilitating direct relationships with communities.  In 2017 and 2018 The Guardian has written articles on this project:

Street Art Lisbon books are available through Zestbooks in Lisbon.

Here’s Ernest Zacharevic’s TED Talk.

As mentioned in the text above, Lisbon’s under-dogs gallery has an excellent video on Ernest’s making of Floor is Lava.

6 Responses

  1. His images there on that wall are, to my thinking brilliant and totally original. The best art stirs our imaginations and emotions, and sticks in our minds.. these images sure do that for me.. really lovely stuff.. thanks for sharing this Gloria.

    1. For us, too these simple images burst with creativity, emotion and intelligence. Gone from Lisbon’s streets but forever in our hearts, on Lightroom and in this blog.

  2. Perhaps it is age that allows us to savour what sparks an emotion and sparkles our imagination, rather than the “Top Ten Things to See in ____,” (fill in the city/country). The memory is even more special knowing we can never see this art again and how lucky we were to find it, take time for photography and hang out on the deserted street and immerse ourselves in the story Ernest painted.

  3. Your story reminds me of something I continue to try and remember.

    We look, but do we see?

    Way too often we walk right by something we take for granted and yet if you stop and take a second or two, what you see is way different than that first impression.

    Age does allow us to slow down, maybe allow is incorrect, but the vision is much improved by the time taken.

    Fall is such a great visual feast, take some time to enjoy it.

    Cheers to all,

    1. Ours too. Were we European jubilados, we’d think about retiring there. “By day Lisbon has a naive theatrical quality that enchants and captivates, but by night it is a fairy-tale city, descending over lighted terraces to the sea, like a woman in festive garments going down to meet her dark lover.” Erich Maria Remarque, The Night in Lisbon

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