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Lisbon's Gangster Artist

Words:

Edd Norval
March 29, 2018

What’s in a name? A lot in this case. If you want to denote your status, show people that you’re the best – the most elementary way to do so is to include a number 1. What about evoking a powerful figure, a well-known gangster? Check. The formula produced Corle1 – a cheeky hint at what drives the man behind the name.

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That’s where it started and from there it went on to AKACORLEONE – a natural progression that keeps the attitude of the street. Pedro, a.k.a. AKACORLEONE is one of the OG’s of Lisbon’s street art boom that began to emerge just under a decade ago, but started to gain real traction over the last five years. Lisbon is a beautiful city, historic and proud, but it has a dark side too – buildings are often just facades, crumbling inside whilst beautiful outside - in certain places at certain times, the menace of imperfection is palpable.


It just so happens that this side of life, the hidden side of society, is what appeals most to AKACORLEONE. When Pedro saw Goodfellas for the first time - he got it, especially the intro, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”. From the outside, the secretive world of the mafia is sexy, alluring, it’s ‘cool’. As an artist, their use of codes and their existence in a parallel society was like a siren call.

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Coming from a background in graffiti, the similarities are clear – both of their existence necessitates being in the shadows. Besides the initial appeal of the gangster life, it’s the rich visual culture that mainly captures Pedro’s imagination, serving as a deep influence on his work for many years. The symbolism synonymous with these enigmatic parts of society are rarely born from within the community, but are instead popular symbols that have been reinterpreted – they’re honest and violent truths hidden in broad daylight.


Within his work, AKAKCORLEONE uses symbols in a similar way, mixing them in ways that change their obvious meaning – a process he compares to reading tarot cards. A hand holding a heart might mean one thing, for example safety, but a hand grasping at a sun might mean the loss of control – the hand symbolising the power of the individual against something greater. These universal symbols are something that he plans to continue using until the necessary stories have ran their course - when that is, only he can decide.

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After a trip to Russia, the country’s culture imposed itself on Pedro - it’s rich, bold and iconoclastic. Their criminal culture is also prevalent, having become something of a fetish in arts and tattoo art recently. Some time ago Pedro got his hands on the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia – a book that’s title says it all. Just like his earlier fascination with the mafia, it was an entirely new world, one rich with a visual language that only certain people could speak. From there it lead to watching Eastern Promises and The Mark of Cain, a film and documentary about the Russian underworld.


Similarly, with any other subject of interest, his first port of call is to find something on film or something printed – something real and physical, his process is consistently analogue. He shows me a book that has been informing his recent work and he’s right, holding these images in your hands give them extra depth. It makes them seem more permanent in a distractingly over-connected world that flip-flops between trends on the daily.

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It’s funny though, the fascination with the underworld is a perfect example of duality in Pedro’s life. Being a pleasant and pacifistic guy – the world’s that fascinate him are world’s so far away – ones that he might not have been able to explore hadn’t it been for the digital revolution.


When the opportunity came up for him to work on The Jaunt project, where an artist can go somewhere for a short visit to soak up the inspiration of the place and create a work based on it, he inevitably chose Sicily – the home of organised crime. Sicily is a city that has criminality and secrecy so entrenched that it is arguably the home of Italian criminal mythology.

Every fascination and curoisty, no matter how morbid, is a means of cashing in. Pedro tells me that all over the place were cafes, bars and other sorts of places that claimed a link to The Godfather. Several products featured kitschy branding, associating itself with the film. Think about the pervasiveness of Eiffel Tower merchandise in Paris, except this is cashing in on the idea of power, greed and corruption over beauty and architectural marvel.

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The thing that stood on his trip wasn’t these reference points that he had grown up dreaming of – it was the anti-mafia museum, a sly blow to the illusion of ‘cool’ that provides a reality check for all that pass through its doors. The reality of the oppressive fear that gripped Italy, a country that was essentially hostage to the criminal empire, was palpable. Stories of judges slain and witnesses and family members lost too young was overwhelming – it was a momentary re-evaluation, a huge influence on the way he now looks at the lifestyle he once adored.


Despite the power of this trip, it hasn’t meant a total cold shoulder to the romanticism of the world he came to see more truthfully. The reinterpreted images, the language – both visual and verbal, is still a huge influence on his artworks. Sometimes you just don’t choose the gangster life, it chooses you.

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