If you've spent any time in Lisbon, you'll have seen 'Pura Poesia' daubed on walls around the city. It might be found on a nice clean wall, or one that's more run-down. It's the context that lends itself to the interpretation of the phrase - Pure Poetry. This artist was always a mystery, but finally, we met him.
The typeface, always uniform, is calligraphic in its precision. Despite the surfaces being unforgiving, it maintains its clean lines and spacing. It's important that in one of the fastest changing cities in the world, that there is something that stays the same.
When Felipe Fernandes first arrived in Lisbon from Brazil in the 80s, it was understandably very different that it is now. Most places change in that time - it's to be expected. However, hardly any cities have changed as rapidly as Lisbon. It wasn't necessarily a change that happened since the 80s, rather it happened in his absence (he left and then returned in 2016). The actual period of change occured on a much more exponential slope, the order of magnitude over the past decade meant that 'change' wasn't adequate enough to express what had happened. For many, the city is unrecognisable.
It should be stated that 'Pura Poesia' is no longer the tag, or certainly, it lacks the continuity that it had in the earlier and more prolific days of its life. The phrase 'poetry in motion' is very evocative of Lisbon's cultural and economic transformation. Poetry denotes something that takes thought, is desirable and makes people happy. That's not true of the poetry that Fernandes now relates with Lisbon. It can be, yes, but also, poetry can be deeply melancholic. It depends on a number of things for the reader - where you are, how you feel and how you relate to it.
If you're a property developer or a sociologist, then you're probably in luck. You're work-rate might be increasing - but that's good! The poetry that 'Pura Poesia' will bring to mind is that of urban renewal, like a caterpillar that becomes a cocoon and eventually a splendid specimen of a butterfly. Sure, there will be collateral damage, but it's for the greater good, surely? It really is poetry in motion - fast, linear and economically valuable.
But there are also people that are living near the poverty line, or have deep familial roots tied to the city. For them it might be the poetry of longing, of sadness for a place that was once undoubtedly filled with more magic and charm, a complete anomaly of a European capital that had one foot in the past and another in a very beautiful present. It's the poetry of old women beating their carpets off of their balcony or the poetry of the silence that would blanket the historical districts like Alfama in the evening.
But now? Well, for the uninitiated - those with no true claim to Lisbon or its changing environment, then it's the poetry of tuk-tuk's and guided tours, of selfie sticks and pub crawls. These things aren't innately bad, nor innately good. They are however something that does not and can not go unnoticed. The process of change, development, renewal is also the process of destruction, descent and of memories lost. That's why the new tag reads 'Poesia não Basta' - Poetry Is Not Enough.
Poetry, for all of its beauty, power and plethora of other hyperbolic adjectives - is insufficient to stop what money wants to make happen. Yet Fernandes will still write. He thinks in words, despite a CV that wouldn't tell you that. From stockbroker to ad man, by way of data protection and finally - calligrapher, he saw the words behind the numbers. Where others might see 1s and 0s, he saw ones and zeros. Nature itself, at its most fatally scientific - biology, physics or chemistry, is still about words. After all, whether it be a chemical component or an algorithmic equation - they are all just a bunch of symbols anyway.
That's the beauty of symbols. There is a trade-off between fact and feeling. Both of whom are necessary to fully understand the picture. There are numbers that explain the movement of people out of Lisbon and of investment moving into Lisbon, but that only tells us so much. He has boiled his words down, as he sees it, in a scientific nature - to its very bare-minimum of components. Pura Poesia and then Poesia não Basta is an emotive algorithm that chooses words over numbers to depict what is going on in the city he loves. It's an abstract interpretation of 'The Beauty of Numbers In Nature' theory.
It's use on walls, as opposed to books or digital, is a form that Fernandes refers to as 'contextual poetry', in that it will mean something, as a semiotic collection of markings (much like other words, names or street signs) no matter the language that people speak. It is also impacted by the aforementioned placement in the city. Sometimes it can seem more reflective, other times more satirical or sardonic.
Nighttime in Brazil is often unsafe to just stroll around in. Lisbon at 4am is alright. It's around about this hour that Fernandes, a habitually bad sleeper, meanders through the city and engages in a sleep-deprived dialogue with the more subtle workings of it that are overlooked during the chaotic hours of the day. It doesn't matter if no one is around anyway, Fernandes muses, nobody wants to converse anymore. He jokes about an ex-wife telling him that their life could be like talking to a wall and now he is doing just that. The buffer is the pen, but it's a conversation nonetheless.
Language itself interests Fernandes. It's a deeply fluid mechanism of communication and one that he has a great reverence for, no matter the form or the origin. There's a deeply personal story that he shares with me about an old cleaner, Aparecida, in his childhood home in Brazil. She would often use certain words entirely out-of-context, purely because she liked their phonetic qualities. They sounded nice, so she said them - what was wrong with that?
Fernandes remembers her as a kind of unknowing and unwitting philosopher. Her interpretation of language was onomatopoeic, she would use things that sounded like the feelings or the thoughts she was trying to express. This unadulterated form of expression seems primitive, but that's exactly what language is. Although paradoxically complex, it has only become so by the rules and regulation that we have put on its use. At its very core it is an innate desire that we have to express ourselves and to communicate with others. His cleaner, despite 'breaking the rules' was able to get closer to an essential truth of human communication that most people may likely ever get.
Alongside the many and varied novels he read studiously as a youngster, this experience formed a deeply philosophical understanding of words for Fernandes. They have communicative, scientific, semiotic and emotional qualities. It was with the simple two words - Pura Poesia, that he was best able to distill them into something that he could relate to.
Just like the city and like art, language is also evolving. When we look at coders now, we talk of them being 'fluent' and appreciate their interaction with machines as an entirely new language that must be learned as such. Pura Poesia, although still making rare appearances, has largely become another by-product of the evolution of life itself - city, biology, language, art and of course, the longing for personal growth.
What change is good? Or what change is bad? These questions, along with many others, inspire Fernandes to keep writing. Just as important to him is what it makes the readers feel. So go and wander around Lisbon, ideally late at night when it's quiet, and see if you can spot any of the tags, or even better, see if you can find your own poetry. Think about what it means to you, maybe a personal change is in order, or maybe you're doing just fine - the important thing is that we take some time out of our increasingly busy lives to find out for ourselves. Every day, every night - it's all poetry to Fernandes.
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