By Lennie Araujo.
We seem as a species to be driven by a desire to make meanings: above all, we are surely Homo significans – meaning-makers. Signs take the form of words, images, sounds, etc. But such things have no intrinsic meaning and become signs only when we invest them with meaning. Walking around Lisbon to me is a visual pleasure; apart from the beauty around me I started to notice from my first visit that its inhabitants –locals and expats alike- are very outspoken about what they like and, especially about what they don´t. The interesting thing is that they do it in colorful, creative and clever ways.
Traditional “Azulejos” or ceramic tiles considered as one of the most original contributions of Portugal to world culture -first introduced by the Moors in the XIV century- have been used to cover the walls of palaces, churches and convents for over five centuries. They can be found in hospitals, public buildings, parks, fountains, military installations, museums, coffee shops, bars, clubs, storefronts, drugstores, for cladding and decorative purposes and often for artistic use. Nothing more eye-catching that a lovely hand-painted tile announcing an antiques store or a municipal patrimony building; yet the other night coming out of the metro station we noticed a beautiful sign using individual tiles with a message: “Ja Estou Melhor. Obrigada” (I´m Doing Better, Thank You); thank you note or performance art? Don´t know, but eye-catching this sure is!
We interpret things as signs largely unconsciously by relating them to familiar systems of conventions. I encounter old-fashion signs for businesses that are as eye-catching as they are clever; signs that tell you what their business is by way of elegant creative images such as the one for a shop selling “Clothing for Strong People” which apart from nice looking, doesn´t scare potential users and is way nicer than “Clothes for Big n Large Men”.
Pop culture-influenced Lisboetas do this creatively –usually in English- whether for art or business purposes, often times, to simply show their support, disapproval or love of something or someone. Sometimes as social commentary, and sometimes -I feel, just to challenge us all visually and see if we noticed something, like this one that appear recently in my neighborhood asking passersby’s to “List the People You´re Afraid Of”, which others have diligently responded writing who (or what) are they afraid of (sushi?).
Anything can be a sign as long as someone interprets it as ‘signifying’ something – referring to or standing for something other than itself. Or simply asking; “What´s Cool About You?”
Lisbon is so visually signifying, constantly putting a smile on your face.