The message of maismenos, Miguel Januário’s nom de guerre, is powerful, a pacifist rebellion against the system. Designer, thinker, politician, he’s a modern humanist and woke to the world – as well as the most punk of portuguese street artists.
Seated in the corner of a café in Praça das Flores, Miguel Januário basks in Lisbon’s early evening light, giving off intelligent and empathetic vibes. “I’ve been drawing since I was little, I wanted to be an artist, without really knowing what that was”, he smiles. Born in Porto in 1981, he grew up in an “almost peripheral” part of the city, “almost ours alone, you know?”, he says, referring to the teenage environment of the streets. “I loved the whole urban scene, skateboarding, graffiti, punk.” He studied graphic arts at Escola Soares do Reis and began “trying to do stuff”, although he was still “a kid drawing in notepads and on tables with marker pens”. Aged 17, he started painting in the street, “rather naively, in the afternoon”. There was virtually no graffiti in Porto, there was Maze from Dealema and Ace from Mind da Gap (hip hop band), but that was about it. That said, he was always active. He remembers going to rallies with his sister in the 1980s, when they were “little”, taken by their father, who was passionately involved in the political scene. “That affected me”. His sister studied sociology and became political. At the time, politics was often discussed at home, debating the whys and wherefores of the 1974 revolution, the Colonial War, the return from Africa. “Everything was so close. I remember the murals, the struggle that affected the city was right there. Then I’m the middle class that grew up with some purchasing power and sees their parents, who worked their whole lives, and were in the [colonial] war, having less and less…” At the Faculdade de Belas-Artes (Fine Arts School), Miguel soaked up “the anti-system of the 1990s”, taking graffiti to his communication design course, at a time when street aesthetics began to influen – ce visual culture: stencils, posters, the famous Banksy and Obey. In 2005, Miguel created maismenos (literally, moreless), an end-of-year project that became a critique of the subject itself: “I realised that most design and communication was market-oriented. So, I created a brand that criticises the corporate system, a no-logo.” The name came from a computer key: “I was looking for so – mething that symbolised injustice, speculation, an unknown anti-brand, but fearless… and not worried about cancelling out other brands, because, mathematically, plus (mais) and minus (menos) makes minus, or talking about society: for some to have more (mais), other have less (menos), the idea of extremes and polarisation”. The next step was “hitting the street”. He worked late at the Maus Hábitos bar and would go to Porto city centre after finishing his shift. “In four days, I filled the city centre” with teaser symbols. It had a big impact. “People commented in the streets: what is this?”, and he did his own surveys: “They said it was the Chinese tagging buildings they wanted to buy, the local council identifying buildings to be demolished, fascists or anarchists.” And it became an interesting milestone at his college. “Maismenos ended up revealing what people felt, wanted or feared.”
Although he loved the graffiti family, this colourful and limited hip-hop expression didn’t represent him. Mi – guel had learned the power of mass communication and was more punk, a fan of assertive and political lyrics that were like a kick in the teeth. He listened to Bad Religion, Pennywise, NOFX and Primitive Reason, where he found short and direct messages, a “dry and hard image, with more punch: phrases reach people directly”, and in a more profound and effective way. Then the romantic, naughty approach of going to the street to write on the walls, with the notion of community and change. He started disseminating “streetments”, phrases written in strategic places that underlined their irony – “Until debt tear us apart”, “Gain over”, “We are not a loan” or “I think, therefore I’m not”, or corrupted Portuguese sayings, such as “This is a Portuguese house without certainty” (after a famous song by Amália Rodrigues), “Farewell homeland and family” (mocking a motto from the Salazar dictatorship), “The vanquished people will never be united” (hijacking a left-wing slogan from the 1974 revolution). And he found a voice. Because he loves drawing, he continued doing graphic arts, illustration, graffiti and video, and moved to Lisbon. He started getting a name in the 2010s, doing interventions around the country, some closer to performance art: he dumped an SOS buoy by the Ministry of Finance, played golf outside the Portuguese Parliament, dressed the statue of Fernando Pessoa in Chiado in a “journalist’s” yellow vest and made a suckling pig chew on dollar bills. He filmed everything and it went viral. He featured at festivals in Guimarães (PSQUISAS) and Viseu (Retrocesso ao Futuro, in the Jardins Efémeros), which woke up different after maismenos did its stuff in the main square, and his solo exhibition at the Underdogs gallery was well received. “Everything was burning in Lisbon. It was very interesting. It was the beginning of what we’re experiencing now: the crisis in Europe, refugees, bailouts for the banks and high finance, Brexit on the horizon, and the new wave of populism, Greece. It seemed that democracy had begun to collapse, precisely where it had started a thousand years previous.”
Ten years later, Miguel Januário returned to the school where it all began and started a PhD: “The project was always about research. It started as something illegal and furtive, from the streets and do-it-yourself, and although it still has an impact, things have become domesticated and part of the mainstream. This happens a lot with Lisbon, a city that has become a show, a product. Now that we’re the system, a t-shirt (like Che Guevara and the Ramones), let’s pervert things from the inside”, he laughs. A political party? “It’s a possibility”, he smiles.
He spent the last few months doing observation in Rio de Janeiro: “Brazil is a kind of revelation. It’s an incredible country, it’s got everything to be the best in the world, but it’s also a country of extremes…” According to Miguel, part of the world’s overall problem is a huge proportion of the population being “completely distracted from any political thought, because what’s on offer is empty, we live in the era of entertainment. And you want to have conversations, but nobody cares: ‘Where are we going out today?’”, he laughs. Sometimes there’s a sense of mission. “You’re the Whatsapp group bore, the one who ruins the dinners”, he laughs again. “But, amongst the disinformation, your attention is being diverted and then it’s the refugee’s and immigrant’s fault, petty hate. You blame what’s different, because there’s also a parochialism and hyperbole that make us base. As if speculation didn’t take things from you (people are in debt their whole lives to have the right to housing, as enshrined in the Constitution), but the poor are closer at hand. It’s dividing to conquer, instead of all of us being in it together! And that lack of freedom isn’t questioned. Freedom now is buying yellow or blue trainers; it’s the free market, it’s not rights and politics. Kids are interested in other stuff.”
Tool for change
Does art still make a difference? “That’s one of the issues. I want to believe so, but it’s difficult because the difference very easily becomes a t-shirt. The market knows how to absorb and transform. But, for example, we have Pussy Riot, who have done incredible work protesting, before that Voina, who did interventions, some were arrested, others fled. It’s tough. In permissive European states, like the Portuguese, everything becomes banal. But it’s possible. We’ve seen some interesting endeavours here, in Thailand, Norway, Mexico, and now Brazil, Iran and even Saudi Arabia.” In this ocean of superficiality, all we have left is humour, “laughing at the vicissitudes of life, and celebrating it. Despite everything, we live in an excellent time and, in our little corner of the world, we have quality of life, we’re better off than we’ve ever been. But it’s unbelievable that we still have to fight against misogyny or racism, isn’t it?”. If maismenos had a superpower to change the world “it would make the people who are at the top, and think you can live on 500 euros, do the same. Or share everything with everyone, inequality is the worst thing: how does one percent of the world have as much as everyone else? While some people don’t know if they’ll survive tomorrow. Many members of that rich minority are nice, friendly people, but the system is set up for those who have power to always have more; if you don’t have it, you’ll never have it, unless you win the lottery”.
And then what? “For things to function properly, because not everyone is decent, and there are many greedy people about, education: knowing how to live in a community. The other is you. And connecting these ties that are being severed. And it’s enough, you don’t need much more. Why accumulate? In about 20 years’ time, you won’t be here.” His verb is always plural. He laughs, he’s interested in love, friendship, family, “those things that always have to do with others”, shrugging his shoulders. “Freedom is having a decent and dignified life but filled with people and good things that fill your heart, laughter and silly stuff too.
by Patrícia Barnabé /// photo Egídio Santos
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