Proudly in love with Lisbon, Hauke Vagt has been illustrating its streets, people and colours for more than 20 years, alongside his partner Gui. From walking trams to guitar playing sardines and the famous Porta 6 wine label, his creations portray the soul of the city.
We go deeper into his life and work in this interview, where we talk about the love story with Lisbon and how things have changed in the current pandemic scenario.
What is your background and how did you start painting?
I started drawing as a kid. I discovered I could make people laugh or be shocked with my scribbles and I enjoyed the feeling a lot. As a teenager, I made comics together with friends and we published small fanzines. When I was 18 years old, I hitchhiked from Germany to Portugal and had little money, so I started to make hand-painted postcards at the beautiful beaches of Algarve and Costa Vicentina and sold them to tourists.
That was my school. Later on, I did go to an art school called AR.CO, in Lisbon. For four years I took drawing, illustration, art history courses while, simultaneously, went every day to Castelo de São Jorge (São Jorge Castle) to sell my Lisbon drawings. It was an amazing time!
When did you move to Lisbon from the south of Portugal?
I moved to Lisbon in 1997. I was getting a bit isolated in my small house in Alentejo, where I was living, and I wanted to learn the Portuguese language better – and attend the art school.
How was your path from selling your art in the Castle to having your own studio Atelier49?
I worked in Castelo de São Jorge, a famous Lisbon’s art area, from 1997 until 2016 – I only took a break for a couple of years to work on other things and that is when I met Margarida, aka Gui, my work partner since then. In 2016, EGEAC, the company that manages the Castle site, ended the license contracts with all artists (some working there for more than 20 years) and we had to look for alternatives to sell our work.
I had been anticipating that the good life at the Castle would not last forever, so Gui and I opened our Atelier49 studio, in Rua do Salvador 49, Alfama, two years prior. We were kind of prepared for the change. Also, EGEAC offered us the chance to participate in a course from Startup Lisboa where we learned a lot about how to manage an art studio.
Can you tell us more about the label you created for Porta 6 wine: how did this opportunity happen and why this image?
The drawing in the label, which has a man barbecuing outside a door (Porta in Portuguese) with the number 6 was one of the many I did during my years at the Castle. A certain day a gentleman bought it from me, and he later had dinner with two Portuguese wine producers and showed it to them. They both sent me emails asking if they could use it for a wine label. This was how Vidigal Wines created the Porta 6 red wine, white and Rosé, a wine from the Lisbon region, which is nowadays sold all around the world. Back then I doubted that they would sell any wine with my cartoon label. But Sr. António (Mr. António) from Vidigal Wines is a highly creative person and he turned it into quite the big thing. He told me once during a dinner: ‘Hauke, good wine does not grow in the earth. It grows in your mind first’. He encouraged and inspired me a lot in the last 10 years.
How would you describe your drawing style?
My Lisbon drawings and illustrations are inspired by the work of artists like Miguelanxo Prado, François Schuiten, Benoît Peeters or Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro but it is hard to describe my own style. I guess over the years i just found a way to draw that is comfortable and fun for me.
You work with your partner Margarida Rocha, aka Gui – can you tell us more about how did you two meet and how do you collaborate?
We met in 2004 and have been friends and working together for the past 17 years. Gui joined me working in the Castle – she makes her own drawings, but we also work together on the Lisbon posters and postcards. Sometimes I do the line-work and Gui does watercolours, sometimes it´s the other way around. She also has a passion for sculpture, and she did a lot of sculptures of flying whales and ships made from recycled materials and toys.
How is your creative process? And how do you find inspiration?
The process depends very much on the subject I am illustrating. When it comes to my Lisbon art, I developed a graphical universe in my memory over the years. Most streets and scenes I draw are imagined – related to the real world and places in Lisbon but entirely constructed in my imagination. At the Castelo de São Jorge, I had to make the posters of Lisbon fast to have enough material to sell and I can quickly create a scene like that from scratch. It´s the kind of work that requires a lot of repetition. When I do illustrations for book covers, labels or others, it is a different process. I use all the references that I can find online about a specific subject.
As for what inspires me… everything I see that impresses me can also inspire me and Lisbon is full of little memorable things that happen all the time. Even if I stay all day at the same street corner.
What is your favourite thing to draw?
Drawing in itself can be very rewarding– independently of the subject matter. But the thing I like to draw the most is something that does not exist yet. Something that comes from imagination. A thing (or an aspect of a thing) that I discover while drawing, that reveals itself on the paper and surprises me.
Where do you live in Lisbon, which neighbourhood?
Now I live in Graça and I love it here. It is quiet. I love to stay in my little Bairro (neighbourhood) and have a limited circuit that I can walk on foot. All the neighbours and personalities know each other like family. Previously I lived in Alfama, which was an amazing place to live 20 years ago. With the tourism boom in the last 7 years or so things changed and for me, some of the Alfama appeal and charm was lost.
What were the reasons that made you stay in Lisbon?
In my mind Lisbon is the endpoint of a journey. I travelled around a lot when I was younger, and Lisbon was the place where I wanted to stay. The proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the huge Rio Tejo (Tagus river) makes me feel as if there is nothing more to go to. Most importantly, I find the people welcoming and very friendly and they always make me feel at home.
If you have friends visiting, what are the must-see places and things to do in Lisbon?
I start with ‘Where to eat?’ and ‘Where to go?’. The usual tour includes the alleys of Alfama, the Castle and, of course, a ride on the Eléctrico 28 (Tram 28). I also take them to my favourite little cafés (coffee shops) and restaurants, like ‘Leitaria Anita’ in Rua do Salvador, Alfama, or ‘A Cabreira’ in Largo da Graça. I think a Ginginha and Pastéis de Nata are fundamental Portuguese culinary treats to try. Or maybe just some tremoços (Lupines) and a imperial (draft beer).
Lisbon is full of amazing sights to see. At the end of the day, I also like to visit the other side of the river to see Lisbon’s lights at night. Besides that, I love visiting Sintra, which is very close. My favourite place there is the mysterious Quinta da Regaleira, where you can find this amazing “inverted tower” for example:
In this quarantine scenario, how did your life change with the current Covid restrictions in Lisbon?
We closed our open-door studio for good at the end of June 2020. It was sad in a way, but we are quite happy now to be able to work at home in a more focused environment. I can concentrate on my personal projects and client work more than before, so it is not that bad. I also keep selling my Lisbon posters and postcards online.
Spending more time at the computer and having all my favourite cafés and restaurants closed is annoying but luckily, we have a small garden where we can relax and recharge energies.
Your art is about people, the streets, the outdoors… Are you painting different scenarios now that it is necessary to stay inside?
Not necessarily because I have always worked on a lot of different things as an artist. I illustrated school and children’s books; I did wall paintings and sculptures for publicity, street theatre and many other things. In the last years, I worked as a freelance illustrator and did science fiction/fantasy book covers for U.S. authors and indie publishers. Currently, I am working on a small PC video game, taking advantage of this quiet time.
How do you see the city and its people living in Portugal’s lockdown situation?
From my perspective, I can see my neighbours having family barbecues, some are frequently singing with an open window… but the life on the streets stopped. It is weird to see Lisbon like this and I feel sadness about what seems to be lost. But I must admit it is nice to see fewer cars and Tuk-Tuks and more families out in the park (when they are open). Before, there was less space left for Lisbon’s inhabitants.
What is the first thing you want to do when we can go ‘back to normal’?
I do not think about the future much. I prepare things that could be useful, but I do it because it´s fun now. Beyond that I let myself be surprised with what life throws at me. I am used to life being quite unpredictable and while it may not be a comfortable way to live, I find it challenging and interesting. It will sure be interesting to see what this new normal will look like.
3 ‘last but not least’ questions: Best Portuguese wine and food? First words you learned in Portuguese? Favourite Fado song?
The beer Sagres was probably the first Portuguese word I learned! As for best wine, I say Porta 6 wine, of course. As for Portuguese food, I like Bacalhau à brás for fish and a simple Bitoque for meat. My favorite dessert is Bolo de bolacha.
Favourite Fado music is Fado Vadio – the fun and informal version of Fado which is sung on the streets and in the tascas (cheap, informal restaurants). The one from my friend Zé António, for example. He used to sing in Alfama´s restaurants and often at night he would do it some more in Rua do Salvador to entertain his friends.