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[Exclusive] Meet Portugal's Gang of Graffitiing Grandparents

Octogenarians with paint-cans are tagging walls all over Europe.

Meet Portugal's oldest graffiti posse: a motley clan of retirees, virally known as "Graffiti Grandmas." These are the members of Lata 65, a WOOL Fest arts education group for seniors founded by Lara Rodrigues. For the past few years, Rodrigues has been dedicated to breaking down ageist stereotypes and cultural perceptions through her senior-focused theory seminars and two-day workshops—the latest of which was reported on by The Creators Project Spain earlier today. At the end of each session, the founder takes her class to the streets for a practical application of her lessons. These involve students' handmade stencils and copious amounts of spray paint.

Due to its phenomenological nature, Lata 65's story has circulated widely, although many have mistaken Lisbon for the birthplace of the proudly Covilhã-based organization. The Creators Project set out to go behind the headlines in order to uncover the real reasons why greying students, with little or no experience in this youthful art form, are walking out of Rodrigues' workshops with a street artist's hunger for that perfect stretch of empty wall.

We talked to two of Lata 65's sexagenarians and one sprightly student pushing 60 about their favorite tagging adventures, and to Rodrigues about her "art for all" approach and the time 20 seniors eagerly volunteered to take a trip down to the local police station. 

The Creators Project: Describe Lata 65 and Wool Festival in your own words. How and when did you first come up with the concept for the project? 

Lara Rodrigues: [Lata 65 is] the direct result of two great passions, one for graffiti/street art and other for Covilhã and its history which is closely related with the textile industry. WOOL—Covilhã’s Urban Art Festival—appeared in 2011 as the first event with these characteristics in the interior of Portugal under a specific and unique format and modus operandi, aiming to introduce these new expressions of contemporary art as tools capable of great social, cultural, economic and urban transformations in a community.

Since then, there has been a huge number of parallel actions in other places (domestic and foreign) and in other formats. It was because we had the possibility to observe the simple and easy ways in which urban art can reach any age group, particularly the 'resident' older people in our area. These are the ones who became our companions and spectators at all hours. We watched day and night as pilgrimages of senior citizens got out of their homes, not to go to the usual mass or card game, but to follow every detail of the paintings.

One day, talking with Fernando Mendes (from Cowork Lisboa) about these experiences and phenomenons, he challenged me to make a workshop for seniors. 

How has the project evolved since its founding? 

After the first workshop (that we made totally pro bono, me and artists invited) and after seeing the benefits of it, I decided that I had to find more ways to do it and new ways to fund the project. In 2013, I applied to the Participatory Budgeting of Lisbon Council 2013, and through the votes of citizens, LATA 65 won. In 2014, we were invited by a festival to go to the island of Azores and give a workshop [and we also invested a lot in] in lectures, conferences, and universities. In Lisbon we started (just) in past January to make the 12 actions/workshops financed by the Council. (I think its because of this fact that the press is saying the workshop is out of Lisbon, but it's not correct.) And this summer (June and July) we will be working in small villages, one in the interior of Portugal (Castelo Branco), and three others near Coimbra (Montemor-o-Velho). 

Was there any resistance from the ‘students’ to such a distinctly youth-culture art like graffiti? 

I think that the seniors come to the workshop with curiosity and an open mind about these issues around graffiti. They come with a lot of misconceptions, but are ready to learn a lot about it. 

Would you classify the group’s work as graffiti or street art?

The workshop starts with a brief journey through graffiti and street art history—a totally visual experience. From the 'appearance' of graffiti in the late 1960s/early 1970s in the EUA, to the journey to Europe and after, to Portugal. We talk about the differences between graffiti, street art and muralism, between their practices, codes and technique, between the writers/artists and so on. The purpose is to explain and make them understand and recognize what they see in the street. And after, we pass onto the practical part, where they start creating their tag and the project for the wall. They learn all and different techniques to work in the streets and after all these and prepared all for the wall, we go to the streets. 

So, I would say that it's both, or more street art, because we don't just do letters, and do a lot of work that's more close to street art. I love the results of the workshops, but the most important of LATA 65 is the process. The process of understanding what they see in the city and demystifying these artistic expressions […] and that takes a lot of work to prepare and execute. [We want to] make them believe, by their own experience, that they can learn new things, pursue new activities.

Describe character and the dynamic of the group. 

As I told before, [most of the individuals] comes to the workshop with an open mind. [They] want to learn something new or just ask 1,000 things about it because they never had the opportunity. Its a really relaxed environment, so the dynamic is always really funny and playful. 

What is a typical day like for you and your ‘students’?

LATA 65 is a two-day workshop, four hours in each day. We are talking about a group of 15 people maximum, some with health problems, damaged joints, etc. So, the rhythm and dynamic of each class is a bit slow (slower than with kids or young people) and always different, I’ve had groups with a average of 74, with seniors of 63 to 93 years old. But in a regular workshop, the first day would be totally indoors, with the theoretical/visual part and starting to create and draw the 'tag,' making the project of it for the wall, and starting to draw some stencils. On the second day, we cut all the stencils, and after we are all prepared, we go to the street, for the wall. 

Tell me about one or two of your favorite moments from over the years with Lata 65. 

I always like to talk about the best example and result of LATA 65, and I think, the first moment of true and total surprise: In the 1st workshop, in 2012, we got a lady—Luísa Cortesão, a doctor. She had never cut a stencil or painted on the streets, but on the last day, she brought us a stencil from home [which became] our logo! Since that day, she has never stopped cutting her stencils and painting in the streets and usually helps us with the workshops.

There are also some things that we hear after the workshop that stay in our mind forever, like: 

"While I'm here, I don't think about the hours and days left until I die." – Mr. Manuel, a.k.a., Balé.

"Now I look at the walls with different eyes, I know what's in front of me on the street.” – D. Lurdes, a.k.a., Armando.

What have been some of the biggest challenges with this project? 

To achieve continuity of the project, to find ways of funding it and, in the same way, […] bringing the benefits [of Lata 65] to more and more seniors. Unfortunately, we continue to [struggle with this, because there is so little] investment in the elderly. 

Have there been any run-ins with the police or any other authorities during Lata 65 outings? 

We had one time the police stopping next to the wall and telling us that they wanted to take us to the police station in their van... A group of 20 seniors. Obviously, we had permission for the painting, but the seniors wanted to go!

Meet the students: 

The Creators Project: Please tell me your name and age and a bit about yourself. 

Luísa Cortesão (Search in Facebook), 65, a retired doctor.

How long have you been a member of Lata 65? 

I joined the workshop in November 2012

Why did you join? 

Just for fun and because I always loved to see graffiti in the streets.

What is your most exciting memory from your time with the group? 

I think all are. Even when I go to help with the workshop and see people trying for the first time. 

(If applicable) What do your grandkids think of your hobby? 

They love it and sometimes go with me to street paint my stencils.

Describe your favorite thing to paint. 

My mark: Witches.

Please tell me your name and age and a bit about yourself. 

Margarida Dias Carreiro, 58, retired teacher. I like photography, aerobics, swimming, the gym, the cinema, and hiking. 

How long have you been a member of Lata 65? 

Since the July 2014 workshop in Azores.

What is your most exciting memory from your time with the group? 

When we painted our wall on a street in the city center of Ponta Delgada. And the fact that it's staying there forever. =)

Describe your favorite thing about Lata 65.

It was just very nice: both the techniques used and the camaraderie between the trainer and the trainees.

Please tell me your name and age and a bit about yourself. 

Eduardo Machado, 68. I am a pineapple producer and organic farmer. I paint screens and use oil and acrylic paint and watercolors. My hobbies are amateur radio, photography, target shooting, sailing (I'm ocean skipper), swimming and walking.

How long have you been a member of Lata 65? 

Workshop of July 2014, Azores.

What is your favorite thing about Lata 65. 

Undoubtedly the monitors [Rodrigues and coworkers] because of the energy and dynamic they give to the workshop. 

What do your grandkids think of your hobby? 

My grandchildren loved the idea, and always give their support to my initiatives.

Describe your favorite thing to paint. 

I liked participating in the panel painting which is still on a wall in downtown Ponta Delgada.

Click here to learn more about Lata 65.

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