Vancouver, alas, subscribes to what I call “Hello Kitty” street art. Birds, bees, butterflies, sanctioned mural festival art that, for the most part, doesn’t challenge your thinking beyond “where’s the nearest place for a decaf, low-fat, no-sugar latte?”
So it may surprise you, as it did us, to find that in Norway of all places, that Stavanger, the city that oil lifted, is one of the world’s leaders in street art. Art that captures the general mood. Art that illuminates political, philosophical and poetical meanings. Art that propels expression and invites dialog. Not quite the double-shot espresso of street art in Buenos Aires but Stavanger’s is a strong brew that gets your heart pumping.
Stavanger is a coastal city of cobbled streets, white wooden houses, pedestrian-only streets and about 132,000 people. Every September since 2000 Stavanger has hosted Nuart, the most prominent street art festival in the world. Through lectures, discussions, interviews, film screenings, workshops, educational programmes and the publication of a journal, Nuart (with its slogan Beauty is in the Streets) has raised street art to a higher level. Nuart also produces an app for finding the city’s street art, which Magellan downloaded and we found quite helpful.
Street art is a branch of “artivism” that Daniël De Jongh describes as “a movement that came up in the ‘90s and whereby artistic expression goes hand in hand with social protests and political activism… the visual language of pop art and the nonconformism of the punk subculture” that shares common ground with the disruptive nature of Dada. Daniël says, “street artists, for their part, consider the city as a canvas which provides many opportunities that can never be offered by a museum. They are first and foremost united in the belief that the streets belong to citizens, not to commercial parties that impose their flashy images on all and sundry.” His excellent article (see the link below in Navigation) is worth a read for his analysis of the origins of street art, its place in the world and its potential fall to “neo-Muralism” and “municipal cleansing.”
Finding street art is usually a challenge, for us anyway. Explicit directions are hard to come by. Often we’ve had to stop and ask someone. The response is usually, “I don’t know,” or “That building was torn down,” or in Norway, “Yes I’m the last one to leave and I have to lock the gate but take your time to get a photo.” By happenstance, I noticed this iconic piece in a narrow alleyway. It was nearing 4 pm and a young man on his bike was about to lock the gate. Kindly, he allowed us in to capture this cheeky piece.
Miguel, a Portuguese street artist, working under the name MaisMenos, creates art to critique bureaucracies that manage modern urban societies. No way (don’t you love the title?) specifically refers to the referendums (1972 and 1994) in which the Norwegian people declined membership in the European Union. The UK’s JPS cleverly used the MaisMenos image in his art.
The first street art we saw in Stavanger was the “Rude Kids” series by the UK’s Dotmasters. Painted in 2019 Dotmasters says his kids causing mischief is a “reminder that it’s important to disobey and misbehave in order to be (creatively) free.”
Zak, a Lithuaian who is one of our favourite street artists, is known for featuring children in his street art. His classical bronze-like image depicts Johanna and Broremann, siblings from a popular children’s book, separated, with a (real) barbed-wire door between them on the side of a store in downtown Stavanger. Across the street are the bronze statues of the brother and sister holding hands, while Zak has chosen to show them exerting their independence.
Inside the courtyard of a kindergarten, Axel’s piece Klosser, (“toy building blocks”) is designed for the kids playing in front of it, a reflection on how we progress from “building houses with toy blocks to living inside actual houses we have built.” Axel lives in Spain.
Poland’s Sainer and Bezt working under the name Etam Cru are the super-popular combo that Widewalls named artists of the Year in 2014. A boy is sleeping inside a yawning school bag full of “lunch monsters,” books and a spray can—maybe dreaming of his future as a street artist? (Notice the rodent on top: a lab rat?) The pair marry a rare combination of traditional Eastern European symbols and folklore with the technique of a contemporary painters in art that is rarely under seven stories high!
Not far from the “Rude Kids” series is a large work in which American Logan Hicks uses stencils in a photorealistic style to show the symbiotic relationship “between the cold, harsh city and a warm, vibrant organism…with a bright red carpet trail of life and hope within it.” It goes well with Protester by Norway’s DotDotDot. With her covered face, bright-red clothing and rabbit puppets, DotDotDot’s activist seems to suggest that life is just a farce. In the same theme and neighbourhood, Norwegian-born street artist La Staa, a name that means “Leave it alone,” illustrates our broken-hearted world.
Now for two weighty pieces, like our feature one. Until we read about it for this post we didn’t understand the piece by Bergen-based AFK whose work is considered among the best in Norway. It depicts a crucified Sylvi Listhaug, the country’s Norway’s former Justice Minister. “The controversial painting urged the public to look beyond personality politics, mass media and the dehumanization of refugees—a trend which Listhaug propogated— towards the wider cause and effect of the global refugee crisis.” In the artwork on the right, The Last Traveler, architect and artist NIMI, also from Bergen but via South Africa, shows a woman bearing the weight of the past on her shoulders, caught up in the global migration crisis, her final destination unknown. His chiaroscuro effect incorporates and reflects the architectural elements of the four-storey car park that houses the work.
Sometimes we chance upon a piece of art we weren’t looking for, like Helen Bur’s “target” painting. Helen had a guy throw a dart and then began painting a target around it. Her point? She writes, “Drawing circles around things is like adding meaning to things…By adding meaning to the act after it’s been committed, that guy is a metaphor of our lives: there’s the mere act of living and there’s creating whatever meaning we want around it.” A graduate of the Cardiff School of Art, she started creating street art in 2011. Can you believe this is brushwork?
Queen Elizabeth with her brollie—that’s all we know about this cute little surprise that greeted us in an alleyway. American Chris Stain’s piece was a surprise, too. Known for large stencil images that reflect his concern with social inequality, Chris “paints other people’s struggles for a better life, aiming at inspiring compassion for the less fortunate individuals in society and making people more aware of each other.” His fellow American John Fekner is less public about his intentions. From his website: “In the 70s, John Fekner was ‘anonymously known’ for over three hundred environmental/conceptual works consisting of dates, words, and symbols spray painted throughout the five boroughs of New York…Although Fekner’s artistic work has at times been extremely public, media-savvy and technological-driven, he has managed to keep a low profile, which allows him to keep his vision resolute.”
In the same neighbourhood as Chris’s piece was street art we were searching for. In 2015 French artists Ella & Pitr painted the giant characters of two lonely old men and an elderly woman all cramped inside three different houses. Their work is “defined by an innate playfulness and a unique style appropriated from influences as diverse as comics and children’s books to graffiti. They use as much surface as possible, often sprawling across two sides of the same building, to create a sense of depth and dimension.”
Though physically distanced in Stavanger, these three pieces share a commonality.
Sometimes, language is art. Guess who said, “History is a lie agree upon?” Napoleon, of all people. What will history say about street art?
We had covered about fifteen kilometres that day, stopped a few times for coffee (and lunch) before we arrived to Tou Scene, a hub of street art. Created by the Outings Project, the art here was initiated by the France’s Julien de Casabianca. Julien pasted-up portraits of characters plucked from classical paintings, liberating them from their institutional homes “to merge the perceptions of museum and street art and punctuate neglected spaces with beauty.” There was so much to see that we stopped at a pub overlooking the art at halfway time. (You may be ready for a drink yourself yourself given the length of this post—Cheers!) We especially like “Slave Labour” by Bansky, one of the world’s best street artists. And the 2015 sculpture of a man on a balcony, part of the <em>Cement Eclipses</em> series criticizing modern society by Isaac Cordal, a Spanish artist based in Belgium. And Nafir’s painting (he’s from Iran where street art is illegal) taken from an old school book of Molavi poetry, which literally translates as “scream.” And Strøk (Anders Gjennestad, lucky guy who splits his time in Berlin and Oslo), with his “moving on” images.
Given COVID-19 do you think that street art will become more prominent, more valued, more vital to the human discourse?
My Google search on this question led to the words of Rachel Schacter, anthropologist and curator focusing on public and global art, senior teaching fellow at the University College London and author of The World Atlas of Street Art.
The very concept of ‘the public,’ both in terms of people and in terms of space, is really being stretched right now. We’re also in a time where scrutiny of public policy, discourse and debate is hugely important. One of the spaces where that debate can emerge, especially among those who are marginalized or less able to speak within the media, is the street. A lot of issues of public space that were issues before the crisis—like increasing privatization, surveillance, increasing marginalization, corporatization, housing—are coming forward with the crisis. And these are issues, which are often discussed through the medium of the street.
Another question: Can graffiti and its “formal cousin,” street art, be nurtured without undermining its outlaw power to disturb and challenge?
The UK’s Bansky, one of the world’s premier street artists, has seen so many of his pieces painted over, hours after they’ve been created. This one painted on Holland Park Roundabout in London lasted a wee bit longer.
No one wants to see graffiti that’s a form of aggression, ugly and devoid of aesthetic sense; it harms the owner of where it’s placed, be it a storefront or postal box, and is a coercive and clandestine act that degrades the entire community. And don’t get me wrong. I like the positivity of the many street-art tributes in our city to Dr. Bonnie Henry and frontline workers. But where’s the controversial art for the social change our city needs and desires? Art that draws attention to slum landlords in the Downtown Eastside and addresses the homeless crisis that has led to a tent city of 350 people in Strathcona Park? (BC receives 0.5% of the fed’s funding for homeless housing.) Art that shames politicians for allowing money laundering in the real-estate/development industry to drag on? Art that points out the hypocrisy of the federal WE scandal?
Let’s have a coffee with someone and talk about this.
UPDATE: July 16, 2021: “What Makes Good Street Art?” Ozy. “It manifests in many shapes and forms — spray cans, but also paper, glue and stickers. So how can you actually tell what is Banksy-hot and what is not? Australian Fintan Magee, who paints large-scale hyperreal pieces depicting humans in vulnerable situations, says it all depends on the eyes observing it. “From the artist’s perspective, it is about intention and self-awareness,” he tells OZY. “If the artist intends to express a certain idea or image and is able to pull it off, then it’s good work.” For Boneta-Marie Mabo, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait artist based in Brisbane, Australia, the key is in the message an image can convey. “Street art is supposed to be political,” she tells OZY. “It’s supposed to scream at you, to tell you something, but I feel that it has been diluted so much that now it’s just pretty pictures on the walls that make people feel nice.”
Here’s an interview from The Smithsonian in which Rachel Schacter talks about street art and COVID-19.
I thought I was finished my research for this story and then I found Daniël De Jongh’s blog and his thoughtful essay on the subject of street art.
Nicholas Ganz has written two books on the topic and from The Guardian, here’s a taste of his latest Street Messages (look for the piece by Dolk from Norway called “The coast is clear”).