It’s not just the weather. Reykjavik is a grey city. Beyond the pastel corrugated iron houses of Skólavörðustígur and the colourful storefronts of Laugavegur, the drab grey apartment blocks and uniform developments of the suburb create an atmosphere of ennui and total aesthetical boredom tantamount to the most depressing of eastern block cities. One very prevalent criticism of the city is that the downtown area is so thriving with life that everything outside of it is left without a pulse of its own, drained of the blood and chutzpah that should make a Reykjavik the competent European city it is in name. When faced with the facts, we may just have to accept that, aside from a few blocks, this is not a colourful town.
But an open-ended, all-inclusive underground has taken up the job of beautifying the city in a way the city government had not intended. These artists (though not conventionally recognised as such) can be seen surreptitiously retreating from freshly-sprayed multicoloured pieces the size of Range Rovers all over the city. To naysayers, these works look like some estranged southeast Asian language scribbled onto what could have otherwise been a pristine wall used as a clean backdrop or a prime spot for advertising more Blue Lagoon paraphernalia. To others, these pieces are art in its purest form: public discourse through the medium of paint.
With the emerging uniform suburban ethos in outer Reykjavik, it’s no wonder that this underground has taken to the street and breathed life onto the city’s walls, creating paper transfers and post-ups of Batman and Elvis, or colourful murals of robots, sheep, and even a re-interpretation of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.” Their goal, as most of them will agree, is not only to cheer up the lonely city walls, but also to bring public awareness to art and boiling political tension, especially in relation to the war in Iraq.
Documenting Urban Walls
Thordis Claessen, proprietor of the clothing store Ósóma, has presented the Icelandic public with a collection of pieces, tags, and various forms of street art taken from the walls of Reykjavik in her recently published Icepick (Ginko Press). The photographic book documents the different styles of graffiti throughout the city for the past 7 years or so, and provides English captions of Icelandic tagging and wall discourse. The book, only ten days on the market, has already ranked as the second highest selling foreign book (it is classified as such as it is published by an American publication house) in Iceland.
It seems that the high sales are indicative of a piquing public interest in graffiti. As Claessen explains, graffiti offers “a different kind of tourist” to the streets of Reykjavik. “The young people like to see the street art. They’re coming into my store and asking me ‘where’s all the good street art,’ not, ‘where’s Gullfoss’ or ‘where’s the Pearl?’”
As an acknowledgment to Claessen and her success, Reykjavík Art Museum – Kjarvalsstaðir offered her a place in its current exhibition on contemporary Icelandic design, entitled “Magma”. In the city art museum is a wall of Claessen’s work, and more importantly, a promotional set-up for Icepick. On the idea that graffiti (which is generally dismissed as a lower form of art) has broken through to a city museum, Claessen says “It’s kind of like a little victory. Graffiti is now on the walls of [the Reykjavík Art Museum] – Kjarvalsstaðir, where it’s kind of accepted as art; I think it’s pretty funny that people are giving a toast in champagne while graffiti is there right next to 66 North or Nikita and other respected artists and brands.”
Mixed Messages from the City
But for many of the graffiti artists in Reykjavik (artists whose work is included in Icepick), it simply seems to be yet another frustrating and contradictory statement from a city council that simultaneously promotes and punishes graffiti. The question, for these artists, is more than clear: How does a city that places a zerotolerance ban on graffiti also show it off at high culture venues?
While the city seems to acknowledge that some forms of graffiti are worthy of museum exhibition status, the artists themselves are on the run and constantly fearing backlash from the law. In 2003, a committee of city authorities drafted a paper that would not only ban the act of tagging, but also shut down a legal wall by the school Vesturbæjarskólí under the premise that graffiti breeds graffiti. If anything, artists believe that the ban has backfired: “There was definitely an increase in tagging after they shut down the wall,” says one graffiti artist, who operates under the alias Naïve.
More confusing is the fact that even though the city banned the legal wall, they have since sponsored and even supplied certain artists with cans to tag walls of city structures during events like Menningarnótt and this winter hosted two different exhibitions of graffiti work during a large cultural event called Winter Lights Festival, held by the City of Reykjavík. On the ambivalence of the city council’s acceptance of graffiti, some artists feel that the city council isn’t sure itself, and has difficultly defining the difference between art and vandalism. “It’s a mixed message that they’re sending out,” says Naïve. “There is no official policy, except that graffiti is ‘bad’. I don’t think it’s a question they have answered in there own minds.”
What’s That Guy’s Number?
In recent years, the city council has upped its ante with talk of banning spray cans to those under the age of 20 and increasing the graffiti clean-up budget to 300 million ISK per year. In preparation to this article, The Grapevine tried to meet with members of the city council who control graffiti clean-up repeatedly without success. Our attempts to get a response from city officials ended up in a wild run-around goose chase with fingers pointing to 5 or 6 people who all claimed they weren’t in charge. Eventually, it got to the point where every time the Grapevine attempted to call City Hall, they would get dead end line transfers and even a few hang-ups.
Though Claessen claims that there was no political motive behind assembling Icepick, the book seems to have come at a tense moment of contradictory perspectives on graffiti within the city government. Both Claessen and Naïve acknowledge that public interest in street art is increasing, and older generations who once dismissed the genre as “vandalism” are now accepting the idea that graffiti can be high art. Claessen even claims that she’s had private business owners in their 50’s ask her for the phone numbers of artists who would be willing to decorate their business walls.
In the increasingly apparent tension between public interest in graffiti and tight city policies, many graffiti artists feel that solution could be as simple as opening up a forum for discussion on graffiti, or even creating another legal wall. “I don’t think it will cost a lot of money to put up some legal walls,” concludes Claessen, “It would be like a new gallery all the time, and it would certainly make Reykjavik feel like a big, up-to-datecity.”