Australian artist Guido Van Helten rides up a construction lift at Seljavegur 2 to meet his canvas. The wall he paints is old and slightly corroded, two stories high and the west facing part of a building that once used to be a theatre but is now an industrial workspace. With his can of Spanish Montana brand spray paint, he creates the outline of a grey eye, and the image of a woman’s face, her vintage dress and the man she dances with begin to blossom in proportion to it. If a static image can be said to look fluid, Guido’s murals appear to swoop and fall with each soft layer of spray paint he adds, bringing the wall and his photo-inspired works to life.
Guido was commissioned to paint this wall in part to reclaim it from persistent tagging, a form of graffiti art he used to practice as a teen. The 26-year-old grew up in Melbourne, Australia’s graffiti capital, tagging trains with his friends.
“We did the logo-based, repetitive branding stuff,” he says. “It’s fun and it taught me everything I know about this, but I just started getting into lots of trouble for it.”
Guido was arrested five times in Australia for his graffiti and the time and money involved seemed like a waste. While this could have put him off of graffiti for good, it instead became the impetus to creating more professional and developed work. “I started to think that there had to be another way to redirect the graffiti,” he says.
He went to university in Brisbane, Australia, where he studied visual art and experimented with watercolours. He was developing his style in this medium, but was not receiving the same level of satisfaction he got when he was working on a great mural and unconventional, outdoor canvases.
“There’s a drive with graffiti that’s hard to replicate anywhere else,” Guido says. “What inspired me was that people were going to see it. It’s out on the street, you see it immediately; it’s going to be judged immediately.”
Conceptualised street art
Graffiti was no longer about rebellion for Guido, but about the potential to exhibit his art in a public forum.
“I tend to think of graffiti as anti-social. You don’t have to speak to anyone, you don’t have to ask anyone permission, you just do it, and you hide your face when you do it, and you might not even tell people that you did it,” Guido says. But his murals are not something he can, or would, choose to hide behind. Now if he wants to spray paint a wall, he asks.
A recently completed work on a home just up the street from his mural at Seljavegur began with a knock on the door. The base of the house had some typical tagging on it and Guido and a friend asked the owner if Guido could paint over it. He showed her other works he had done and she was particularly taken with his detailed paintings of old faces. She fetched a bedside picture of her grandfather and asked Guido to paint him, the very man who had built the house.
The woman was out of town when the newspaper Morgunblaðið called to ask her about the mural and when she saw the image of her grandfather’s face painted on the home, she wrote Guido to share the most beautiful feedback he has ever received for a painting.
“I came to realise it’s because it’s supposed to be there. It’s a part of that building now,” he says. “People see a familiarity within that face and to the woman whose grandfather that is.”
Coming to Iceland and into his own
Guido came to Iceland for the first time in April to participate in a two-month Nes Artist Residency in Skagaströnd. The mayor of Skagaströnd drove Guido around the town of 500, enthusiastically pointing out walls the artist could reclaim. They were old, cracked, weather beaten and perfect for Guido.
“I really like corroded surfaces or a crumbling wall. It’s like I’m borrowing and using this texture to make my art better. A painting on a white wall is just a painting. A painting on these old shitty walls is more than that,” he says.
Skagaströnd’s natural beauty provided unique inspiration to Guido who has worked primarily in Australia and the UK. “Having a snow topped-mountain in front of you, sea behind you, and, essentially, the next stop north is Greenland, that to me was so inspiring,” he says. “That was just as interesting if not more than painting in a city like Edinburgh.”
Equally inspiring was the response from the residents of the town.
“I feel like my work is really coming into its own here because I’m engaging with the community,” he says. “It’s not just me doing my own art and saying here, this is me, on you.”
Reimagining a play in Reykjavík
The wall he’s working on now was commissioned after the building’s owner saw Guido working on the painting of the grandfather’s face. Guido was offered a free place to stay and materials in exchange for murals on three of the building’s walls. A lift was hired for Guido to access all reaches of the wall and his mainstay spray paints from Spanish Montana were shipped in from the UK. They are the only paints he uses.
“I’m just real picky now with this,” he says. “I’ve worked out what works and what doesn’t.” He can spend weeks mixing the colours through a process of freezing a can of one colour, puncturing a hole in it, and then submersing it into the can of another colour.
Presented with three, blank, wall canvases, Guido went to the Museum of Photography and found a series of photos from a 1961 production of the play `No Exit.’ The painting he’s working on now of a woman in the dress dancing with a man is the actress Helga Löve. Her daughter actually discovered Guido painting her mother by happenstance. “A week or so ago this woman came by and asked me what I was making and then suddenly said, `That’s my mother!'” Guido explains.
When Guido finishes all three walls, he’ll go back to Australia for the Southern Hemisphere’s summertime and the opportunity to make some money in order to continue travelling and painting his murals. He’s interested in returning to the north to paint in Greenland, though he’s open to nearly anywhere a building is crumbling or a tagged space needs reclamation. “I’ll just go to wherever the art takes me,” he says. “I’m totally at the mercy of it.”
Go see his pieces on Vesturgata.