Today we have Vandalog’s second guest post from Sirla, an organizer of the Stencibility festival in Tartu, Estonia. I find it inspiring to see festival organizers thinking deeply like you’ll find in this post. – RJ
Street art festivals are the most organized form of street art – coordinated, sponsored, approved under certain conditions, etc. Street art festivals also garner significantly more attention on most blogs and other media than illegal and spontaneous street art marching to the beat of its own drum. Street art festivals are hot stuff and new ones are constantly popping up. According to a recent letter I got from the Freiraumgalerie in Germany, there are close to 125 different international street art festivals in Europe alone.
In many cities with active street art and graffiti movements, the authorities ruthlessly combat spontaneous public art, a move largely supported by the people in those cities. With that in mind, it can be fairly complicated to hold annual legal street art festivals in cities such as those. As a solution, the festivals are held as one-off events or in smaller cities that don’t have years of experience with fighting the so-called “graffiti problem.” Due to the absence of a local scene, however, it’s typical in those smaller cities that nothing much happens on the streets before or after the festival, and the festival’s emphasis tends to be on murals rather than street art as a whole.
This brings us to an exception that’s by no means singular, however it’s closest to my own heart, namely the city of Tartu and our street art festival Stencibility, of which I am an organizer. With her 100,000 inhabitants, Tartu is the second largest city in Estonia. Known for its university and a generally youthful vibe, it has also been dubbed the street art capital of Estonia. Since Stencibility has evolved out of the local stencil scene, both the illegal street art and the legal festival are thriving side by side, supporting one another.
Stencibility began 6 years ago as a small get-together of local street artists, and it has expanded every year since. Three years ago, we hosted Kashink, our first foreign artist, and two years ago we garnered some major media attention when MTO painted Stencibility’s first large-scale mural.
Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is known for its graffiti, but street art is practically non-existent and, much like the neighboring capitals Helsinki and Riga, Tallinn upholds a strict policy of zero tolerance. Just a few months ago, a highly illustrative incident took place when Edward von Lõngus, one of the most popular Estonian street artists, made a stencil piece in the city centers of both Tallinn and Tartu for the anniversary of the Estonian Republic. It depicted a naked emperor as a commentary on the way the government is functioning. The one in Tallinn was erased after a few weeks with an official statement that it was not art, while the one in Tartu still stands. The situation went viral when MinaJaLydia, another stencil artist from Tartu, placed her own stencil right on the cleaned spot in Tallinn, a still life with the line “Is it art now?” which the media reported as a clash between the spirit of Tartu and the authority of Tallinn.
“The city of Tartu has come to the realization that street art adds value for the cityscape and it need not be stubbornly opposed for the sole reason that it happens to be illegal. The favorable attitude of the city and its people has created an environment conducive to many street artists, thus the works produced are of better quality with more thought going into them, which in turn makes the people even more tolerant towards street art. Whereas by indiscriminately erasing all that is illegal, Tallinn is left with what can be executed the quickest,” said MinaJaLydia about the case in an article. I find this to be an accurate description of our situation, and I am certain similar parallels can be drawn to other countries and cities.
Organizing the Stencibility street art festival, I am faced with the question: Is it even possible to organize a festival of street art in the proper sense of the word? What does (illegal) street art as an art movement have in common with a legal mural painted during a festival and how exactly do they support one another?
For me, the murals have served as a visual aid to illustrate how art can alter our surroundings. You can spend hours on end talking of the necessity of street art when in fact all you need is one well-placed piece and that says it all. The bigger it is, the louder it speaks. Despite this, Stencibility has never placed a strong emphasis on murals, for practical as well as ideological reasons. There are usually only two or three official legal walls, along with other festival events, but the murals are the biggest crowd-pleasers. To draw more attention to Tartu street art as a whole, we have compiled and printed a map of Tartu street art (check out the online version here) and we organize guided street art tours, both of which mainly deal with illegal works. We also try to present a more insightful view of street art in the media.
During the last 2 years, we have included smaller towns in the festival program. This year, we held a street art tour in Puka (population 600), where oddly enough a number of young stencil enthusiasts happen to reside. Also focusing on the younger generation was a sketch contest for a young artist’s first wall. This year’s conference portion had presentations from Professor Peter Bengtsen from Lund University, and Sänk, an Estonian graffiti artist with nearly 20 years of experience, plus a gripping debate on the ephemeral nature of street art and preservation efforts. In addition, there were art exhibitions, film screenings, workshops, etc.
The Polish artists Sepe and Chazme executed the largest mural of our festival so far – Supilinn 15 – inspired by two Polish artists born in Tartu in the beginning of the 20th century: Architect Jerzy Hryniewiecki, one of the authors of the famous Spodek building in Poland, and painter Bronisław Linke, who is known for his painting Autobus.
But the surprise of the festival was what happened to work by local artist Edgar Tedresaar. For the festival, Tedresaar painted portraits of Lennar Meri, the former Estonian president, and Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the current president, onto bridge pillars. In a week’s time though, the head of the current president was provocatively switched for the head of Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia. And like this wasn’t enough after a week of decent media coverage, the face was repainted again with the addition of a Guy Fawkes mask. At that point, the party was cut short by the city authorities who just erased the whole thing. You don’t typically see this sort of dialogue with official festival murals. It’s more characteristic of the illegal street art movement.
The work under the bridge was just small enough (about 5 meters tall) for a couple of people on a ladder to make some changes to it in the dead of night. For more sizable works, however, renting a lift to make noticeable changes would be absurd so the only dialogue we see on the walls are tags near the bottom half as high as the hand can reach, as has happened to lots of festival works everywhere. This brings us back to a situation similar to the case of Tallinn vs. Tartu, where the additions that can be made the fastest prevail; this isn’t an environment open to creativity and interaction.
Mutually supportive relationships between illegal street art and legal festivals are the Promised Land, but reaching a proper balance can be really tricky. When holding a festival in a city with virtually no active local street art, it’s simply not possible for a festival to to support a non-existent movement (and extremely difficult to create one), and the only way to contribute to the cityscape is to import artists for a week or two. On the other hand, when a festival is towering over a city’s active street art movement, there’s a danger of over-organizing and losing the spontaneity of street art as artists transition to painting legal murals once a year instead of doing improvised illegal work year round. In an ideal set up, once balance is in place, large murals and other festival events can help the general public appreciate street art and the self-sacrificing local artists who paint their walls at night. This kind of supportive community creates fertile ground for new artists and artworks without the need for specific planning. The very best thing about street art is the spontaneous critically-minded involvement of local artists, and that can’t be organized, only fertilized.