Finding examples of street art in Stockholm is like searching for berries in the forests that surround the city: once you know where to look, they're everywhere. But street art is controversial and the debate between artists and authorities is ongoing.
If you know where to look, chances are you will see street art just about everywhere in Stockholm. Photo: Nicholas Claude
It’s a cloudy afternoon with the promise of rain in the air. A group of 30 people gather at Medborgarplatsen, a square in downtown Stockholm, for a street art walk organized by the Stockholm City Museum. Our guide is Tobias Barenthin Lindblad, an editor who has worked on several books on Scandinavian street art.
Since he began the guided walks, Barenthin Lindblad has shown approximately 200 people — a cross-section of the population, young and old, male and female, student and professional — some of the secrets of street art in the city. His first piece of advice to the group is for us to keep our eyes open, because new works are popping up all the time.
Is it a bird?
Our first stop is opposite the entrance to a garage and petrol station that looks as though it could double as an air-raid shelter. Barenthin Lindblad points up past the concrete façade to a birdhouse that nestles on a rock face. This particular birdhouse is small, wooden and painted in the traditional Swedish “Falu red,” a color that typifies the Swedish countryside. It’s our first proper sighting.
A guided tour of street art in Stockholm. Photo: Nicholas Claude
Barenthin Lindblad believes that street art is an important part of a city’s culture. “The Stockholm City Museum started the tours in order to show people living here what’s going on in their own city. It’s out there and is part of, I think, being a modern big city. It’s also about expression and communication. Today people are looking for ways to be seen and heard against the constant bombardment of adverts that follow us everywhere we go.”
We have already been pointed toward the odd sticker on the back of a street sign, a piece of broken tile under a large billboard, and the painted stencil of an old lady behind a bus stop. Knitted tubes are also appearing on lamp posts and traffic poles around the city. The more you look, the more you see.
“It’s proper damage”
Yet attitudes toward street art differ and, in fact, any form of it is illegal. A “zero tolerance” rule has been introduced in Stockholm which means that all street art (in this case mainly defined as graffiti) should be removed from any public space within 24 hours. Local citizens are being encouraged to report any new graffiti to a telephone hotline.
Opinions differ widely when it comes to deciding what art is. Photo: Nicholas Claude
This Stockholm campaign is driven by local conservative politician Mikael Söderlund. In a recent interview with community newspaper Södermalmsnytt, he was quoted as saying: “I don’t understand what’s meant by street art. If people don’t have permission, then it’s proper damage. To me it equals smashing up another person’s car.” It’s estimated that cleaning activities in Stockholm may cost as much as SEK 200 million a year.
Famous street artists
Because street art in Stockholm tends not to last too long, it’s in the dark caverns of the city, under bridges and underground stations, that walls become the artists’ galleries. Some, such as Hop Louie, known for his overtly political stencils, Klister Peter and Akay have built up reputations and followings. In a weird irony, the internet has become the medium for street art and many street artists have their own sites. Hop Louie recently broke into the mainstream with an exhibition.
Street art comes in many different shapes. Next time you visit Stockholm, keep your eyes open. Photos: Nicholas Claude
Communications consultant Benke Carlsson recently published a book entitled “Street Art Stockholm”. He became interested as an observer rather than a participant, and sees his book more as a view from the outside. “Many people’s first reaction to street art is that it’s vandalism, but I feel that we need to have something more than advertisements decorating our streets,” he says. “Street culture is a means of expression and doesn’t necessarily have to be pretty. It’s about who has the right to public space.”
Who owns public space?
The debate in Stockholm has only just begun. Is street art vandalism? Is graffiti a form of street art? What are the boundaries between freedom of speech and criminal damage? Are advertisements good and street art bad? Or is it the other way around? A campaign to remove street art probably won’t make it disappear. Like those berries in the forest, it will still be found in the secret spots of the concrete jungle.
At the end of the day the struggle between street artists and the authorities is about “ownership” of the public space and who is allowed to decorate the public space. Carlsson compares street art with punk. ”It’s a DIY (do it yourself) culture where people are creating their own channels outside the mainstream, with its own messages and its own way of doing things. This is something cool and exciting.”
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Nicholas Claude is a freelance write who studied painting at high school. He has never attempted, through a combination of fear and lack of skill, to take his art to the street.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
© Photo 1 - 5: Nicholas Claude
- www.stadsmuseum.stockholm.se – Stockholm City Museum
- www.gatukonst.se - Gatukonst (only in Swedish)
- www.atlasmuren.se - Atlas Muren (only in Swedish) [no longer active]
- www.dokument.org - Dokument Förlag
- www.stencil.se – Stencil (only in Swedish) [no longer active]
- holk.fonky.org – Funky Holks (only in Swedish) [no longer active]
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