Things on the streets of Helsinki have changed in the last few years. In 2008, the Stop töhryille! -project of the city of Helsinki ended, after ten years of a zero tolerance policy towards all forms of street art. I wrote about the matter here, in Finnish, in the spring of 2008, six months before the project ended. Around the time I had traveled quite a bit in central Europe and in ex-Soviet countries, and the quality of art in the public sphere in numerous cities down there was remarkable, especially because it was apparent that most of the works were non-commissioned, i.e. no-one had paid for them. For me it signified an expansion of art into the everyday life of city-dwellers, and I could but wonder why we up here were so dispassionate about our public places.
The countries I saw seemed very comfortable in the 21st century, the ’00 decade defined by the rise of the internet and rapidly unraveling new social movements. Reflection reveals that the state of street art in Helsinki at that time was oddly despotic. Without being fully aware of the extent of it at the time, as teenage punks we began to speak about the Revolution of Markkus in the early 2000s. Markku is the most common given name in Finland. For us, the name extended to refer to the growing majority who were progressive in their approach to life, so progressive that it was easy to see the road they were walking on leading to technocracy. But wait – what does all this have to do with street art?
Some say Helsinki was one of the most interesting cities in Europe in relation to graffiti in the eighties and nineties. After the recession of the early nineties, the economic structure behind the urban machinery of Helsinki turned from industrial production to IT and service industries, which, in the eyes of the bureaucrats, necessitated a clean and safe cityscape partly in order to attract foreign investors and tourists. The policymakers of Helsinki are documented to have been influenced in their premises by the Giuliani administration in New York. One of the main ideas behind it was that graffiti was a gateway to more serious forms of criminal activity, and the way to fight it was zero tolerance and the immediate cleanup of the works. There was also a belief that property values were lowered by graffiti, because it was associated with a “lower class” presence in the area. The wider implication of this has to do with space itself. The city and its walls were reserved only for activities related to the markets: if you were on your way to or from work, your presence in the public domain was accepted. If you paid to have your message on a billboard, your message was accepted.
Activities that sought no profit were seen as suspicious. Muutaman töhryn tähden, a pamphlet published about the Stop töhryille! project in 2011, opens up an interesting view into the minds of the bureaucrats of the city of Helsinki. It sounds insane, but there truly was a belief about street art leading to the criminalization of the youth. This lead to the senseless zero tolerance policy, which banned all forms of private messages and creative expressions from the public sphere, including posters for events and such.
Whenever bureaucratic insanity is at hand, one is destined to see the premises held manifest themselves. The way street art began to drive young people into social exclusion was through the violence and fines laid on them by the project and its minions. FPS Security (1), the company from which the city of Helsinki bought the surveillance services necessary for the project, was accused throughout the project of misconduct – use of unnecessary violence, holding an illegal registry of the artists that included photographs, social security numbers and addresses, searching and holding in captivity mostly young men that just seemed to fit the ‘profile’… All this policing that bordered the law was elemental in eliciting retaliation and rebellion.
Just to give the reader an idea about the sums that were laid on the culprits, here is a quote from Trama, a young man who holds probably the largest debt in Finland for his more or less artistic activities; in 2013, due to the interest involved, the sum rises to 960 000 euros.
“In 1992 the fine for painting on a train was 700 marks [about 117 euros]. Ten years later for a similar piece one got a 20 000€ fine. While in court, we found out that the plastic gloves used in the cleaning by VR [the State Railway Company of Finland] cost 160 euros a piece. So we asked them, where did you order those? From NASA?!” (2)
The project was essential in pumping life into a new industry in Helsinki and other cities in Finland. The private companies specializing in surveillance were growing like mushrooms during rain. Also, the amount of surveillance cameras around Helsinki grew to be second only to London, and probably still are. There were quite a few rumors circling around the streets about FPS and its field manager, Petri Lokka (3), back then. I still remember rancorous stickers with Lokka’s face on them from the early 2000s.
But, today, all that is ancient history. Everyone except the ones indebted because of the project seem to have forgotten it ever took place. Street art is beginning to blossom in Helsinki – companies, municipalities and private entities are paying to have their walls turned into art. (4)
The only thing I miss from the early 2000s in Helsinki are the stickers. Back then the quality and the variety of them was breathtaking – unlike anywhere else I had been. They were perhaps made in the privacy of the homes of those who had the desire to define space in their own non-commercial terms, suffering from the attitude of the city and the threat of being indebted for the rest of their days. Today, it is nearly four years since the end of the zero tolerance. Legal walls are in place and we have a few new landmarks, but still I feel we are lagging behind for some reason.
For the past couple of summers, the fences surrounding the construction pit of Sompasaari have served as legal walls for those interested in seeing their visions in the light of day. I have spent quite some time in Tervasaari, gazing over a strip of sea to the southern part of the wall in question. The wall keeps on changing its colors in a rapid pace as new painters come and go. It is a step in the right direction, but still in its essence it bears a bit of a despotic tone to it; in future years, the whole area of Sompasaari will be transformed to match the visions of architects and urban planners anyway. The city of Helsinki is still in charge, no questions asked.
There seems to be a desire to have street art ‘happen’ in a manner that derives its logic from the markets. Companies are using visual language adopted from street art in their advertising campaigns. Happenings feature graffiti as a point of awe and recreation. It is a step in the right direction, I think and nod my head in the rhythm of social democracy.
The core of good street art lays in its ability to comment on and change individual’s perceptions of spaces, shared places. Across the water to the west from Sompasaari, surrounding a huge pile of coal, a grey concrete wall has a few pieces on it. In their relative permanence they comment on the artificiality of the legal walls, in my mind at least.
And so I find myself romanticizing over the matter. I know there still exists a lot of people skilled in transferring their thoughts in a visual language and adapting that language to define and comment on public spaces. I know that as we speak they are plotting in the privacy of their dwellings on how to aestheticize our shared surroundings outside of the confines of legal walls and ‘commissions.’
By aestheticizing I do not mean simple beautification. In my mind the concept expands to more than that. Aestheticizing space has the potential to turn that place into social commentary, political statement or a good joke. I regret not having taken a photograph of a perfect Burger King logo painted on a garage door across the street from a McDonald’s in Amsterdam. I remember standing in between the two and realizing the difference in scale between the number one provider of nutrition-free food on earth and its competitor. It was a message on the streets quite different from those paid to be produced by professional advertisers.
Like in all forms of art, the experience of and the reaction to a work of art on the street is ultimately in the mind of the perceiver. For that reason I do understand the opinions of those who consider this “anarchist” process of painting on others’ walls as annoying, worrisome or punishable. We have lived for such a long time in an environment where the respect for common property translates into keeping it as neat as possible. Nothing wrong with that as such, just as there is nothing wrong with the attitude of people in the ex-Soviet countries who seem to think the walls of the fallen empire deserve a little color.
My five pennies for the future of street art in Helsinki? We will see more and more well organized and rather formal projects, both purely artistic and commercial. Hopefully, we will also see the evolution of ‘organic’ movements using visual methods to guide the perception of the dwellers of Helsinki in their own terms. For me, street art is at its best a playful reminder of the varying senses of humor and political affinities of my beloved anonymous neighbors.
(1) FPS Security
(2) From page 101 of Muutaman töhryn tähden by Mikael Brunila, Kukka Ranta and Eetu Viren.
(3) An article reflecting the past state of street art in Helsinki in relation to FPS and Petri Lokka: Keisarin uudet vartijat
(4) From the blog of a Finnish street art collective, a post with photographs of both Helsinki and Lappeenranta: Nimi Kollektive