Christine Langinauer & Sini Mononen
Street art has been pouring out on the streets of Finland during the last couple of years. But for it to gain the status as an art form has been a long and rocky road. Migrating from New York, street art harbored in Finland during the 1980s. It came together with another urban culture trait: hip-hop culture – the beats, the spray, and the streets. However, the streets in Finland were a whole lot different than the ones in New York; in Finland, underground culture evolving around graffiti was just beginning to emerge. Our first hip-hop and graffiti artists come from the same generation as our current cultural minister Paavo Arhinmäki, who has been one of the biggest spokesmen for street art.
Street art and graffiti is by no means a new phenomenon. It has been a way of communicating already as far back as in ancient Roman times. Then it was a respected way of writing (even if the language was often quite hilarious and had a sexual undertone), which sometimes included pictures, and it was a practice that had spread throughout the society. Later on, as well as today, it became a practice mostly associated with underground movements, youngsters and even criminal acts. When it once was a natural part of the city landscape it has now become something of an outcast and an unwanted parasite. But slowly it seems that the tables have turned for street art yet again.
Street art in Finland faced a difficult turn in 1998, when the city of Helsinki started its ’Stop töhryille’ (Stop to Scribble) campaign. The campaign followed its American origin. During the ten-year-campaign Helsinki spent hundreds of thousands of euros to prevent the invasion of graffiti writing, stickers and posters. The pamphlet Stop töhryille published in 2011 gives an outright and good account on the campaigns proceeding and impact.
The situation is quite different today. The Stop töhryille project came to its end five years ago. Nowadays street art gets more and more positive media coverage and is noted alongside an expanding range of headlines perhaps not associated with street art before. It is no longer a marginal issue, when even ordinary people start racing their voices in favor of street art. One recent good example is the summer Olympics in London this past summer. London, and in particular, east London, by many considered the Mecca of street art, faced a massive clean up just in time for the Olympics. Even if authorities denied that these two things would have been connected it was a question very much debated in media.
In Helsinki it seems that street art is having almost a second coming. Legal graffiti walls, guerrilla knitting happenings, workshops, even a gallery specialized on street art have started to change both the face of Helsinki and the attitudes of its inhabitants. This year Helsinki celebrates being the World Design Capital of 2012. The festivities around WDC has also put street art in its many forms to center stage. Though the WDC year itself does not include great deal of street art in its official program, the year has opened new opportunities for different forms of urban art, as urban culture is discussed in many forums during the WDC year.
As the discussion in media and elsewhere has gotten more intensified we felt the need to dig deeper. A desire to explore street art in its wide-ranging diversity was one of the reasons we wanted to make this issue. Another was to introduce it to a larger audience and help bridging the gap between traditional art and street art. Born in the eighties, we grew up with graffiti. Even if our role was as only passive onlookers admiring the pieces on the walls, it still seemed like a natural part of the city landscape. The changes street art has faced during the past 30 years is fascinating, today the art has erupted from the underground to mainstream, from gutter to gallery. To explore this journey was an exciting yet impossible task to cover in one issue.
It is impossible to address all the aspects of street art in just one issue, instead we have aimed for a variety of perspectives that we hope serve as interesting openings to and fragments of a larger whole. For our Street Art -number we have invited nine writers who all have a different connection to and view on street art to contribute with articles on the area that they can claim some sort of expertise on.
Ljiljana Radosevic is working with her PhD on street art in Europe. During her studies she has explored many of Europe’s city galleries; the streets of Barcelona, Tallinn, Helsinki, Paris and many other cities are familiar to her. Ljiljana is addressing in her article the issue of how to grasp the huge field of street art with multiple forms and turns of history, terminology and form.
In “Yarn matters” curator Helena Björk takes a look at the more recent developments in the evolution of street art. More and more active citizens of all ages can express their views and reclaim their streets through the different forms of street art. Her article also addresses the issue of gender; writing graffiti has been an activity dominated by boys and men, but the coming of other street art forms, such as guerrilla knitting, has brought many women to get involved. It has also contributed to tear down the classical distinction between feminine and masculine activities when men take to knitting while street art as an art form helps women to expand their self-image and offer an alternative picture of women in the public sphere.
Jenna Jauhiainen gives us a quick look on her five pennies for the street art in Helsinki. Her article pays also attention to the Stop töhryille project, what it meant for young graffiti artists and their future. Jauhiainen’s article is followed by Tuomas Jääskeläinen’s photojournalism on the streets of Helsinki in the period 1984–1988. His photos are a documentation of the artists and styles in the early and creative years of Finnish graffiti before Stop töhryille project.
A very important aspect of raising the status for street art is to educate ordinary citizens to the ideology and spirit behind it. Awareness is key, and the notion that there is a difference between good street art and just badly made tags. This is one of the goals that art educator and artist Veera Jalava’s project among the elderly is set up for. In her article “Senior graffiti” she describes how the graffiti workshops for senior citizens got started and how the activity has grown during the past three years. Even if the senior workshops can be considered a great success Jalava is keen on questioning the widespread use of graffiti as a method for education. If we really want to develop street art as a form of art we should not use the method light-heartedly.
Using urban space as its canvas and gallery street art deals by its essence the question of public space: Whose space are we in? Who is entitled to use space, alter it, and give it different meanings? The Länsiväylä collective has made performances in Helsinki, raising the question of city crowded with cars. Länsiväylä collective realized in 2007 two projects in Länsiväylä highway. Kalle Turakka Purhonen introduces Länsiväylä performances with his photos and introduction.
Jääskeläinen presented his photos in a graffiti seminar arranged in Kiasma during the summer 2012. One of the organizers of the seminar Mika Helin, opens a debate on the legal graffiti walls in this Mustekala issue. His work is based on a sociological study on users and use of the graffiti walls.
Adjunct professor of aesthetics from the Helsinki University, Irmeli Hautamäki, ponders the question of anonymity of street art in her article “Urban Problem: How to evaluate Anonymous Street Art as Art?”. She approaches the question through Walter Benjamin’s thoughts, giving us an important theoretical framework of European philosophy and art criticism.
Finally, Jarkko Vikberg presents a workshop on kinetic graffiti, a project that was realized in Helsinki in the summer of 2012.
We, the editors of this issue, cannot claim to be experts on street art, but then again who can? Today this phenomenon has spread across countries and cultures stirring up controversies while providing an effective tool for activists, artists and just regular citizens. As its stage is the public sphere and space it affects not only the people in the near neighborhood but a lot of actors in society all the way up to top politics. Many sides of this vast phenomenon are left out from this Mustekala issue: What is the role of gender in crew based boy’s culture that especially graffiti is? What is the relationship between space and street art? Who is allowed to use common space? How could street art work for the common good? Let the debate on the street art continue.