It’s Wednesday and slightly after midnight – it’s pitch black outside and there isn’t a soul on the streets. But this is the most convenient hour. So we gather all the necessary things (masks, gloves, a ladder and torches as well as paint, brushes, trays and rollers) and set out for the pre-chosen location. This time we’re working on the side of railway tracks where the landscape is blemished by a strip of concrete with plaster coming off. I’m saying “we” because a friend of mine agreed to take me with him to do his new street art project.
Although some criticize and reject the benefits of street art, I think that it’s an inseparable part of urban culture because, among others, it adds colour to our grey concrete jungles. Several years ago this peculiar kind of art gained more interest due to the emergence of Banksy – the Bristol-based street artist who is famous around the world for his thought-provoking works. Just a few days ago a new article about him was published, reporting on Banksy’s three works in the Gaza Strip that triggered off a local affair. A local artist recognized the authorship of one of the murals on iron doors and decided to protect it. He managed to buy the doors from their owner, paying a rip-off price, however, once it became known who spray-painted the doors the Hamas authorities got involved.
So when did the whole craze for graffiti begin? The contemporary culture of street art has its roots in the trend of writing your name on random walls around the city. Tags are mostly daubed in a continuous line with a marker or spray. The deed has to be precise and quick. It first developed in Philly (Philadelphia) in the late 1960s. The rumour has it that the first graffiti artists who put their signatures (tags) on walls were Cornbread and Cool Earl.
From Philly, the fashion of tagging spread to New York. In the early 1970s, young people became obsessed with daubing their names and the number of their streets all over the city, for example TAKI 183. After some time, the tags started to evolve as their authors added new innovations, such as colour and different fonts. The trend remained exclusive to the East Coast of the USA for about a decade, but in the 1980s it reached the West Coast and Canada. By the late 1980s, the tagging had come to be recognized as a new genre of art. Filmmakers started to produce quasi-documents about the style and, consequently, it was popularized, first, in Europe and then all over the world.
Reading the piece of news about Banksy in Gaza, I started to wonder what the situation of street art is like in Poland. Do Poles see it as art or a mere act of vandalism? Is street art present in the Polish urban sphere? Do we have good street artists or are they just vandals smearing on the walls?
Vandalism vs. street art
I have a feeling that it’s no secret that there are at least two sorts of graffiti, one being mere tags and the other being complex graphics reflecting artists’ creativity. Usually, both kinds are viewed by society as illegal, but there is a huge difference between the two. The former is defacing walls and buildings with illegible and purposeless signs, while the other is the result of a well-thought-out design, where every line and dot has a purpose and completes the whole design.
But the nagging question seems to be why street art is an ephemeral kind of art? The nature of street art appears to be connected to law. Graffiti is recognised as a piece of work under copyright law, regardless of its material or artistic value. Graffiti is recognised as work when it fulfils two conditions, that is originality and individuality. The Article 1 Section 1 of the Act of 4 February 1994 on Copyright and Related Rights (hereinafter called the Act) says that “the subject matter of copyright shall be any manifestation of the creative activity of individual nature, established in any form, irrespective of its value, designation or manner of expression”. The Act is also recognised by the Supreme Administrative court of Poland. Yet, street artists often rock their own boat when they choose to create new graffiti without having the permission of the property owner. As a result, street artists violate civil and criminal law (trespassing or property damage). Because of that the owner of the property has every right to remove the work and sue the author of the work. However much we tend to criticize those who leave their names on urban walls, we should keep in mind the two kinds of graffiti are closely connected.
Nowadays the global situation of street art seems to be dramatically different from the one in the 1970s or even 1990s. Street artists are no longer composing two parallel worlds – institutionalised art and street art meet together and the border between them is increasingly blurred. Galleries become filled with street art, while urban space is being filled with work done by artistic institutions. One might say that street art is being institutionalized and commercialized.
In a nutshell, that’s the history and legal side of the street art. But how about Poland? How did it start here? Do we do anything to promote it? How about Polish street artists, are there any, or are they just vandals?
Street art in Poland
Street art came to Poland at the beginning of the 1990s and was strongly connected to hip-hop culture – the two started to develop here almost simultaneously. “In the 1990s, Warsaw was almost flooded with street artists from other European capital cities. Here, it was incomparably easier to spray-paint a train coach”, recalls Raspazjan, one of the Polish street artists. Then a typical member of hip-hop culture wore baggy jeans, recorded his own songs and made graffiti. Nevertheless, some might say that the first murals appeared in Poland, for instance, as early as during the Second World War. The most famous then was the anchor of Fighting Poland (Polska Walcząca). In a way, those anchors corresponded to what we today call tags as they were used, among other things, to mark territory.
The first acknowledged Polish street artist was Tomasz Sikorski, a graduate from the Academy of Fine Arts, who in 1985 came back from the USA, fascinated with this new genre in art. He was moved by torpor, martial law and the poor economic situation of Poland, and hence he started to express his feelings in the form of graffiti, or rather stencils, on the streets of Warsaw. Some of them can still be found in the gateways, especially in the Praga district, and include, for example, a mermaid throwing away her sword and shield.For the past few years, the interest in street art has grown significantly in Poland. Festivals are being organized in bigger cities, auctions are being held and probably there is no city or town where there wouldn’t be at least one mural. In addition, local authorities or cultural institutions are organizing debates, lectures and workshops concerning street art.
street art on stamps – growing appreciation?
In September 2014, Poczta Polska released a stamp featuring a mural, “A Girl with a watering can”, designed by Natalia Rak, an Academy of Fine Arts graduate. The mural was painted on an eighteen-meter high wall of a building in Białystok in 2013. This piece of art was a part of an event called “Folk on street”. The mural is rich in elements characteristic of folklore in the Podlasie region. It also became one of the most recognizable pieces of street art because of Rak’s original idea. The mural shows a girl standing on her toes and raising a watering can high in the air. She is trying to water a small bush, which in reality is a high tree growing next to the building.
Every now and then, usually on special occasions, Poczta Polska releases beautiful stamps for collectors. Those stamps are often well-received by international stamp collectors. This particular stamp was recognized as the most beautiful one among all of the stamps released around the world. Poczta Polska released 120 thousand stamps showing Rak’s art. This probably was the most original way to promote and to show appreciation for street art in Poland.
Street Art Festival
Katowice is one of a few towns in Poland that organizes a street art festival. The one in Silesia was organized this year for the 5th time, and took place on 15 – 24 May. The 2015 edition was participated in by eleven artists who came there from Europe, North America and even Australia. The works of the street artists covered walls and pavements of four housing estates: Szopienice, Załęże, Piotrowice and Os. Paderewskiego. This year, probably the biggest star was Axel Void (left), an American, and Ian “Kid Zoom” Strange (bottom), an Australian.
The organizers, on the official website of Katowice Street Art Festival, say that the main aim of the event is to reflect on the future of cities, urban spaces in general. “Towns are a lie. They aren’t needed any more – it’s not a hub of industrialisation any more, and since we’ve got the Internet, towns are no longer the place where language and culture are created”, says Krzysztof Nawratek, an architect. There is a belief that the relation between the town and its inhabitants is seriously damaged because the town has ceased to be a community of people and has become simply a place for consumption. The organizers believe that street art is a way to repair the town-inhabitants relation since this kind of art that is deeply rooted in and draws inspiration from the culture.
Usually, numerous workshops, exhibitions and concerts are held as parts of the festival. The festival also an occasion for a debate concerning street art, urban space and changes happening within urban space. One of the aims of this artistic event is to get to know Katowice better, to bring out forgotten urban stories and to explore the town‘s potential.
Lubelski Festiwal Graffiti a.k.a. Meeting of StylesLubelski Festiwal Graffiti is one of the biggest serial events of this kind in Poland. “For us graffiti and street art are essential socio-cultural phenomena for modern towns’ identity”, explains Cezary Hunkiewicz, European Foundation for Urban Culture. The festival creates a possibility to get to know the motivation of street artists and the true character of street art. The organizers do not want to focus only on the domestic artists, they attempt to unveil all shades of street art, from all over the world, even when it seems to be inconvenient. This year’s edition is going to take place on 1 -2 August.
“Meeting of Styles” originates in the German “Wall Street Meeting” the main aim of which is to promote creativity and street art, as the developing trend in Fine Arts. Originally, “Meeting of Styles” was an event that was held in Łódź in 2002, the following year it was moved to Bełchatów. It has been organized in its current form since 2011 in Lublin, where it was joined with Lubelski Festiwal Graffiti, an event that was first organized in 2008. In 2012, “Meeting of Styles” Lublin was participated in by artists such as: Cakes (Point), Kaos, Nug, Fits, Hell and Dekis. As part of the festival, workshops, screening of films and exhibitions are organized. In 2012, the exhibition was called “They Call Us Vandals” and it presented the Swedish graffiti scene. It was held in a newly open art gallery, Brain Damage Gallery. In the following year, the Town Hall of Lublin became the main organizer and the event changed its name to the International Festival of Mural (Graffiti) “Meeting of Styles”.
Below, there are three pictures from the previous editions of the festival.
Festiwal Outer Spaces
Poznań also used to have its own festival promoting street art. It was held in our town in 2011, 2012 and 2013. The first edition was held in five locations simultaneously. The locations were five pre-chosen walls in the city centre that marred the landscape of Poznań. The organizers planned not only to contribute to the promotion of street art but also to the revitalization of the town. The murals created in 2011 became landmarks in Poznań and even after four years, taking into consideration the ephemeral nature of street art, they are still part of the urban space.
The second edition of the festival focused on grey walls around the Wilda district. During that edition the aim was to use urban art to brighten-up the run-down tenement houses and make them more pleasant to the eye. Organizers engaged the local residents and especially children. Wilda brimmed with numerous colourful game boards and flower pots and the pavements were covered with children’s pictures. In the following year, the festival had a similar form and was organized in the Jeżyce district.
Since 2014 the festival has been cancelled due to a lack of sufficient financial resources. But the organizers haven’t given up and have changed the form of the event, organizing smaller events all year round.
Google Cultural Institute: Street Art Project
Google Cultural Institute joined in the promotion of art and the new initiative is called the Street Art Project. The new service enables art lovers to take part in street art festivals in Mexico, see pieces spray-painted in New York or in our own country.
Since this year the project has a new contributor from Poland. It’s Traffic Design, a non-government association working to enhance urban spaces. They have made available three exhibitions, and two of them include graffiti created in Gdańsk during art festivals in 2013 and 2014. The murals are works done by artists from various corners of the world, such as Poland (of course), Brasil, Austria or Argentina. The third exhibition concerns Radłowo SKM, a train platform, which was renovated during the 2014 edition. The works were carried on in cooperation with local artists. The platform received new sign boards (their style resembles the one which was popular in Poland in the 1980s) and an iconic black and white mural.
Traffic Design operates in the Tri-city area (Gdańsk, Gdynia and Sopot). They organize a street art festival, Traffic Design, which rapidly grew from a small and local event to an international festival holding a good reputation. The association has also established an alternative art centre, tuBAZA, where workshops, lectures and exhibitions are organized. The aim is not only to promote urban art but also educate people and develop culture.
Street artists in Poland
There are a great number of street artists in Poland and the more popular ones are: Someart, Nespoon, M-City, Aqualoopa, Ciah Ciah, Etam Cru, Lump, Natalia Rak, Otecki, Pener, Sepe/Chazme And Swanski. But it’s extremely difficult to find some information about them.
Swanski (a.k.a. the Polish Banksy), whose real name is Paweł Kozłowski, is a famous painter, graphic artist and illustrator. His style is difficult to pigeonhole as it’s a mixture of varieties encountered in almost every culture, from German to American to Japanese. In 2001, he established his own studio of art, design and illustration. He is also involved in the fashion industry and owns his own clothing and design company, Turbokolor. He currently lives in Warsaw.
Lump is our local artist who graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznań. Not only does he have a great technique but also his skills are something he can boast about. It is impressive how well he manages to transfer his ideas onto the rough surfaces of walls. He draws inspiration from comic books and science fiction.
Someart is another artist based in Poznań. He is a painter, drawer and photographer. He is most known for his project called Friendly Faces, a series of big stickers featuring heads with various characterizations.
Nespoon is the nickname of a female artist from Poland. She gained international recognition due to her usage of lace in her works. Most of her work consists of prints of traditional laces, made in clay or painted on the walls. She explains she works with lace:” Because in laces there is an aesthetic code, which is deeply embedded in every culture. In every lace we find symmetry, some kind of order and harmony, isn’t that what we all seek for instinctively?”