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Proverb Research Gives Birth to Graffiti Database

A study of proverbs led to the creation of a database of Estonian graffiti with more than 600 entries of various messages, puns and jabs at politicians in public space, with the majority coming from the unofficial Estonian graffiti capital - Tartu.

Kristjan Bachmann, one of the oldest working graffiti artists in Estonia, going under the name Bach Babach told Eesti Päevaleht, the history of Estonian graffiti can roughly be divided into three stages: 1) the novelty phase in the early 1990s; 2) overabundance resulting in a negative reputation; 3) the current phase with its btter coordinated and has a positive image.

The most recent works tend to be biting, but more tongue-in-cheek and the influences of Banksy is recognizable. While their effects on foreigners are somewhat delayed due to the need to explain the local cultural context, these visual puns have nevertheless become ubiquitous, drawing chuckles from those in the know.

Once done under the cover of darkness, graffiti is increasingly moving to exhibition venues and festivals, and Tartu has hosted the annual street art festival Stencibility since 2010.

According to the founder of the database, folklorist Piret Voolaid, graffiti is no longer linked to the specific site and can be accessed across the world thanks to the Internet (sites like Street Art Utopia spring to mind). The project began from a joint project with Polish researchers, who were looking at proverbs in street art and it prompted Voolaid, a researcher at the Estonian Literary Museum, to notice the messages around her.

The database of images focuses on graffiti that uses proverbs, phrases or has a specific message. Images come mostly from Tartu and Tallinn, but also smaller towns like Kärdla and Jõhvi. The database records something that is in constant change - messages are updated, corrected, rewritten or simply painted over, Voolaid told the daily.

Marika Agu, the curator of modern art at the Tartu Art Museum thinks the major difference between Tallinn and Tartu is the fact that the latter is not painted over as often - that means the artists are operating in a much freer environment. However, she thinks that graffiti is becoming accepted by the establishment, with several murals being commissioned by the city, and it is in a way threatening its viability.

Last year, Edward von Lõngus, who is known for punchy images of Estonian cultural figures begging on the street or transported to iconic stills from Hollywood films, was even awarded the cultural prize of Tartu and his works have sold for more than a thousand euros at the Tartu art auction.

One of the most notable groups working in and around Tallinn is Multistab, who also has a range clothing range.

According to Estonian law, if a graffiti is made without the permission of the owner of the building, the local government can fine the artist with up to 400 euros or the police can start a criminal proceeding if the damages exceed 3500 euros. Most recent cases of the police have involved graffiti on new Elron trains. 

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