Officially illegal yet flourishing under a unique tacit agreement with city authorities, street art in Tartu is becoming an integral part of the city's identity, similarly to Bristol, Berlin and Amsterdam. Tartu's street art has risen from the underground to museum archives, and will even be celebrated as part of the official Tartu 2024 European Capital of Culture program.
Walking through the streets and alleys of the city of Tartu and looking at the street art and graffiti, one may see the connection with current affairs in different countries worldwide through artistic responses.
The slogan "Free Iran" along with the stenciled portrait of Iranian woman Mahsa Amini on various walls and power boxes stands for support of the Iranian women's movement for freedom against the fascist government of Iran. A stenciled portrait of Vladimir Putin, Russian president and leader of the war against Ukraine, with the words "We're not crazy, we're serious" below illustrates the reaction to the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Tartu's street artists with their anonymous and pseudo-identities not only express their thoughts and feelings on contemporary issues; their works are also a spectacular reflection of the city's history, pop-punk, hip-hop borrowings and local heroes from various periods, with diverse colors and characters. They are distributed in such a way on the walls, power boxes and even downspouts on the street that there is hardly a chance of them escaping the gaze of passersby. It isn't everywhere in the city, but in some neighborhoods it is super concentrated.
One may wonder if street art is legal in Tartu, or perhaps think of the song "Tonight, the streets are ours / and these lights in our hearts, they tell no lies" from the 2010 documentary "Exit Through the Gift Shop," directed by the famous, mysterious street artist Banksy.
From counterculture to Capital of Culture
British street artist Banksy's secretive style of concealing his personal identity, his stenciling wall art technique and the activist tone in his message had a huge influence in Tartu in the mid-2000s. In particular, his publication "Wall and Piece" (2005), a collection of photographs of his stenciled street art, showed a way to counter mainstream art practices that goes beyond conventional museum walls.
In an interview in 2021, Tartu-based street artist Edward von Lõngus, known as the "Estonian Banksy," says that this book inspired him a lot at the beginning of his journey.
"Without Banksy," he acknowledged, "I probably wouldn't be playing this game."
Over time, however, an underground counterculture has emerged as the city's identity. Some art critics and travel bloggers have called Tartu the "capital of culture" since 2014 already. Now this city, together with Southern Estonia, has been crowned European Capital of Culture 2024.
Two more cities — Bad Ischl in Austria and Bodo in Norway — will also be celebrated that same year. This means that in 2024, these three cities will be the center of all of Europe, and will showcase the richness and diversity of art and culture, history, values and sense of belonging that Europeans share through year-long programs.
Tartu 2024 has already included many programs under its "Tartu with Earth," "Tartu with Humanity" and "Tartu with Europe" segments. Under these segments, street has been included as Stencibility Goes Europe, and already had an exhibition in Berlin last year.
So how can it be that Tartu's street art from the underground, the counterculture, became part of this mainstream event? A curious mind may wonder — what impact will this celebration have on street art and artists?
Tacit legality unique in region
Tartu's street art is a catch-all term for a variety of themes, commentaries, spraying techniques and, above all, the question of legality and illegality, which makes it unique not only in Estonia, but also among other Baltic cities and even cities in neighboring Finland.
Since painting on urban walls is legally classified as a crime, graffiti and street artists must therefore paint walls guerrilla-style, in the dark of the night, to avoid the police. This reality is the same in Tallinn and other European cities, but in Tartu, it is quite different.
That's how Tallinn-based graffiti artist PINTSEL feels: "I always enjoy working in Tartu, as I go around with spray cans and in my painting outfit in daytime and feel like street art is legal there."
The main reason for this in-between status of street art in Tartu, which is neither mainstream nor counterculture, is the Stencibility street art festival. It was launched in 2010, three years after Upfest — the biggest urban painting festival in Europe — was held in Banksy's hometown of Bristol.
Stencibility has made city authorities and residents aware that they don't have to worry about the issue of the legality and illegality of painting in public spaces. Instead, it encourages artistic free spirit to color the city's blank spaces and create a sense of belonging with local motifs and global notions.
A joint article by curator Marika Agu and Stencibility festival director Sirla on vandalog.com explains how Tartu city authorities have become tolerant regarding unlawful street art activities.
According to the authors, in 2013, there was an incident between Tartu City Council and street art activists in "Freedom Gallery," the autonomous open-air street art gallery below Freedom Bridge, near the Old Town. Tartu city officials wanted to polish one side of the wall by erasing some works, and at one point the city's mayor had to intervene and stop the removal of artwork.
After this incident, the city government stopped interfering in street artists' activities and, more importantly, became one of the promoters of officially illegal street art.
The most significant impact of such a 180-degree turn by Tartu City Council was evident the following year, in 2014, when it awarded one of Edward von Lõngus' street art pieces, "Cannabeard and the Witch-Hunter," which depicts a character from a popular children's book and a police figure as a witch-hunter, satirizing Estonia's state cannabis policy. This is probably the best example of how street art in Tartu blurs the fine line between counterculture and mainstream.
Street art from all over the world
Kuldar Leis, CEO of Tartu 2024, which is organizing the entire event celebrating the European Capital of Culture 2024, believes that this is one of the factors contributing to the uniqueness of street art in Tartu.
"The unwritten agreement with city officials that allows artists to use our city as a canvas is crucial for the city's street art scene," Leis said. "At the same time, the Stencibility festival, which brings street artists from all over the world to Tartu each year, helps make Tartu's urban space more unique and creative."
Street artists such as Kashink from France, MTO from Berlin, Jesse Pasanen from Finland, Thobek, Rudens and Kiwi from Latvia and Isak One from Chile have left their mark on Tartu's urban space over the past decade and a half, creating intentional connection to the local scene. Tallinn-based artists have diversified the art scene in Tartu as well. At the same time, Tartu-based artists such as MinaJaLydia, Edward von Lõngus, Von Bomb, Kairo and Stina Leek have become known beyond Estonia's borders.
The trend of collaboration and cooperation between Tartu, Tallinn and international artists is vividly apparent under Freedom Bridge, spanning the Emajõgi River near Tartu's Old Town, and at the intersections of Kastani and Võru and Võru and Õnne in Karlova. These streets feature a series of stenciled portraits like surrealist photographs, with framed and unframed designs, like an open-air gallery.
The wall displays pioneer Estonian graffiti artist Bach Babach's stenciled portrait of pop singer Heli Lääts from last century. Sharing the same wall are Tallinn-based street art group Multistab's mural "Academic," and, next to that, French artist Kashink's signature character — a fat, four-eyed face — in a piece titled "Smoked Fish Love."
At the intersection of Võru and Õnne, on the pale yellow wall of an auto repair garage, are three works by three Latvian street artists — Thobek, Rudens and Kiwi.
From childhood comics to literature giants
Internalization is another theme present in the art. Tartu-based street artist Hapnik's work on Tolstoy tänav, in which Indian political leader of decolonization Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a.k.a. Mahatma Gandhi, and famous Russian writer Leo Tolstoy stand side by side, recalls the influence of Tolstoy's principle of nonviolence on Gandhi's political philosophy, expressed in their correspondence in the early years of the previous century.
Tartu street artists predominantly choose characters from nature, mythology, historical figures, childhood comics, pop art and old movie characters, or sometimes just silly, meaninglessly meaningful characters. This creates a localness to Tartu, where local history and postmodern art are conjured up.
Edward von Lõngus' stenciled works of Anton Hansen Tammsaare and Lydia Koidula — perhaps the heroes of Estonian national literature and poetry — make any onlooker understand why this city was designated a City of Literature by UNESCO.
Generally, pseudonyms or tags often give no indication of gender, but Tartu's street art scene isn't an all-male club; women also literally leave their mark on public spaces. Works by MinaJaLydia on Kompanii tänav, Kairo on Kloostri tänav, Maari Soekov on Kalevi tänav, Maria Leonidov on Kastani tänav and Sirla and Krõõt in the gallery below Freedom Bridge are impossible for passersby to miss.
With a lot of woods, wooden houses and the classicist architecture of the University of Tartu and its Old Town, these works sometimes come into view like a hidden surprise. Most are very small in size, and some are really big, such as a house-sized mural. The colors are profound and bright, and differ in summer and winter.
Right now, in wintertime, the walls of colors look frosted bright. For example, the yellow color on the face of a character on the wall — it feels like the brightness is one stop down. But if someone sees the wall art from one street to another, it looks like blooming flowers in a city snowscape.
'Unexpected things can happen. Or not — until you show up'
Tartu-based street artist Kairo, who describes herself as a naive artist, expressed her sense of belonging to the city thus: "There is a mixture of old and new, enough hidden corners and little pieces of wilderness where unexpected things can happen. Or not — until you show up. This city isn't oversaturated; there is room here for you to grow and become part of Tartu's history, be it as a hero or a villain. And even if the scene isn't big, you can meet another artist just around the corner who's in the process of figuring out which category they'll end up in."
In the early days of street art in Tartu, stencils were the predominant technique. Later, various artists and artist groups gradually joined in, applying freehand spray paintings and doodle paintings. Today, all spray painting techniques are practiced in Tartu, and the city's walls display this kind of variety and vanity as well.
Strict attitudes have dissolved, and there is conducive collaboration with institutions. Tartu Art Museum, which represents the mainstream of art practice, now archives street art, and the auctioning of street artists' works has become the norm.
Famous for the large "Ülemiste Girl" mural in Tallinn, Tartu-based street artist Von Bomb noted this change.
"I think street art is still considered 'hip' and 'trendy,' but in my opinion, in many cases, it has lost some of its edge by now," Von Bomb said. "There are exceptions, of course, and there are opportunities to use street art in many different ways. You can be a mainstream commercial artist by day and an urban guerrilla art warrior at night if you want. As far as I know, ten years ago you could not make a decent living with street art in Estonia; that has changed in the meantime. you can actually make a living from street art now if you are really interested in it."
These additions, the change of institutional perspective, the enthusiasm of local residents — caring, sharing and participation — and the collaboration of international artists with local ones have broadened the horizon of Tartu's local art and culture. Street art in Tartu is becoming an integral part of the city's identity, similarly to Bristol, Berlin and Amsterdam.
Since the program's inception in 1986, more than 60 cities in Europe have already been named European Capital of Culture, increasing the city's visibility and profile on an international level. Tartu will join this list in 2024, presenting numerous festivals and art projects, including literature, music, dance and documentary film festivals, light festivals, performing arts and surreal art projects. Street art will also be celebrated as part of the "Stencibility Goes Europe" program.
"The project is making a significant contribution to increasing the profile of street art in Tartu locally and internationally," Kuldar Leis explained regarding the impact of the project. "It has given many Estonian artists the opportunity to present their work in Europe and to learn from other European artists visiting Tartu and Southern Estonia. The Tartu 2024 European Capital of Culture program will strengthen this even more."
Editor: Aili Vahtla