Since 2018, the Rural Urban Art (RUA) Festival has been bringing color and positivity to the grey walls and "never-changing cityscapes" of Estonia's small towns. But what do street artists from all over the world make of the kinds of out-of-the-way places that most Estonians have never even been to? Michael Cole headed to Viljandi County for this year's RUA festival to try and find out.
There's something going on in Kolga-Jaani. It's late on Friday evening and a fleet of cars arrives at the village's main bus shelter. The passengers are not from round here. They quickly disembark and surround their target, then move in to attack with an intent matched only by the army of bloodthirsty mosquitoes, which in turn surrounds them.
From behind the clouds of paint fumes, an impromptu urban art gallery starts to appear. A ghoulish-looking blue face takes shape here, a spiky yellow hedgehog there. Someone even adds a cartoon mosquito to the collage in homage to tonight's main adversaries. Kolga-Jaani bus station has been transformed.
It's the end of a busy week for this group of street artists and I'd arrived in Viljandi County just in time to witness this graffiti "jam session." They've spent the last five days decorating the walls of small towns with new murals and this was a chance to let off some steam and satisfy their compulsion for creativity.
"It was the first time when we were all like 'boom,' in the one place," Pidžin, one of the artists involved, told me the next day. "One was doing his graffiti style, another was putting down a character that they'd already made. I hadn't painted with the other people here until then, but, I've met a lot, who are, I would say, softly speaking, pretty good," he laughs.
"They are professionals, masters of the things they are doing." And so is Pidžin. He's from Lithuania, though most of the other members of tonight's collective had traveled from even further afield to take part. This place isn't usually the "center of the action," he points out.
And that's why we've all come here.
"Why should we do it somewhere where there's already a thriving street art scene?" says Salme Kulmar. She's one of the organizers of the Rural Urban Art (RUA) Festival – the reason why Pidžin and ten other street artists from around the world have descended on Kolga-Jaani and given the bus station a makeover.
Founded in 2018, RUA's mission is to bring color and positivity to the grey walls and never-changing cityscapes of Estonia's small towns. Since then, this "nomadic street art festival" has certainly made its mark, inviting artists from far and wide to create new murals in some of the country's most out-of-the-way locations.
When Salme and her "main partner in crime" Ita Puusepp first started out, the idea was "to go county to county," decorating different places each year. "In 2018, we sent out a bunch of emails to all the counties," she says, "searching for the first place that would be brave enough, or be interested in hosting this kind of festival. Because in a small town, or a place where there's no street art, it might seem like something a bit unknown and the authorities are not too sure."
Fortunately, one place was willing to take a chance. "Põlva County replied 'yes,' and so the first year it was in Põlva." From then on, finding new locations each year was an organic process. From Ahtme to Antsla, Jõhvi to Jõgeva, Vastseliina to Võru, RUA's attitude was simple: "whoever invites us, we'll go."
It was February 2022 when I chatted to Salme on Zoom. A few days earlier, she'd sent me a list of addresses and I'd spent several hours trekking through the knee-deep snow in Ahtme and Jõhvi, both in Ida-Viru County, trying to find them. At each one was a different mural, created during RUA festivals over the previous couple of years.
Against the backdrop of bright white snow, I could see straight away what RUA had done to brighten up this world of crumbling Kruschevkas and Soviet-era architecture. I loved walking around Ahtme, wondering how few foreigners must have been to this part of Estonia before. And on the couple of occasions when I lost my way, the locals I spoke to didn't just know exactly which direction to point me in to track these murals down. They also seemed really happy, proud even, that there was something people wanted to discover in their town.
"That's the best part," Salme says. "Have you watched our videos? Every time, the video artist tries to ask the locals a few questions. And you can see, that people really get it. When the mission is to bring something for the locals and they appreciate it, then it's like mission accomplished."
The more we talked, the more I understood the importance of that mission. "Small towns in Eastern Europe might not look like the happiest places. We're nothing like France for example, with its very romantic little villages," Salme says. "Eastern Estonia needs a Western boost. Maybe this fresh breath of art can sort of shake it from staying the same."
I was also becoming increasingly curious about the artists, especially those who'd traveled from abroad to take part. What do they make of places like Ahtme or Antsla? "Well, yeah, they have these surreal trips, where they come to Estonia for the first time and they don't go to Tallinn Old Town, but instead they go to the middle of nowhere, as you said. They get to see this rural side of Estonia that's not talked about that much."
This year it was Viljandi County's turn to get the RUA treatment. After turning up in time for that "jam session" at Kolga-Jaani bus station, over the next couple of days I got chance to meet some of the artists involved and learn more about their experiences during the festival.
"In big cities you can sometimes have an overflow of culture and people are kind of stepping on each other's toes. But, to bring it out here, it's new and it's fresh," says Peter Skensved, as we chat over a couple of RUA-branded beers, produced specially for this year's festival. "The style of art we're doing, I sometimes call it the people's art. I think it's super important to spread it out."
And Peter should know. Not only is he one of Denmark's best-known urban artists, but he also organizes his own street art festival back home. "Coming from a graffiti background, the way of painting is always, that you look at the surroundings and then you need to yell a little bit louder than everything else around you. So, if there's a traffic light next to you with blinking red and green lights, you need to pump up the colors a little bit in your piece."
While shouting louder than everything else in the streets of small towns like Viiratsi, Väike-Kaare, Ramsi and Tänaassilma is bound to bring plenty of attention, that's certainly not the kind of impact Peter or RUA are aiming to make. "In my work here, I could be a little more subtle," he smiles. "I used some of the color that was already on the wall, adding lights and shadows and contrasting colors. I wanted to make it fit the surroundings."
And that's another key part of RUA's mission. "We ask the artists to consider the location, or the area or the history of the place," Salme had told me in that Zoom call over a year before. "So, every mural that you see has some connection. Even if it's not so obvious, it's there somewhere."
For Italian artist Luogo Comune that meant taking inspiration from, among other things, Estonian epic poem Kalevipoeg, where "the whole world was born and raised from the egg of a grouse." "There are also these flowers," he says to me, pointing toward his almost-completed work, then asking Salme to leave his paint brushes behind so he can add just one more final flourish. "They used to be here but now they're not present that much anymore."
Luogo tells me his RUA piece is more abstract than most of his back catalogue. There's nothing ambiguous about the dedication he's made sure to include in the bottom corner though – it's a thank you note in Estonian to Alar and Olga, owners of apartments in the building he's been painting. "They were super, super nice with us," he says. Alar primed the wall by himself before Luogo arrived and they had lunch together every day, while his vision took shape. "Yesterday they even made a barbecue. We really bonded."
Luogo wasn't the only one to make new friends during this year's festival. Annabelle Tattu told me she'd had daily visits from a local man as she worked on bringing her character "Le pêcheur de rêves" (Fisher of dreams) to life on a wall by the local Coop store in Ramsi. "On the last day, he gave me a flower. It was very touching. I'll show you the photo, by the way, because it's great."
Annabelle comes from France, and though she would surely agree with Salme's assessment, that things are a little different round here from the villages in her homeland, she was still quite taken by Estonia. "The power of the light and the colors. I don't think you see that anywhere else." But there's one color in particular that she likes the most.
"I love blue, it's the color of my dreams," she tells me, adding that this week, it's also been the color of her legs. "From carrying all those pots of blue paint around." But what did the other people in Ramsi make of it all? I ask.
"Well, there aren't too many people there, but I've even had some come and speak French to me. And yes, at first people looked at it a bit strangely, but when they saw the evolution and the finished product, you know, the lady from the Coop even came up and kissed me. They were happy." And so was Annabelle. "I've succeeded in my aim. The most important thing is that I gave someone an emotion."
It was time for one last drive through the villages of Viljandi County to take a look at all the murals that had been made during this year's RUA festival. We see Annabelle's dream catcher in Ramsi, Luogo Comune's Kalevipoeg-inspired cosmic egg in Tänassilma and the garage walls Pidžin has re-vamped in Viiratsi during a workshop he's been running for local kids.
Afterwards they wanted him to sign their spray paint cans and to know the whereabouts of a "free wall" in Viljandi, where they could continue honing their new street art skills long after Pidžin had returned to Lithuania. As we battle in vain against a "massacre of mosquitoes," doing their utmost to interrupt our conversation, it seems to me that having this kind of longer term impact is the part Pidžin is most proud of.
"I asked them to send me pictures or sketches, so I can give them some comments," he says. "Maybe it will help keep them motivated. Because it's not only like, this is the workshop, you come, you do your stuff, then, 'thank you, goodbye', and you go. These are people, who might become artists themselves one day, you know?"
And then we arrive at Peter's mural.
It's taken him less than a week to completely transform this non-descript wall with a huge painting of a beautiful swan. As we all gather round, Peter tells us the story of the ugly duckling by Danish author Hans Christian Anderson, which inspired him to produce it.
"I know there's an orphanage right across the street and so I wanted to create something that's for them as well," he'd said to me that morning. "It was a way to bring a bit of my culture, use some of the colors from the Estonian flag and make the piece fit this exact space."
The locals here took a bit of time before finally approaching Peter, but once his painting started to materialize, they began to open up, he says. "Yesterday some of the neighbors came by and gave me some traditional Estonian soup and bread and we had a good chat. Later on, another came and gave me some home-knitted socks, for me and my girlfriend. We're having a son next month, so I got some really cool Estonian baby socks too. It's those small connections that are super important, to feel like you really met somebody and they met me."
"I know I will be sitting at home in the winter with cold feet and I'll put on those socks and, in some way, I'll be right back here. They'll have to look at my painting every day for a good while," he smiles. "So, to know that they appreciate it, well, that means the world."
Editor: Marcus Turovski