Maybe I’m paying more attention these days, but there seems to be a greater prevalence of street art popping up everywhere? Nowhere was this more noticeable than during a recent visit to Reykjavik. I was able to gain a wonderful perspective of this, not only in our wanderings around town, but during a few long runs. I was there for a marathon, and in an effort to stay loose, I logged some extra mileage in addition to the race. Reykjavik is by comparison a very small capital city, so I was immediately struck by not only the quantity, but of the quality of the huge street murals around town.
After a day or so, we realized something else was going on here. Unfortunately, as with any European city, graffiti has a way of infiltrating the most beautiful and even sacred of sites. I first took notice of this during art school in Italy. It’s no wonder the etymology of the word comes from graffiato (Italian). Not to say American cities don’t have their fair share of vandalism, but I was surprised to see so much in Iceland as I anticipated it to be a clean and spotless Scandinavian city. It was very clean in comparison, but graffiti was everywhere. However there was obviously a distinct difference between the spray painted “scratches” and breathtaking murals.
Upon further inquiry, we found out that many homes and business owners would allow, or even commission street artists to completely cover areas that would otherwise be susceptible to graffiti. The interesting thing is that it was widely understood that “taggers” would respect the work of the artists and leave the murals unscathed. Considering the breadth of typical graffiti across town, it was amazing to see this being the case. Of all the works of art around town, I only recall one being tagged.
Starting in 2016, as part of the Iceland Airwaves Festival, Wall Poetry pairs 10 musicians and 10 street artists to join forces and interpret songs and combine artistic styles. This has greatly increased the breadth and number of pieces. While some are brazenly in plain site covering entire buildings, many of the more interesting are hidden away on side streets, or back alleys. There are now self guided walking tours so that many of the hidden works, in discrete locations can be discovered and enjoyed.
It was beyond refreshing to me to see such a place embrace public art in this guerilla type manner. As an admitted “Bjorkophile”, I was expecting to find some inspiration during this trip, and I certainly did find just that. Aside from it’s most noteworthy elf-like export, Iceland is a mind numbing cacophony of artistic inspiration and is something that one must experience for themselves as everything about this tiny island is truly beyond words.