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Stockholm graffiti - beating the ban

Stockholm graffiti - beating the ban

Published: 02 Sep 2011 09:28 GMT+02:00
Updated: 02 Sep 2011 09:28 GMT+02:00

Behind the Stockholm council's draconian "zero tolerance" policy on graffiti is hidden a rich but underground Swedish graffiti culture, inspired by the scene in New York City, contributor Katherine Dunn discovers.

Tucked under bridges, on fences, walls, alleyways and even churches, graffiti is Europe’s great constant. Both cheered as a rebellious, democratic art form and derided as a miserable blight on beautiful cities, graffiti is one thing in Stockholm: mostly, absent.

It’s the result of the city’s “zero tolerance” policy, which forbids any sanction of the style or the culture of graffiti, and which is widely perceived to be the only one of it’s kind in Europe.

The issue was back in focus recently when the the city council refused to include advertisements for graffiti festival "The Art of the Streets".

“It’s straight up censorship,” Ceylan Holago, the event’s organizer, told The Local on hearing the news. The dispute is another sign of the tension between the city and graffiti writers, she says.

But despite the seemingly draconian approach, Stockholm’s clean walls and scoured trains hide a rich Swedish graffiti culture, a throwback to a time when the official stance was markedly different. The scene gained popularity in the 1980s, inspired by the artists in New York City, and quickly spread across Europe.

The 1980s for graffiti has been described by writers and historians as a golden time. People saw graffiti as “an interesting youth culture”, says Torkel Sjöstrand, editor of the Stockholm-based graffiti magazine UP.

The city had legal walls and commissioned murals, says Jacob Kimvall, a PhD student at the University of Stockholm who specializes in graffiti and curator of the "Art of the Streets". And a Stockholm style developed, subverting the classic New York City look and using conflicting colours for an “ugly pretty” design, he says.

But by the 1990s, the traffic authorities had had enough. In 1994, the Lugna Gatan (literally: calm streets) meetings between civil servants and real estate authorities ended permission for legal walls. Graffiti buffing and guards became common.

“The graffiti artist’s response was to paint more and faster,” says Kimvall, while those who wished to paint legally left the city. The style developed alongside the crackdown – a fast, simple look replaced the elaborate murals of the 1980s, spreading across Sweden on the back of Stockholm-cool.

A widespread belief also developed among the graffiti world that financial interests were involved. The 2002 arrest of Kjell Hultman, Head of Security at public transport operator SL, on charges of accepting bribes from one of the security companies involved in combating graffiti, did nothing to stem the speculation. Hultman had been one of graffiti’s most vocal opponents.

In 2007, the zero-tolerance policy was passed in city hall, criminalizing all forms of graffiti and murals, as well as installing a “24 hour policy” for removing graffiti. Those caught doing graffiti or other forms of vandalism face fines and possible imprisonment of up to one year. The policy also says that the city will not associate with or condone activities or events related to graffiti in any way – including displaying advertisements for "Art of the Streets".

While Holago has cited freedom of speech, Stockholm city council has also defended the policy.

“It’s a question of democracy,” says Mats Frej, public relations manager at the city’s traffic administration. “If you don’t like the decision, you have to take this up with the politicians.”

He says the city spends 200 million kronor ($31 million) on graffiti every year – mainly removing it from commuter trains. Security services for combating graffiti come out of another part of the budget. And the city’s mostly-bare walls are a sign of the 24 hour policy; the most successful element, he says.

Torkel Sjöstrand argues that the amount of money spent on removing the paint doesn’t make sense, and graffiti itself – before guards and buffing companies are assigned to it – costs nothing.

“The politics against graffiti are really out of control, after all, it’s only paint on a wall,” he says.

Nevertheless, Frej says the amount of graffiti seems to be dropping. Last year, about 165,000 crimes of graffiti and other vandalism were reported to the police, a decrease of 18 percent from 2009, according to the National Council for Crime Prevention (Brottsförebyggande rådet - Brå).

Despite the decline, graffiti remains a major problem for the city, Frej says, and the police claim that involvement in graffiti can serve as a gateway to other crimes, including drug use. And whether graffiti becomes more popular or less, Frej says the work won’t stop.

“It’s one of our main jobs to make Stockholm nice and tidy.”

Paul Rapacioli (paul.rapacioli@thelocal.com)

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Your comments about this article

16:41 September 2, 2011 by tadchem
Graffiti 'artists' have been a blight on public and private property since Pompeii. While they have a right to free speech, that does not obligate the public to provide them with a venue at public expense. Without prior permission from the owner of the property they 'decorate' they are simply petty Vandals.
19:10 September 2, 2011 by Grokh
They can paint all they want so long its their own property, otherwise they are just vandals... I can pee in my backyard but if i do it on someone elses its ilegal for oh so many reasons.

Never understood the whole graffiti scene looks horrible no matter what they paint, and a mess because they paint on top of eachothers and screw eachothers "art" ....and at the end of the day they make any place look like a ghetto with street gangs marking their territory or something.
10:50 September 3, 2011 by hilt_m
Don't get me wrong, I've seen some graffiti that is just amazing, you can see the art in it and the amount of work that went into it, but then it's hard to feel for this type of expression when some little d!ck sprays blue and black letters 1 meter high across your apartment wall and one of your newly installed windows. http://www.imagehousing.com/image/840722
00:42 September 4, 2011 by Grokh
people keep getting freedom of expression mistaken with freedom to do as they please.

Someone can yell "Idiot!!!" out loud all they want but if they say it to my face ill punch them...

and thats what dumb people dont understand, one mans freedom ends where another mans freedom begins.
00:43 September 4, 2011 by CaliforniaDreaming
Graffiti Artist have now been requested by many TOP Gaming companies to design backgrounds for their video games i.e, EA Sports and Interplay as well as Blizzard Entertainment. We have many well respected Graffiti artist that teach art classes in universities across California and many other states. ....just my two cents

But if anyone knows of an excellent graffiti artist, please let me know, I would like to commission them to do a mural on canvas for my son's room. My email is rg90803@yahoo.com.

Thank you!!!!!!
17:24 September 8, 2011 by Nikki Lindqvist
"tadchem" says it best and I agree. If I buy a new car and someone puts graffiti on it (without permission), I'll be heartbroken - and very ticked off. When I pay my taxes and the city uses it to buy a new train car for me to ride in and someone puts their idea of art on it (without permission), well... I'll just be very ticked off. It ain't right!
08:21 September 10, 2011 by B*tchslap
These little assh*les should be beaten senseless whenever they are caught. It is NOT freedom of speech and those who claim that need to have their heads examined.
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