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The writing's on the wall

How did oil-rich Stavanger become Europe’s least likely street art capital?

  • The writing's on the wall

    Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, who specialises in interactive art, for this year’s NUART Festival

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    A signature matryoshka doll from British street artist Hush, also for NUART 2013

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    A new take on Magritte’s Son Of Man from Norwegian stencil artist Martin Whatson (2013)

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    a signature housing block stencil from Berlin artist Evol (2010)

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    Even the H&M building is daubed, courtesy of British alphabet artist Ben Eine (2012)

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  • The writing's on the wall
  • The writing's on the wall
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  • The writing's on the wall

Text by Astrid Olsson / Photos Ian Cox

What do Williamsburg, Shoreditch, Kreuzberg and Stavanger have in common? The photograph on this page is a bit of a giveaway but, yes, well-to-do Stavanger – the home of Statoil and a contender for the title of Europe’s most expensive city – is indeed a hub of street art, home to around 70 works by some of the genre’s best.

On the bright houses of Bakkegate you’ll see a triptych of fantasy figures by Swoon and David Choe, two of America’s most respected street artists. The electricity boxes on the main Princesgata street are stencilled to look like mini high-rise buildings, courtesy of Berlin artist Evol. Even the breezeblock H&M is brightened up with a giant daub by London alphabet artist Ben Eine. Elsewhere, lighthouses, dockyards and old factory buildings have all been made over with subtly subversive works. Ironist du jour Mobstr sums it up with a giant roadside stencil that reads, “Look Mum I’m Painting Walls Legally Now.”

The question is, why here? The answer has everything to do with the NUART Festival, which has been bringing the world’s best street artists to Stavanger every autumn since 2006.

NUART is the brainchild of Martyn Reed, a British DJ and music promoter with a fine-arts degree, who moved to Stavanger in 1996 and launched an urban art festival in 2001 encompassing NUART and NUMUSIC (the latter is still going strong). Reed was initially more interested in digital art, until 2003, when he happened to be doing a Norwegian club night in Shoreditch, London: “I came out and saw Banksy’s monkey stencil on the wall, and it was like, ‘Wow’,” he says. “This wasn’t just graffiti and it wasn’t fine art – it was something different altogether and I became fascinated.”

By 2006, NUART had changed its focus to become solely about street art; soon there were Mona Lisas bearing their buttocks on the city’s walls, courtesy of Banksy rival Nick Walker (it’s since been “buffed,” in graffiti jargon). “We didn’t do briefs or conventional commissions,” says Reed. “We just gave the artists the freedom of the city.”

How did that go down? “Well, the Norwegian Arts Council initially cut our funding at the mention of graffiti,” says Reed, “but I just went to the bank and got a private loan. The public response was huge and overwhelmingly positive.”

Reed says that Stavanger’s relative naiveté – when he first moved here, people assumed the flyers he was handing out for club nights were religious pamphlets – has been a plus. “Unlike in other countries, where tagging and graffiti have these associations with vandalism and illegality, here people saw this as what it is – a new form of public art. It helps that we were only bringing the best of it.”

The Norwegian Arts Council ultimately agreed, reversing their decision to stop funding the festival in 2007. Ever since, NUART has invited around 15 artists a year from around the world to execute a project somewhere around the city; this year’s commissions include Polish artist M-City re-imagining Stavanger airport’s control tower and Norwegian artist Martin Whatson, who offers a new take on Magritte’s apple-faced Son of Man.

There is no approval process vetting the artists’ work so, in 2010, Italian artist Blu was able to paint a tower with an image of a figure in a sea made of pipes, guzzling oil as horrified fish looked on. “We thought there would be an outcry, but there was nothing,” says Reed.
“If you look at these artists, a lot of them have master’s degrees. They’re not rebels smashing up cities, they’re very sensitive to their surroundings. They are trying to make people think.”

He sees street art as a positive force in cities. “We want a real alternative to public art that is created by committee. At the moment, street art is something people only notice when it’s there, but wouldn’t it be amazing if people noticed when there wasn’t street art?”

An absence of street art is not something anyone will be commenting on in Stavanger.

The NUART festival runs until 20 October
nuartfestival.no

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Who to watch

Organiser Martyn Reed on who to watch at the NUART festival this year

Ernest Zacharevic
“Zacharevic is to me the future of street art. He’s from Lithuania, studied fine art in London and moved to Penang, Malaysia. His works interact with the surroundings – the kids painted on the wall might be sitting on a real bike, or the girl playing hopscotch will be next to a hopscotch board on the ground. People interact with it, too. I kind of feel like it’s designed for the internet – so many people post pictures of his work online and they’ll get 70,000 ‘likes’. He’s amazing.”

David Choe
“American David Choe is a bit different, in that he’s already a big name in art. I’ve studied fine art for 20 years and I’ve never seen a painter so technically adept. When I watch him do these intricate works, I feel like I’m in the presence of genius in a way I’ve never felt before. He deserves to be considered alongside people like Francis Bacon and Egon Schiele.”

Click below to see how M-City transformed the control tower at Stavanger airport

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