Street art. While some people see it as defacing public property, I beg to differ. Street art is a massive statement of the city’s people, not only claiming the city as their own, but adding their own personal or social experience to the place’s visual appearance.
When I was studying Latin American Art History in graduate school, I unexpectedly fell in love with street art. I learned about the struggles of the people and how muralism spread throughout the region in the 1920s as artists, such as Diego Rivera, portrayed the everyday difficulties people in his community endured. At this time, the way that I traveled morphed. Not only was I more interested in the politics and history behind each country, each city, and each municipality I visited, I actively sought out street art while exploring. During this time, I found the beauty of graffiti, street art, and everything in between in the streets of Sao Paulo, Managua, Panama City, and many other places. This practice has stuck with me through the years as I’ve entered different continents and gotten to know a variety of cultures.
Upon first arriving in Reykjavik this winter, jet lagged, blurry eyed, and bundled up, I was taken aback with the amount of street art the city boasted. It seemed that everywhere I turned, my eyes were met with bright colors and funky designs. There were unnameable monsters, surreal elephants, whimsical birds, words I didn’t quite understand, people in strange suits, and so much more for my eyes to absorb. Art was everywhere. It didn’t matter if the medium was a person’s house, a public building, a construction site, a café, or a store- it was covered.
But for the world’s most peaceful country- and a city where I undoubtedly felt safer than I had ever been- I couldn’t understand what propelled the ubiquitous street art. People here have it so good, I thought. Unemployment is crazy low. People leave their babies to nap in their strollers outside of coffee shops while they leisurely sip on a cup of joe. From what I saw, there wasn’t really any amount of oppression or exploitation going on. So, why all of the street art?
My personal opinion, after staying five weeks in the northern-most capital of the world, is that Icelanders are just very expressive people. They might not have the crime that other countries experience, but that is not to say that they don’t deal with their own hardships. While the landscape throughout the country is otherworldly, it is this way because nature is so harsh. For practically half of the year, the sun doesn’t come out but a mere few hours a day, rain, snow, hail, and face-numbing cold make outdoor work nearly unbearable- and aside from tourism, most people make a living fishing or farming. But even for those who stay indoors, having to deal with constant darkness as well as a society that is changing all too quickly due to unprecedented amounts of tourism, life isn’t always easy living on a distant island.
I decided that I would stop trying to pin a sociopolitical program onto Reykjavik’s vast, intricate street art and simply enjoy it for what it was. After all, Icelanders are crafty beings who are constantly expressing themselves through various mediums of art. Perhaps street art is just a widely accepted practice, another beautiful hobby, and that’s it. As long as it exists, that’s reason enough for me.
If you’re heading to Reykjavik soon, I’d highly recommend staying at The Loft, a centrally-located boutique hostel with all of the amenities. It even has an upstairs bar, where they regularly host live music.