Reykjavik, the world’s northernmost capital, is often described as a quirky and hip city, famous for its effortlessly cool music scene, its colourful rooftops, and its vibrant atmosphere. Being for many a tremendous source of inspiration, Iceland boasts artists in all fields of creativity, from talented musicians to renowned authors, and the streets are no exception. Over the past decade, Reykjavik has become the scene of a thriving street art and urban culture, where the only limit is imagination. From urban graffiti to majestic wall murals and covered facades, discover the masterpieces that adorn its streets!
People are used to conventional displays of artworks, confined into dedicated spaces like museums or exhibitions, often with a logical order, but street art breaks all rules by approaching the viewer, not the opposite. The true essence of this art form consists of being accessible to all, like an open-air museum allowing all sorts of reactions, both among lovers and haters. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?
By nature, street art is also ephemeral, not intended to live forever but rather bound to change, it comes and goes to the rhythm of the city’s constant evolution, often popping up in vacant lots or other abandoned sites in the wait for construction. The piece you spot today might be gone the day after. Street art is an ever-developing form of art, not meant to last, a continuing game of blending into the urban landscape and surprising visitors when they least expect it. In addition to commissioned projects to beautify the city, some graffiti you see are the results of direct agreements between street artists and properties’ owners, who greatly helped to enrich the urban culture, by giving grim places a new radiance. Although graffiti as we know it today came to Iceland later than other countries, Reykjavik has no reason to envy its neighbours today, being dotted with a flourishing urban art scene, arousing visitors’ curiosity and amazement.
The Heart Park
In 2008, Iceland suffered a major financial and economic crisis, when its banking system which was heavily indebted, collapsed. While the initial plan was to build a hotel downtown, the project was abandoned, leaving artists with the perfect black canvas to express themselves. Hjartatorg, or the Heart Park, drew inspired street artists determined to make it a good vibe only place, celebrating creativity and freedom, by producing giant colourful murals and conveying strong messages reflecting the general mindset. Skaters, musicians, youngsters, families breathed new life to this desolate site. In the years that followed, the nation started recovering and rising, mainly thanks to the tourism industry. The Heart Park was torn down in 2013 to make way for a hotel, but it remains a symbol of free expression and hope through difficult times and makes up an important page in the city street art history.
Wall Poetry movement
Most of the largest graffiti murals you come across in Reykjavik city centre are the results of a collaboration between the successful music festival Iceland Airwaves, and Berlin’s contemporary art collective Urban Nation lead by Yasha Young. The idea behind the project, aptly named WallPoetry, is to connect music makers with street artists, so they jointly create a visual out of their lyrics interpretations. The project started for the first time in 2015, when 10 international street artists were paired to 10 musicians and bands playing at the Iceland Airwaves festival. The distinctive styles of street artists and the power of music led to an eclectic mix of influences. The project was so appreciated by artists and well received by the public that it was repeated the year after. Many of the project pieces have survived time and can still be admired in town, but here are a few examples of some of the collaborations:
- D*FACE + AGENT FRESCO AND LAXDÆLA
Although Icelandic street artists did not take part in the WallPoetry project, they are prevalent in Reykjavik urban culture, one of the most prolific artists being Sara Riel, whose colors and bizarre creatures leave no one indifferent. Sara Riel is a polyvalent artist whose work ranges from album covers to photography, book covers, illustrations, who finds a special playground and mean of expression in the street art scene. Her work often focuses on whimsical nature and can be seen in Reykjavik and other street art temples such as Berlin, Barcelona and Tokyo. Her pieces arguably brighten up the city walls and have in common to be amazingly detailed, forcing viewers to look at them twice to understand what is going on there. Sometimes you just do not get it, and this is when they get even more captivating.
As you stroll through Reykjavik city centre, you will be seduced by the enchanting illustrations of Seba Ventana, the Spanish street artist behind the project “Wild Welva”. For his artworks installations, Seba uses the paste-up technique, meaning he creates big handmade drawings on paper before pasting them up on the walls. His pieces often play with double meanings and metaphors in a subtle way to talk about humankind, in a universe filled with exotic animals and wildlife, which is the reason why, to him, his work only makes sense outdoors close to nature, rather than inside a building. The only chance you will get to come across flamingos and mandrills in Iceland! Follow Seba behind the scenes of his creations in Reykjavik.
Guido Van Helten
Over the recent years, Reykjavik harbour area, Grandi, has become a melting pot of cultures and a foodie paradise concentrating many of the capital’s best restaurants and cafés. Whereas the industrial area looked quite gloomy a few years ago, it has undergone a profound cultural transformation, one of the leading initiators being the Australian street artist Guido Van Helten. As he travels the world for commissioned projects, Guido works upstream to immerse himself in the local culture and heritage, by collecting photos and meeting with people, to find the best way to integrate his work into the urban landscape. His photorealistic murals are unmissable both by their size and their precision. The ones pictured in Grandi are based on photographs taken by Andrés Kolbeinsson, from the archives of the Reykjavik Museum of Photography, and present scenes from the Jean-Paul Sartre play “No Exit” that was performed in Reykjavik in 1961.
Other pieces from Van Helten are to be found in Kópavogur, the Westman Islands, Akureyri, but he realized is the most unique piece in collaboration with the film director Selina Miles and the Akureyri cultural office, when he painted the ship that supplies Grimsey Island with goods and products:
Guido Van Helten – Iceland Photo © Selina Miles and Guido Van Helten
Reykjavik is home to stunning graffiti both from local and international street artists, spread in all districts, offering an exciting alternative way of visiting the city. Reykjavik is not short of stories about its urban culture history and artwork techniques, so lose yourself in the colourful streets and find hidden gems!
If you found this article interesting you might also want to read our article about the top photography spots in Reykjavík.