The reputation of Tartu as Estonia’s ‘capital of graffiti’ gradually emerged in the second half of the last decade, and quietly gathered force so that today it is accepted without hesitation. There are specific reasons for this, of which two are essential: 1) the city authorities have been rather liberal towards street art, and 2) there is no sharp border between street art and other art life in Tartu.
The Tartu Art Museum’s exhibition Typical individuals. Tartu graffiti and street art 1994–2014 is an excellent example of the second reason. It does not even matter that much that a street-art-based exhibition is taking place in the most ‘official’ art institution (besides, this is not the first time, as graffiti artists have displayed their work there before). What’s more significant is the choices the curator, Marika Agu, has made. Only a half-hour film actually deals with street art, where both street artists and others discuss the phenomenon, and there is a small photo showcase with vivid examples (in addition to the jacket and bling of the pioneer of Tartu graffiti art, Bach, who started in the 1990s). The rest of the exhibition consists of videos, paintings, photography and installation art, in which the problems of hidden authorship, lounging and public urban space, significant in urban art, are divided into themes. Thus at this exhibition street art is not an object, but rather a starting point of a set of problems. The fact that such a dialogue between ‘museum art’ and street art seems so natural is a significant message in itself.
Tartu graffiti began in the mid-1990s, when members of the punk band Nyrok City and the Tartu Hip Hop Club people took it up. At that time it was an area of a narrower subculture, which searched for examples from abroad and followed certain graffiti conventions: signature centre, certain styles and themes etc. An unfinished building in central Tartu, in a gap between the trajectories of masses of people, became the central gallery of the scene (the gap has now disappeared, replaced by a new courthouse). Towards the end of the decade, new crews emerged, e.g EAS (Eesti Andekad Sodijad – Talented Estonian Doodlers), and grander galleries were established further away from the city centre, some still operating today, such as the long concrete walls along the railway, of which the best known is the Betooni gallery (after a street nearby). These mainly have the classical throw-ups and masterpieces (as the complicated and artistic forms in graffiti art are called), but there’s a lot more; in the graffiti culture hierarchy, the galleries are at the top, and there are no simple tags or exercise works in these places.
Compared with Tallinn or other towns, Tartu held no special position (the catalogue of Typical Individuals even mentions that the Tartu graffiti scene was more conservative and imitative than that in Tallinn). In the middle of the new decade, Estonian street art went through a short low tide, primarily caused by the anti-graffiti mood of the neo-conservative Res Publica party, which had just come to power. ‘Cleaning up’ the urban space was ascendant for some time (the authorities in Tallinn are to this day more hostile towards graffiti than in Tartu).
A new high tide in Tartu occurred in 2007–2008, when the emerging street art was not directly connected with the hip-hop-centred scene. Works appeared in the streets, including in the heart of the city, constituting elaborate stencil-technique pictures (sometimes they were even ‘reproductions’ of art classics, e.g Wiiralt’s Absinthe Drinkers); new names, such as Edward von Lõngus and MinajaLydia, became known (also Von Bomb, with a more straightforward political message, and Kairo, who produced nativist paintings in public places). In any case, this was no longer a game within one subculture, but a less conventional phenomenon that was more jointly presented as art. The reason was, perhaps, that some of the new artists were graduates from the Tartu Art College (although Bach had the same background). A new gallery was established – the Vabaduse gallery under the Vabaduse (Freedom) bridge – and around it numerous works appeared with remarkable speed. In 2010 the Stencibility festival started in Tartu, attracting street artists from elsewhere as well (mostly from Tallinn, but also, for example, Kashink and MTO from France), so that street art is now placed in urban space in a more systematic and organised manner. At the same time there are signs that some artists may have become ‘established’, e.g the Tartu Art Museum bought templates of a work by Edward von Lõngus, the stencil-pieces familiar in the streets are painted on canvas and they are sold at auctions and shown at exhibitions.
The position of Tartu street art is revealed by a few specific examples. In 2007, a part of Rael Artel’s gallery exhibition was a sentence by Erkki Luuk written in a street near the display: “Nothing is more important than this sentence”. Back then artists used the means of street art in order to create works placed in the category of ‘contemporary art’. It stayed there for a long time and people got used to them, becoming a sort of symbol of literary and artistic eksp (abbreviation from ‘experimental’) groups operating in Tartu. In January 2012, when protests against ACTA took place, von Lõngus covered the sentence with black paint and added “ACTA, PIPA, SOPA”. Using the street art conventions and opportunities, street artist thus created work with new political message. This caused quite a furore, evoking discussions of whether this was an act of vandalism against the earlier artwork or whether it should be considered on the basis of another kind of logic, whether the initial work had been destroyed or acquired a new layer of meaning, whether the work followed the rules of street art or not. In any case it was an example of how street art suddenly plunged into the domain of ‘true art’ and even spoke its language, using the concept of the artwork’s singularity, so that the dialogue between ‘real art’ and street art occurred not only in the form of polite acceptance, and that certainly helped people to more easily interpret and understand street art.
Another case was in summer 2013, when the city authorities decided to ‘clean up’ the Vabaduse gallery. The news spread and led to fierce opposition, so that the authorities decided to offer a compromise: the cleaning would take place only partially, and the organisers of Stencibility, as experts, could decide what deserved to be preserved. After brief contemplation, Stencibility rejected the offer, as it would have violated the operating principles of street art. In the end, the selection was made randomly by the clean-up team; since then the authorities have not undertaken anything like that again.
The diversity of the current situation is perhaps well demonstrated by the fact that Tartu’s biggest work of street art is a picture, covering the whole wall of the building of a bank, by the one-time rebel Bach: he was commissioned to decorate the building by a bank.