Stavanger: the unlikely street art capital

How a pioneering festival has turned an oil-rich corner of southern Norway into Europe’s least likely street art hub

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, October 2013)

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.

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