The old lady is shouting angrily at the artist working across the street. He is wearing normal clothing, only some paint stains betray him. He isn’t wearing a mask. He never really needed to.
A look of alarm crosses his face. He puts down the huge wooden picture he is holding and pockets his screws and the screwdriver in one swift movement. Is he going to get yelled at, or worse, reported to the police?
“Don’t you dare try to remove that nice painting!” the old lady yells.
The street artist lets his shoulders drop and relaxes a bit.
“Don’t worry,” he yells back. “I’m not taking it down, I’m putting it up!”
There are two things you should know about Bergen. One, it’s the second largest city in Norway. Two, it’s renowned for its DIY cultural scene.
People in Bergen love street art. Several galleries are dedicated to it. People chronicle it on Instagram, on Facebook and in blogs. Charity auctions with local street art usually bring in tens of thousands of euros.
It isn’t surprising that a form of expression that is urban, expressive, and often witty appeals to young people. But in Bergen, older people embrace street art too.
Older people follow street art blogs, show up for street art exhibitions and buy canvases by local artists. They also yell at people they think are coming to remove their favorite pieces.
For the last five years I’ve been doing a blog on street art in Bergen. One time I got a phone call from a lady who presented herself as “a seventy-year-old”. She had seen me in a news story on television, and wanted to make sure that I came to photograph a stencil of Postman Pat that was in her neighborhood.
While most street artists have horror stories of nightly police chases, street artists in Bergen mostly tell of pleasant interactions with the public. Many of them make their art in broad daylight.
Some years ago I followed the French stencil artist C215 around Bergen. I marvelled at how he could spend twenty minutes on a complex painting in the middle of the afternoon, with people and cars constantly passing him in the street.
Nobody bothered him.
As C215 was painting on the front steps of a house, one of the residents actually stopped and let him finish before going in the door.
“Why should the police arrest me? I’m not doing anything illegal,” C215 told me. Well, he was. But it’s kind of less illegal if you ask people in Bergen.
In 2011 the politicians in Bergen, led by the conservative party Høyre, formalized Bergen’s love for street art. They said that graffiti and street art is an important form of cultural expression, and the city should do everything in its power to encourage it.
The politicians actually went so far as to say that Bergen should become, “the street art capital of the Nordic countries.”
Don’t misunderstand; painting on someone else’s property is still illegal. But what about painting on a grey wall that nobody is using very much? It may technically be illegal, but it won’t get you arrested.
So what are the most important things Bergen has done to encourage street art? Here are seven steps the city has taken support this artistic and cultural phenomenon:
- After submitting an sms application, prospective street artists can legally paint on the city’s electrical boxes. Whole families have collaborated on boxes, as well as established street artists, young teens, and at least one established ceramic artist.
- The city gives grants for international street artists to come and paint in Bergen. Bergen Street Art, a local group of artists, works to get walls for them, and puts them up for collaboration with local street artists.
- There are several legal walls in the city, where everyone can paint what they like at any time. They are mostly used by graffiti artists.
- In 2014, Bergen presented its first “Street Artist of the Year” award. The first recipient was John_xc, the man behind the Bergen Street Art group (and the guy with the painting we met in the beginning of this story).
- There are zones in the city where street art is not to be removed straight away.
- W ith local artists as teachers, Bergen hosts workshops for young people on how to make street art and graffiti.
- Bergen recently spent 6000 euro on framing the works of Dolk, one of the most prominent early street artists in the city.
Argus takes out his stencil sheets and his cans of black spray paint. He has been here a couple of months before, with this exact same stencil: an ambiguous picture of a boy kneeling with his hands folded, as if in prayer, in front of a weeping girl.
He starts putting it back up on the wall. If he feels strange being here again, this time by official invitation, he doesn’t show it.
It wasn’t that long ago when the original was painted over and the weirdness started.
The removal of the stencil was featured by NRK. First, it was a story on their local web portal.Then it became a segment on the national evening news. Several people from the neighborhood were interviewed, saying how sad they were that the stencil had disappeared.
One man told the story of how his dog always stopped and barked at the stencil when they were out walking. Now that the stencil was gone, he misses that.
Finally, they interviewed the man in charge of the football field on which the stencil was originally painted.
“There has been a dreadful mistake,” he said. “Only the tagging was supposed to be removed. Would Argus consider coming back? Please?”
Argus finishes up the new stencil. Several of his other paintings have been unceremoniously painted over by theCity. He likes street art to be temporal, but this invitation was just too flattering to resist.
Around 25 different street artists are working in Bergen today, a lot more if you count graffiti writers and taggers. Many of them are collaborating, others work only solo. Some are aiming for careers in the galleries, some refuse to sell even one canvas.
Not everyone is happy that Bergen politicians are taking such a strong interest in street art, and several artists feel that the city is trying to neuter a “dangerous” art form.
Some of the most successful street artists manage to navigate between these extremes quite well. They apply for money and large walls when they need to, but don’t see this as contrary to making “illegal” art whenever and wherever they feel like it.
Has Bergen become the Nordic street art capital they were aiming to be? By being open and welcoming towards the art form they have reinforced a positive relationship between the city’s street artists and its citizens.
If the police ever tried to arrest Argus, John_xc, or any of the other hard-working street artists in Bergen, there would be a riot of little old ladies hitting the police over the head with their handbags.
Yelling “don’t you dare try to remove those nice painters!”