A Brief History of Polish Street Art: From Confrontation to Decoration
From spontaneous works by neo-avant-garde artists of the 1970s, via the eruption of political symbols and wall slogans under Martial Law, underground graffiti of the late 1980s, writing that accompanied the regime-change, anti-capitalist stickers and posters of the late 1990s, right through to the street art and public installations of the new millennium. Culture.pl presents a brief history of Polish street art.
Art or not?
Art intended for the streets – often illegal and almost always unlicensed and controversial – has been around in Poland for at least half a century. It contains political propaganda mixed with underground art, avant-garde happenings and pop-culture trends, plus individual tags and football team colours invoking the nation, homeland and other ‘values’.
In 1991, people began to wonder whether this nascent Polish graffiti was art or vandalism. The question was posed in the title of Ryszard Gregorowicz and Jacek Waloch’s book Polskie Mury: Graffiti – Sztuka czy Wandalizm? (editor’s translation: Walls of Poland: Graffiti – Art or Vandalism?), published at the time. This pioneering publication presented dozens of photographs of stencils, hand-painted pictures and slogans, some strongly political and often redolent of youth rebellion, others very niche and unfathomable due to coded messages. Alongside documentation, the book included the views of various experts, who unhesitatingly compared self-generated street art to scribbling on toilet walls, dismissing it as damage. Anything that failed to comply with aesthetic (and institutional) artistic discipline was seen as the opposite of creation – destruction.
A voice from below
This false ‘art or vandalism’ dilemma in Poland triggered discussions about street art (and it even started to develop), but only in 2011 did Aleksandra Niżyńska attempt to go beyond it, in her book Street Art jako Alternatywna Forma Debaty Publicznej (editor’s translation: Street Art as an Alternative Form of Public Debate). She maintained that public debate should be based on pluralistic discourse, and a variety of examples were to be found on walls and in the streets. In addition to typical graffiti styles like stickers, cut-outs and murals, she also classified flash-mobs, guerrilla gardening, and Reclaim the Streets events as street art. However, she admitted that street art is not a means to pluralise public debate, since artistic acts are individual, not collective.
Street art is a grassroots, uncensored, unofficial, egalitarian voice in the public debate – such was the view of Marcin Rutkiewicz, Tomasz Sikorski and Michal Warda, organisers of the exhibition Dzika Grafika: Pól Wieku Ulicznej Dywersji Wizualnej w Polsce 1967–2017 (Wild Graphics: Half a Century of Visual Street Diversion in Poland 1967–2017) on display at the Wilanów Poster Museum in summer 2017. In his text for the accompanying booklet, Rutkiewicz defined wild graphics as:
…a language of social dialogue used when, for whatever reason, existing mass communication channels become insufficient, due to monitoring or censorship, for instance.
Stabilising the rebellion
One must be aware of the limitations of this language, however: street art is individual, not collective, and prone to institutionalisation or marketisation. The fact that Wild Graphics was hosted by a Warsaw institution belonging to the National Museum is a fine example of how street art has become respectable over the past decade or so. This process has manifested itself in two ways. Firstly, city councils began supporting official festivals after 2009: Street Art Doping in Warsaw and Monumental Art in Gdańsk, and a wealth of similar events followed.
Despite resistance from some circles, the chance to paint legal and often very well-paid, large-scale artworks was tempting to many artists. This soon led to a phenomenon known as ‘muralitis’: a prevalence of vapid, decorative murals that are often well-executed but avoid controversy and political content. Street art’s subversive potential was pacified as soon as artists started to receive commissions. Large-format advertising murals, together with the mass popularity of striking, Banksy-style images dispelled all remaining illusions of the art-form having any political impact.
Secondly, numerous publications have stressed the virtues of street art as a fully fledged form of non-gallery art. In 2010, Elżbieta Dymna and Marcin Rutkiewicz published the book Polski Street Art (editor’s translation: Polish Street Art), a review of contemporary street art, ranging from illegal, anonymous works to gallery-based projects. Two years later, the same authors published Polski Street Art 2: Między Anarchią a Galerią (editor’s translation: Polish Street Art 2: Between Anarchy and the Gallery), which contained interviews with artists explaining crucial concepts and discussing their most common problems.
These publications accorded street art the status of a true art, unlike ‘American’ graffiti-writing. Many more books appeared around that time, celebrating the graffiti – especially stencils – which originated from 1980s’ alternative culture, particularly the Orange Alternative, Manic Activities Gallery, Leeeżec community, Totart and Luxus. One outstanding book was Graffiti w PRL (editor’s translation: Graffiti in Poland under Communism), published in 2011 by Ewa Chabros and Grzegorz ‘Patyczak’ Kmita – sole member of Brudne Dzieci Sida (editor’s translation: Sid’s Filthy Kids) and an anarchist activist in the 1980s and 1990s, who launched the famous graffiti zine Nie Daj Się Złapać (editor’s translation: Don’t Get Caught).
Hypocritically, Rutkiewicz and Sikorski rejected the ‘art or vandalism’ question, yet repeatedly commented on artistic quality or criticised destructive acts. The term ‘wild graphics’ was used in order to avoid the word ‘graffiti’, which is associated with damage, but they were unable to refrain from passing judgements. Sikorski explored the differences and similarities between the overlapping fields of public art, street art, art (mostly modernist and avant-garde) and graffiti. Although this distinction did bring in more concepts than ‘art or vandalism’, it failed to introduce a new intellectual framework. Consequently, instead of proposing new definitions, the artist and curator simply resorted to truisms: ‘one should avoid extremes and strive for equilibrium’.
Wild Graphics did not include advertising murals and other commercial messages in public space – even though most of them do count as ‘wild’, as an estimated 90% of such advertising is illegal. Street artworks created as part of official festivals and projects were also excluded. Sikorski explained that ‘we define wildness not as a formal feature of the works, but as a grassroots, lawless artistic act performed without official permission’.
An exception was made for pioneering street events by artists like Anastazy Wiśniewski, Marek Konieczny, Ewa Partum, Jerzy Treliński, Andrzej Partum and Akademia Ruchu. Although organised under the auspices of state institutions, they were far from what officials anticipated, and frequently perplexed audiences. Replacing the word ‘graffiti’ with ‘graphics’ let the organisers expand their scope to include events in which words, symbols, drawings and images were displayed on banners, clothes, flags, and various media other than urban architecture and infrastructure.
Rutkiewicz also delved into artists’ motivations, splitting them into militancy, politics, promoting ideas and attitudes, personal motives, and finally – making art. He remarked that, in practice, certain motivations intertwine and coexist. To regard fans of various football teams squabbling on the walls as separate from right- and left-wing political movements would be an oversimplification. Indeed, politics has long been a focus for fans, so juxtaposing neo-fascist movements and radical left-wingers would imply some form of symmetry between them (extremists on both sides, with a happy medium somewhere down the middle).
The Polish jigsaw
An example which avoided such dubious classifications was Wojciech Wilczyk’s 2014 book Święta Wojna (editor’s translation: Holy War). Wilczyk photographed dozens of examples of football graffiti in Kraków, Łódź and the Silesian metropolis – from large-scale, coloured murals to small inscriptions, signs and symbols. To quote Anna Zawadzka’s summary from her essay Polska Walcząca (editor’s translation: Fighting Poland):
Wojciech Wilczyk has assembled a jigsaw puzzle that was scattered all over Poland. On its own, each piece is indecipherable. Only when the last piece is in place can we see the full picture – the landscape of Polish culture. Football graffiti reflects this more accurately than the world of polite people would like to admit.
These jigsaw pieces are patriotic white-and-red colours, swastikas, Celtic crosses, football club emblems, Stars of David hanging from gallows, portraits of ‘cursed soldiers’ and fans who died in fights with rival supporters, and – above all – the Fighting Poland symbol. In short, the entire universe of Polish cultural symbols, stripped of any finesse.
Fittingly, the organisers of Wild Graphics gave the Fighting Poland symbol the place of honour at the exhibition, tracing how its meaning has evolved in line with political and historical context. If one were to consistently highlight the main symbols present in the streets of Poland over the last fifty years, one would see that ‘street diversion’ is in fact not subversion, but a faithful (albeit often crude and vulgar) reflection of the dominant culture. As Mariusz Knorowski wrote in the foreword:
The entire book and each individual photo (…) fit into the continuity of the patriotic narrative and its martyrological iconography.
Rutkiewicz even wrote about ‘graphic wars’:
If someone who didn’t know Polish history or Polish were to look at these visual rivalries, they’d see no real difference between the exploits of minor wartime saboteurs, Solidarity activists or football fans, especially because all of those groups have used the Fighting Poland symbol.
What the authors regard as nationalistic excess, warping the significance of patriotic symbols, may actually be a distilled version of that patriotism.
The unfinished rebellion
In fact, there is precious little of the titular diversion here. The neo-avant-garde who left the galleries to go out into the streets were mostly rejecting artistic hierarchies – this is one possible interpretation of Andrzej Partum’s Milczenie Awangardowe (The Vanguard Silence). Meanwhile, Think Crazy and other works by Konieczny were more concerned with enriching and reviving the rationalised world of the industrial society, than with cultural resistance. The anti-government graffiti of the early 1980s opposed the authorities but also conjured up the romantic messianism at the core of Poland’s cultural canon.
Perhaps the most diversion was to be found in stencils painted by Dariusz Paczkowski, Jacek ‘Ponton’ Jankowski, Egon Fietke, Krzysztof Raczyński and the Towarzystwo Malarzy Pokojowych (editor’s translation: House-Painters Association) towards the end of the communist period. Here, emancipatory, anarchistic political messages blended with subversion of the symbolic order. But, once again, the rebellion was fairly superficial, with political demands limited to noble generalities (anti-war, ecological, democratic slogans).
The later and still-widespread ‘American’ graffiti can also hardly be described as diversion, despite its illegal, niche nature. The curators’ almost total omission of feminist graffiti also speaks volumes about the subversive nature of Wild Graphics, as the overwhelming majority of the works were produced by men quarrelling on walls over how Poland should look, and often incorporate sexual symbols that verge on sexism and obscenity.
Wild, but well-behaved
It is almost fifty years since Włodzimierz Fruczek painted figures on the wall of a tenement building on Warsaw’s Żelazna Street – which might have been considered to be Poland’s first graffiti, had the concept been known in those days – so it is high time to reappraise this art-form whose place is not in galleries, but out in the streets. Idealising graffiti as an unimpeded grassroots act of democracy and subversive energy has turned out to be premature.
Street art has been easily aestheticised and commercialised along with the public spaces it is a part of. Artists participate in festivals and create public art commissioned by local councils and non-governmental organisations, which is not generally conducive to radicalism. Text and visuals on political themes tend to subscribe to the dominant culture’s values, rather than challenging them, and the graffiti-writing community is more inclined towards internal feuding. The old categories are no longer applicable: neither a sociological analysis of this mysterious vandal ‘subculture’, nor an artistic/historical appraisal of its aesthetic values divorced from their context.
Originally written by Xawery Stanczyk, December 2017, translated by MB, Jan 2018
Sources: Ewa Chabros, Grzegorz ‘Patyczak’ Kmita, Graffiti w PRL, Wroclaw 2011; Elżbieta Dymna, Marcin Rutkiewicz, Polski Street Art, Carta Blanca, Warsaw 2010; Elżbieta Dymna, Marcin Rutkiewicz, Polski Street Art 2. Między Anarchią a Galerią, Carta Blanca, Warsaw 2012; Dzika Grafika.Pól Wieku ulicznej dywersji wizualnej w Polsce 1967–2017, ed. Michal Warda, Wilanów Poster Museum, Warsaw 2017; Ryszard Gregorowicz, Jacek Waloch, Polskie Mury. Graffiti – Sztuka czy Wandalizm?, Comer Publishers, Toruń 1991; Aleksandra Niżyńska, Street Art jako Alternatywna Forma Debaty Publicznej, Trio Publishers, Warsaw 2011; Marcin Rutkiewicz, Tomasz Sikorski, Graffiti w Polsce 1940–2010, Carta Blanca, Warsaw 2011; Wojciech Wilczyk, Święta wojna, Atlas Sztuki, Karakter Publishers, Łódź–Kraków 2014