Surprising, rebellious, brave – street art goes beyond easy definitions. Kraków street art is an example of the synergy of cultures, symbolism of the place of origin and history, and as such can be a great guide around the city.
Although street art is often associated with graffiti, in reality, it is something much more. Intentional artistic actions in the city space can take different forms far removed from vandalism – they are often the result of activities related to cultural events or festivals; sometimes they are the artist’s sharp comment on an important, pressing matter, or a way of drawing attention to a specific place. Street art includes, among others, murals, i.e. large-format paintings, most often created on the walls of houses and tenements.
Carmen in the wind
As stated by Mikołaj Rejs, mural and street art are basically opposite concepts in the context of artistic activity in public space. “Street art mainly refers to independent activity, often spontaneous or controversial, which contests certain laws governing the system” – emphasizes the artist from Kraków, seeing the greatest strength of street art in enabling self-expression. On the other hand, murals are often made in consultation with the city authorities and approved by the City’s Art Consultant and Monument Conservator. “That’s why they usually have a social, aesthetic, promotional dimension” – adds the artist. “They are always well thought out and are often constructed by several people taking into considerations public consultation, which is their greatest asset.”
Such is the mural on the Mogilskie Roundabout, where you can start your walk. The work was created as a result of the artist’s cooperation with, among others, Agnieszka Łakoma, the Art Consultant of the City of Kraków. The main distinctive feature of the works by Mikołaj Rejs is the depiction of dreamy human-animal figures floating in the wind. From a distance, you can see the characteristic outline of the character of Carmen, referring to the famous opera by Georges Bizet. As the creator explains, this is a contextual mural, and the figure of Carmen seems to fly towards the Kraków Opera building – most likely to attend the play in which she has the leading role. Mikołaj Rejs is the author of murals related to artistic institutions in Kraków. The artist emphasizes that while creating them, the so-called environmental hygiene must be preserved. “You can’t afford vulgar aspects or controversial topics, on the contrary – try to avoid advertising or political topics” – he argues. “This is a space where people who will stay with the created images for a long time live. If we talk about artistic murals, I think you need to have some sense and taste, like a chef.”
In 2019, Mikołaj Rejs created the mural “Return of Jan Twardowski” in Kraków’s Bielany, specifically on the wall of the Thesaurus Cracoviensis building, a branch of the Kraków Museum. It presents the continuation of the legend of Jan Twardowski, who meets his wife and opens a chest full of planets for her.
Critical street art
From the roundabout, go south towards the Vistula River. After passing Starowiślna Street, you will find yourself in Krakow’s Kazimierz. Here, at St. Wawrzyńca 5 Street, you will discover a mural of a completely different nature. This is an ironic commentary by Michał Linow, also known by the nickname Pikaso. When the artist’s earlier work was accused of anti-clericalism, he decided to censor himself and thus in 2012 the work “For God’s sake, censorship is everywhere” was created. It can be understood as a question about the limits of art and freedom of expression. “For me, some events, more related to the world of art than, for example, politics have been the source of inspiration” – emphasizes the author.” Artur Wabik, an artist, curator and critic, once aptly described it as critical street art.” When asked about the greatest strength of street art, Linow points out the ease of reaching the recipient: “the viewer does not come here for art, as in the case of a vernissage at the gallery, but rather is exposed to the work, for example when commuting in the morning.”
Tradition and culture
Walking around Kazimierz (the corner of Wąska Street and St. Wawrzyniec Street), you will see the work of Piled Peled, one of the most famous Israeli muralists. “Judah” (“Yehuda”) is a black and white silhouette of the Lion of Judah from the emblem of Jerusalem. Fashionable Israelis wear clothing collections signed by Peled, and his graphics adorn the most popular Tel Aviv clubs. His mural in Kraków has become a permanent part of in the Jewish identity of the district. This is similar to the work by Marcin Wierzchowski on the wall of the Galicia Jewish Museum (Dajwór 18 Street), which refers to the motifs of Jewish cut-outs. The artist, a member of Hmmm Studio, placed a menorah surrounded by symmetrically arranged elements referring to modern Israel and the time of the diaspora in the centre of the 120-meter-high mural.
“Each wall is a meeting”
It is worth moving a bit away from the centre to see the mural dedicated to Stanisław Wyspiański on the block in Kurdwanów, 4 Storczykowa Street. Kamil Kuzko, the author of the work, painter and artist points out: “I try to avoid answering questions about what art should talk about or not. The authorities are responsible for this area. I identify the space of art with the space of freedom.” The creative process itself can be long and tedious, but in the end, it gives a lot of satisfaction. “Each wall is also memories, people met and conversations. Among those from Kraków, I would definitely like to highlight the last one – the Loop in Kurdwanów, Hermes in Grzegórzecka or earlier – the Drama of Freedom in the Penitentiary or Exit at the Central Station.” In the capital of Małopolska, you can see, among others, one of the largest murals in Europe by Justyna Posiecz-Polkowska on the wall of Galeria Krakowska, or the “Ding Dong Dumb” by the Italian artist Blu – this controversial work, placed in the area of a former Jewish ghetto, raises the issue of the impact of faith and religion on society. The Kraków Street Art Trail includes murals made by artists from Poland, Italy, the Netherlands and Israel. The route starts at Galeria Krakowska and ends in Nowa Huta.