Reporting from the streets of Aberdeen, Scotland, where the renowned street art festival Nuart Aberdeen is back in full swing.
Nuart is the world’s leading street art festival.
When you land at the Aberdeen Airport and get through passport control, an officer will ask about the reason for your visit. It’s always with pride that I declare “Nuart Festival,” and, each time, I’m surprised by the enthusiasm shown by Aberdeen’s officers. Long gone are the times when officers were chasing artists in the streets; this officer told me that, before the pandemic, he and his wife attended a street art tour of Nuart walls, and he loved it.
If times have changed, it’s also thanks to Nuart Festival, which has brought top-notch street artists to Aberdeen since 2017. As a result, many Aberdonians who would not have stepped into museums or art galleries are now engaged with and inspired by art in the streets of their city. They have been exploring the periphery of urban public space and those of the art world with curious eyes and an adventurous mindset.
Street artists at work in Aberdeen for the Nuart Festival.
On my first day in Aberdeen, I woke up very early due to excitement for the week ahead and the sunlight bursting into the room. I’d left the curtains wide open, not expecting the sun in Scotland to rise at 4 am.
No biggie, though, as I was eager to check out the artworks in progress. The artists in this year’s festival had already started painting, and I was afraid I would miss the chance to document their process.
My first stop was Virginia Street, where, next to the stunning stencil piece by Snik (Nuart Festival 2018), two more stencil masters were placing their pages onto the wall: the Scottish James Klinge and the Norwegian Martin Whatson.
James Klinge is based in Glasgow, but he’s been hitting the streets of Aberdeen for a long time. His process uses hand-cut stencils, yet the final effect is highly detailed and painterly. However, at this point of the week, there was still a long way to go toward the final result, as James was the last artist to complete his piece for Nuart Aberdeen 2022.
That morning, all I could see was the intriguing shape of a woman putting a finger to her lips, which reminded me of the work of yet another stencil master, Jef Aérosol, next to Paris’ Centre Pompidou. The subject of James’ mural is his wife, but I believe the invitation to be quiet, to listen before talking, and to enjoy the silence, might still be a reference to the famous mural in Paris.
Right next to it, Martin Whatson‘s mural honours Aberdeen’s granite workers and stone masons of today. The piece shows a stencilled man sitting atop a granite block, depicted through Whatson’s iconic imagery derived from graffiti, a colourful mix of throw-ups and calligraphic scribbles. The mural The Quarry Worker was already completed; it looked stunning, although I was disappointed not to have caught the artist in action.
From there, I walked twenty minutes to Mohamed L’Ghacham‘s wall. I found him painting quietly, with a warm smile on his face. Later in the week, it was clear the cheerful vibe is simply a constant of Mohamed’s attitude; he is such a wonderful soul. Mohamed invited me onto the the lift. While I was taking photos, he told me that the picture that inspired this mural was taken in the 1970s in the States. Mohamed’s process begins with old photos he buys in bundles at flea markets. The goal isn’t depicting the image realistically, but recreating the intimate atmosphere that strikes him from that specific photo. This photo, indeed, invoked the homely atmosphere of a family breakfast, hence the title: El Desayuno.
I knew he was from Morocco, but on that lift I found out he also grew up in Barcelona. That’s when I realized that five out of eleven artists from this year’s Nuart roster come from the same city. Convinced that this could not be a coincidence, I began investigating what eventually became the fil rouge of the interviews I did that week. So, I found out that contemporary mural artists from Spain have a painterly style that is very sought after at street art festivals. It’s a style strongly influenced by classical artists like Velazquez and Goya, best expressed through brushes rather than spray cans.
Another mural artist representing this Spanish wave is Jofre Oliveras, whose wall I saw next. The man who owns the stone was the first mural to be completed at Nuart Aberdeen 2022, and its powerful message sets the tone for all the other artworks created around this year’s theme of Reconnect. Jofre shows what is stopping us from being connected; namely, nationalism. The mural is a metaphor for our isolation. The man is blinded by the flag he is fiercely carrying and thus doesn’t realise that the issues we are called to face, from climate change to the depletion of resources to the migration crisis, demand for a shared vision. However, joining forces and acting together become impossible to accomplish if we all only care about our own stone.
From there, I went to say hi to Nuno Viegas, who was painting a twin piece for his mural in Stavanger. Nuno’s imagery is derived from his background in graffiti. However, when painting a mural, Nuno’s style is especially clean. The resulting image is calm and peaceful, which is in direct contrast with the roughness and dirtiness of graffiti. In Norway, Nuno decorated his trademark headscarf, commonly used by graffiti artists to cover their faces, with the King of Hearts.
Intriguingly, while here in Scotland, he painted a Queen of Hearts. Like I did in Stavanger, I hopped on the lift and chatted with Nuno while taking photos of his process; back then (Nuart Festival 2019) we were both living in The Netherlands, while now we are both back in our home country, and finally reconnected to our roots, which made for an excellent topic of discussion.
In this same area of the city, there’s one of the murals produced last year. Even through the pandemic, the Nuart team invited a few national artists throughout the summer in a socially distanced manner. Pulling Faces by Fanakapan has instantly become one of my favourite murals in Aberdeen. As always, Fanakapan’s hyper-realistic, inflated balloons couldn’t help but put a smile on my face.
While I was walking towards Union Square to catch up with more artists at work, Nuart Aberdeen’s host Jon Reid called me to let me know that there was action in the city centre ;) The Norwegian stencil artist Vlek, who was in town to take part in a panel discussion at the Nuart Plus symposium, was hitting the streets. No need to tell me twice; I was with them right away.
After Vlek pulled the last stencil page off the wall, I said goodbye. I headed towards Union Square, where, next to murals by Ernest Zacharevich, Helen Bur, Milu Correct, and Bordalo II, Barcelona-based street artist Slim Safont was bringing the realism of the Spanish wave to the next level. At this point in the week, Slim and his fellow artist Wedo Goas had already completed the upper part of the wall, depicting a child in front of a chalkboard in their hyper-realistic style.
On the chalkboard is the sentence ‘I will pay my taxes.’ This inspired speculation inside the financial building to which the wall belongs and in the streets. While I was looking for the best angle to take my photos, I overheard a conversation between two men, wondering if the young girl was worried about losing her lightheartedness when embracing grown-up responsibilities: like having to pay taxes. However, upon completing it, Slim Safont stated that this mural is not about taxes. Instead, it’s about indoctrination, and the school punishment of writing lines pushing us from an early age to follow pre-established models.
On a side road at the end of Union Street, I found Erin Holly contemplating her mural from a distance. Having known Erin for many years, and travelling to several street art festivals together, I can say that as she has changed over time with her gender transition, so has her painting style. Now it has transformed, becoming more realistic and sharp, with images of indoor spaces at its core.
In Aberdeen, Erin Holly painted a bathroom from an 80s home catalogue. The photo is taken from an unusual perspective, which is the first thing that caught her attention, followed by a consideration of toilets’ political significance in the transgender community. Moreover, through this pastel-coloured image perfectly fitting in the Aberdeen silverscape, she introduced the topic of idealization, represented by the aspirational photos people collect either from lifestyle magazines or on Pinterest in a never-ending effort to achieve the Perfect Life: an effort that it’s at the drive of consumerism and capitalism.
At this point in the day, the Nuart festival was officially kicking off at the Aberdeen Town House, so I walked back along Union Street until I stumbled upon Pejac’s spot. Pejac requested to be left alone during production. Fair enough. He even had “No Photos” signs all over the place, and a Nuart volunteer standing in front of the door to prevent people from taking pictures. However, as we stumbled upon each other while I walked past his piece, we had a quick chat, and I pleasantly realized that he was warmer and friendlier than the assumptions suggested.
It was finally time to ‘Reconnect’ with the Nuart family. At the reception, I met my fellow street art blogger, long-time festival buddy Stuart (Inspiring City blog), and the whole Nuart crew. Afterwards, we all went to the screening of “Martha: A Picture Story,” the documentary movie about graffiti photographer Martha Cooper, which I’ve already reviewed after its Norwegian premiere at the Nuart Festival 2019. A Q&A followed the film, joined by Martha’s funny and outspoken cousin Sally, who replied bluntly to the questions coming from the audience. ;)
Nuart Aberdeen 2022: the festival and the street art symposium Nuart Plus.
The next day was so windy that, at the beginning of my walk, I found James Klinge securing the basket of his platform with plastic wrap. You have to love the resourceful DIY graffiti mentality.
Another artist who fought the elements throughout the week is Jacoba Niepoort, whose mural I went to see next. Jacoba was painting next to a huge glass building reflecting the sunlight onto her wall for nine hours a day. The reflections were constantly shifting across her painting surface, a nightmare for any mural artist; but especially for Jacoba, who has a delicate style and uses subtle, almost monochromatic, tones.
Despite the challenging conditions, Jacoba completed a stunning mural depicting three women’s entangled bodies. For her, ‘Reconnection’ isn’t simply the festival theme but also the core of her body of work, which aims at showing that, underneath, we are alike, hence the naked bodies, a recurring subject in Jacoba’s work.
A short walk away, I found Elisa Capdevila painting on an abandoned building next to the shopping mall. The site’s status inspired a homely scene on the now-empty building: a girl lying down and gazing outside the window.
Most of all, A window to the sea represents a specific, comforting mood. That of lazy Sunday mornings in bed, the much-needed time of introspection necessary to reconnect with ourselves. Capdevila definitely couldn’t enjoy any lazy mornings in Aberdeen, since the rough surface of this massive wall took a long time to paint, and Elisa worked restlessly on it.
On the other side of the shopping mall, I spotted another mural produced last year by Aberdeen artist KMG. Katie too worked on the “Reconnect” theme, albeit a year earlier. She did so by digging into her memories of Aberdeen (she is from Aberdeen but now based elsewhere in Scotland), those of a mural depicting fish at the Aberdeen Market, which reminded her of Gulliver’s Travels.
While I was taking photos of KMG’s multi-eyed characters playing Lilliputians, Jofre Oliveras texted me that he was ready for our interview, so I headed to the Nuart Hub and got us a comfy couch. We chatted for one hour or so, touching on many different topics, from philosophy to Jofre’s community-based life at Konvent, a cultural space near Barcelona, and the street art project he curated in Beirut during a civil war.
After lunch, I finally joined the Nuart Plus panel discussions. It’s no secret that the street art symposium is my favourite part of the Nuart Festival. The first talk of the afternoon was by Stephen Pritchard, whom I had already met in Stavanger. Stephen talked about his experience as a community artist and organizer of community-led art projects on the outskirts of London. He spoke of murals and street art that celebrated local pride, closing his keynote with a message of hope: the magic exists everywhere.
Afterwards, Stephen Pritchard was joined on stage by Lachlan MacDowall, curator of Melbourne’s street art project Flash Forward, and then by the couple behind the excellent Gallery No. 32 outdoor art space in London for an exciting panel discussing how we can work together to create and sustain independent creative spaces and projects.
Finally, legendary graffiti photographer Martha Cooper discussed her new book “Spray Nation.” Martha shared so many anecdotes that I’m writing an article on this presentation alone (stay tuned!). She also replied to various questions from the audience, my favourite being: “You photographed the most iconic artists, but is there someone you’d like to photograph but have not?” She replied straightforwardly: “Banksy.”
After the mandatory picture with Martha Cooper, I walked as far as Pejac’s spot to see if the Spanish artist had finished his installation. For Nuart Aberdeen 2022, Pejac painted a powerful piece right outside the door of the Citizens Advice Bureau, which helps marginalized groups in the social housing above.
Pejac’s art is highly site-specific, so the placement itself adds a layer of meaning to the artwork, consisting of a trompe-l’oeil doormat of tiny men dispersing around the word “Welcome.” The installation refers to nationalism, particularly to Brexit, but it speaks in support of all people who feel marginalized, foreign, and discriminated against.
One more artist wrapped up his piece that evening. I reached Mohamed’s wall just in time to see him putting the final touches, and just minutes before the storm.
Once again, Mohamed looked very happy, even when we had to take shelter from the rain waiting for Tazzy to pick us up with his car.
With just about time to download the photos of the day, I was already at dinner, sitting next to collage artist Miss Printed, who I had been looking forward to meeting at the festival. We talked about my collage hobby, The Netherlands, and then back to collage, as I’d signed up for the collage workshop she was leading the very next day.
A while after, some of us went to a nearby pub, where the conversation turned to the topic of that night’s Fight Club: Individualism against The Collective. Evan Pricco was warming up his arguments in support of individualism by stating that graffiti is basically someone writing his name. At the same time, we challenged him with counter-arguments until it was time to go to SPIN for the actual debate. Luckily, the rain had stopped, leaving the Granite City sparkling under the rainbow.
Unsurprisingly, the Fight Club was won by The Collective argument, endorsed by Jofre Oliveras, Erik Hannerz, and Lucy Finchett-Maddock. However, the Individualism argument doubled its consensus throughout the evening, putting up a good fight.
Nuart Aberdeen keeps transforming the streetscape of the Granite City.
Before joining the long-awaited street art collage workshop, I reconnected with some of the murals I’d seen coming into being in the past editions of the Nuart Aberdeen festival. Moreover, on this walk around the city, I discovered a breath-taking new mural: a breastfeeding scene painted by Helen Bur.
Helen Bur‘s first mural in Aberdeen (Nuart Festival 2019) depicted two characters: a man holding a ball and a woman with the hoop, recalling the idea of the “game” she had already played with in Stavanger. Despite being on two separate corners of the building, it was evident the two were in a romantic relationship. That building was torn down, but their love story continues. Last summer, Helen came back to Aberdeen to paint the next chapter of their relationship. And so, here, we can see Alice and Hugo, Helen’s actual flatmates, with their newborn.
At last, it was time for Miss Printed’s workshop. She and her friend Rhed Fawell (director of the Edinburgh Collage Collective) welcomed us into a room with art books and old magazines scattered around. Miss Printed told us she began fiddling about with scissors and paper when her good friend lost the love of her life. As she couldn’t go and visit her, she began sending handmade humorous postcards to cheer her up every week. One time she couldn’t make an actual postcard since she was travelling in her van. Instead, she made a small paper collage and placed it in the woods, then took a photograph and sent it to her friend on WhatsApp. On that occasion, she liked how the paper figures interacted with the surroundings. She decided to leave them there so that someone could stumble upon that small world she had created for her friend.
Then she shared some practical advice to help us start creating our worlds to place in the streets in only an hour. I took a book excitingly titled “Cute Photos of Dogs” and an art book about Michelangelo, since I naturally wanted to add some Italian flavours to the streets of Aberdeen. Several sculptures were working well with the dog I fancied, but one, that of St. Peter, looked especially dignified, which made the perfect contrast to the cute dog.
After placing our collages in the streets, I said goodbye to my classmates and went to Nuno Viegas’ mural, hoping for a final shot with no platform in front of it. Since the last time I was here, Nuno had completed the background of his piece. It now showed a massive throw-up version of his tag, Metis, which he has been writing since 1999.
After a quick sandwich, it was time for the second day of the Nuart Plus symposium; in particular, it was time for Erin Holly’s artist talk. The day before, she confessed to me she was a bit nervous about giving her first artist talk, but she definitely captivated the audience! Erin talked about her murals, her studio process, her gallery works, and how they all come together in support of the LGBTQ+ community.
Erin was joined on stage by two more mural artists in this year’s Nuart roster, Jofre Oliveras and Slim Safont, for the excellent panel “Muralism: A Catalyst for Collective Culture.” Moderated by Sabina Andron, the three street artists discussed the rise of contemporary Muralism and its relationship to collectivism. Despite being representatives of this art movement, the panellists shared a critical outlook on the phenomenon, exemplified by Javier Abarca’s perception of murals dominating the city. This authoritarian neoliberal approach paved the way for gentrification projects and a growing corporate influence. I found it particularly interesting when the discussion turned to another downfall of Muralism: that murals today are designed to keep in mind the circulation of the photo on social media, rather than the community of people walking past them every day.
Lastly, there was a panel discussion on “Developing Local Creative Spaces and Projects” with the best of Aberdeen’s cultural scene, Jim Ewen, Ica Headlam, and the incomparable Jon Reid, in conversation with Arne Vilhelm Tellefsen (aka Vlak) from Norway.
After the symposium, I invited Mohamed L’Ghacham to the museum café for an interview. We sat there for around one hour, confirming my first impression: Mohamed is such a pleasant person to talk with. Mohamed told me about his beginning in graffiti and the perks of the Barcelona scene, how he switched to figurative painting, his main influences, and much more.
A pitstop at the hotel to drop off my camera bag and the two Sedaris books I’d bought at a local bookshop, and I was off to the Nuart Hub for the closing party…which was also Jacoba’s 35th birthday party. By the look on her face when she entered the Nuart office, she hadn’t seen it coming.
Street Art enables us to reconnect with one another, with art and culture, and with the city.
On Sunday, several artists were leaving the city, but I managed to do one last interview in the hotel lobby, this time with Miss Printed. We talked about the strong-knit community behind collage art and how it is mainly made of women. Nevertheless, when a collage piece is recognized as artwork and showcased in a museum, that piece is very often signed by a man. That’s even the case at the Aberdeen Art Gallery, which hosts a collage artwork by Matisse.
Moreover, Miss Printed shared with me the locations of the figurines she left in the streets right before our interview. It had been tough to find them, since most had either got soaked in the rain or stolen, so I was very happy I could still see a few of her careful collages.
Eventually, Stuart and I also went to take each other’s photos at Miss Printed’s face-in-hole board in Castle Street. This larger installation allows people to be part of a collage themselves. Such boards were very popular throughout the UK before billboards in the streets became the exclusive preserve of advertising. Hence, the text saying ‘Your Ad Here.’
For me, this intervention summarizes the sense of playfulness and loosening up formality that I’ve always associated with the Nuart festival. It’s an incitement to take ownership of the urban public space and play in it, which echoes Banksy’s “No Ball Game” pieces.
After saying goodbye to Stuart, I joined the street art tour by the one and only Jon Reid, the sole holder of many anecdotes about Aberdeen murals.
Before saying goodbye, Jon invited me to his studio. He gave me a special present: the fanzine he created to document street art in Aberdeen before the arrival of the Nuart Festival. On the last page, Jon included the prosecution letter he got for putting up his work in the streets of Aberdeen. (He shared the whole story, and that of the Aberdeen street art scene, in the interview we did in 2019.)
As I read it on the plane, I couldn’t help thinking about the enthusiasm shown by the officer who greeted me at my arrival. Time has passed, and many things have changed since the Nuart festival found its second home in Aberdeen; not only for Jon, who went from having a bounty on his head to producing outstanding murals in his city, but for all those who, through street art, were able to develop a connection with their city.
Stay tuned for more articles about Nuart Aberdeen 2022. In the meantime, enjoy the video!
Subscribe to my monthly newsletter to stay in the loop!