BY: LEAH HANSEN
Photos by: Galleri Grisk and Aarhus Art Convention
His hands are spotted the color of the spray from the can he has been using for two days. What is not in his hands ended up on the enormous four-square-meter sheet of plywood supported by wooden supports in the yard. His jeans and sweatshirt have pops of similar color, but his face has the easy-going smile of a satisfied person. His smile is slightly off balance and his eyes narrow as if they were in the joke. He’s a graffiti artist from Copenhagen, and he’s obviously found his way.
Standing on the concrete steps behind Godsbanen, a cultural center in the middle of Denmark’s second largest city, we saw a makeshift plywood wall erected for the occasion. There are many other plywood monoliths surrounding us, all marked and stained with layers and coats of paint, sprayed meticulously over the past couple of days. But it is the four-meter-high canvas just in front of us that we are focusing now. The surly purple monkey is sort of not as intimidating as you might think – it’s not a conventional artistic image, but the artistry is undeniable.
Rasmus Balstroem got his start in graffiti the same way most people do, tagging public property and vandalizing the walls of side streets and alleys with his friend Jacob Larsen, who stands sideways in a sweatshirt hoodie and gray paint striped sweatpants.
âI would say the general perception is that graffiti is something young boys with masks and shit do for crime,â Balstroem says. âBut I would say it is developing a lot in Denmark. I teach at universities and work with struggling kids in rural areas and teach them graffiti and get paid by the government to do it, so I would say they slack off a bit.
This is the Aarhus Art Convention, still new in its second year, held in central Denmark. Comprised mostly of graffiti artists and tattoo artists, the convention also hosts traditional art forms such as canvas paintings, a lecture series by well-known artists, and even a professional barber who appears to be in high demand. In one of the most progressive countries in the world, attitudes towards âundergroundâ art are no longer so underground.
The difference in the name is telling: in North America, it would be a tattoo and graffiti convention. In Denmark, art is a much more fluid concept, or at least is on the way to becoming one, explains Frederik Christian Rasbech, one of the organizers of the event. Tattoos fall somewhere between what’s art and what isn’t, he says.
âIn Denmark, we are very liberal, we always have been. So people really started getting tattoos in 2001 and 2002, it got really, really popular and it’s been fifteen years now, âhe says. âSo people are pretty open-minded and don’t see it as art, but they don’t dismiss it as a rebellious thing either. “
The crowd is diverse – not all millennials in band t-shirts and ripped jeans. An older couple walk hand in hand, dressed in unpretentious clothes. A woman in her mid-twenties has a tattoo that winds down the right side of her neck. A man buys hot chocolate for his grandson, who rides around the convention on a toy bicycle, helmet firmly attached to his head.
Public visibility is a big draw for the artists attending the convention, says Jacob Larsen – the spray can Balstroem has in his hand rattles behind us as he jumps off the scaffolding.
âAt an event like this, you can see all the painters, you can see their faces, they have their names here,â Larsen says, pointing to Balstroem. âVandalism is something you do when no one is looking. I don’t see any similarity except that you have an aerosol can in your hand.
Tattoo artists and graffiti artists are here for another big reason, says Rasbech: networking. Instead of putting guest artists in hotel rooms for the weekend, convention organizers converted a 13,000 square foot gallery in central Aarhus into a makeshift barracks for convention artists. . They eat together, they sleep together and they party together, says Rasbech.
âAll the painters stay there together and they’re not really used to it. They go to [conventions in] Vienna, they are going to Berlin, they have a hotel room and they will be alone, âhe said. âHere they will be together, I think it’s more of a family affair and I think they appreciate it. They can make new friends and expand their network.
While the graffiti artists are predominantly Danish, the group of tattoo artists who have taken up residence in Godsbanen’s long hall for the weekend come from all over the world. Two aisles of tattoo stands have been set up in the gigantic space – Spanish artists rub shoulders with a Berlin band. Danish artists are also present, but for many it is an opportunity to showcase their special talents when it comes to putting ink under the skin.
The Aarhus Art Convention weekend is a weekend of layers: paint on plywood, ink under skin. What was once a bunch of colorful lines and random streaks of spray paint on plywood is now a surly purple monkey, stunning in its detail – it’s late afternoon Sunday and the work of Larsen and Balstroem is finished.
âThe main reason for this event is not to focus on graffiti in particular,â says Larsen. “It’s just a cultural gathering where a lot of styles go together and where people can experience what the art of spray cans can be like instead of just seeing a label and thinking that everyone with a can in their hands main are doing something illegal. “