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Mural Time: Discovering the Reykjavik Street Art Scene

Pink octopus mural, part of the Reykjavik street art scene.

Greykjavik, as the locals call it. This is drab, ugly, cloudy Reykjavik. The world’s northern-most capital city only sees daylight for three hours a day in the winter. It’s a dreary and depressing place. Or is it? On the sides of buildings and walls throughout the capital city, the Reykjavik street art scene is going strong.

Greykjavik wall mural in downtown Reykjavik, one of the most famous wall murals in Iceland
The Greykjavik wall mural in downtown Reykjavik (attributed to Siggi Odds)

There’s color to be found as the drab city reveals its inner self:  fun, passionate, and caring about the broader world.  The city itself becomes an ever-changing tapestry…and the locals are very proud of their creations.

Fish mural in the shape of Iceland on a garage in downtown Reykjavik
A fish mural in the shape of Iceland

Being from Philadelphia, the city generally regarded as founding the street art wall mural style (a full decade before they were seen in New York City), we are well versed in the urban arts.  The city of Philadelphia is home to over 3,600 full-wall murals, and an estimated 250,000 smaller works.  What our hometown has in quantity, Reykjavik has in quality.

Three birds wall mural is an example of Iceland street art

The breadth and complexity of the Reykjavik wall murals is something we hadn’t expected.  Join us on our journey exploring the best of Reykjavik’s street art scene.

But first, our standard disclaimer when it comes writing about urban arts:  There’s a difference between street art and graffiti.  We do not endorse or sanction the defacing or vandalism of either public or private property.  Many street art murals are on private property.  Enjoy them from the street or public easements, but do not trespass on private property. 

Some street art murals are unusual and indescribable
This unusual mural is in a near-constant state of metamorphosis. It always seems to be changing.

These kinds of works are often temporary.  Many of the murals and projects depicted here may be already been altered, destroyed, or painted over by the time you visit Reykjavik.  Where possible, we attempt to attribute the work to the muralist(s).

Origins:  Graffiti and Street Art in Iceland

If you read anything about street art in Reykjavik, you’ll likely see references to the famous Iceland Airwaves/Urban Nation collaboration known as Wall Poetry in 2015 and 2016 (more on this later).  Many articles on the local scene seem to start the discussion of urban Icelandic arts here.  It’s almost as if there wasn’t any street art in Iceland before that point.  Not true.

Tree and poetry wall mural in Reykjavik
Mural in Reykjavik in 2009

Decades after the explosion of graffiti on buildings in our hometown of Philadelphia, teens and young adults in the Icelandic capital discovered the joys of the spray can and the power the image.  The graffiti and tagging culture that is the precursor to urban mural art took hold in Iceland in the early 1990s.

The street art movement began with basic tagging in Reykjavik
An example of basic tagging

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, most of the street art examples to be found in Reykjavik were common tagging and building graffiti.  This style started to evolve in the Miklabraut Road underpass leading to Klambratún Park (as it is called locally, Hlíðargöngin).

Here, tagging evolved using the the angular lightning style popular in Europe and elsewhere, before taking more literal/murlaistic techniques.  [Much of this work reminds us of the alleys of Toronto or Ecuador.]

Bubble style street graffiti in Reykjavik by the Ugly Boys
The bubble style has become increasingly popular for tagging

By the time we first visited Iceland in 2009, the scene was firmly established.  There were dozens of Reykjavik street art murals littered throughout downtown, many of exceptional quality and most located along or just off the main drag, Laugavegur street. 

Street murals like this beer can are temporary
Beer can on a construction site wall by RWS crew

By 2012, these works were so firmly entrenched in Icelandic culture, that when stenciled murals started showing up along the south coast, people assumed the famous British artist Banksy was in the country.  Whether there really are murals by Banksy in Iceland (or just very good fakes), is still a matter of popular discussion. 

There is at least one Icelandic Banksy mural:  it was given as a gift by the artist to hang in the Reykjavik mayor’s office.  Somehow that gift ended up in the living room of the now former mayor (Jón Gnarr) and caused a major controversy when it appeared to have been stolen from the citizens of Reykjavik by the ousted mayor.  Political intrigue is the same everywhere in the world.

Street art stencil works like this young girl are seen in the Icelandic capital
Stencil works have been seen with increasing frequency (Note: just a work is stencil doesn’t mean Banksy was here!)

In the lead up to the financial crisis in Iceland, street art cartoons were extremely common.  These were whimsical, playful images on non-serious subjects.  During the Iceland banking crisis, many of the cartoons (particularly along Lindargata street) were edited and took on a harsher, more critical tone…often immediately before the buildings were destroyed to make way for luxury high-rise buildings.

Evil Mindz mural in someone's driveway in Reykjavik

In the aftermath of the crisis, the edgy style has fallen away and more peaceful, business-friendly projects have taken their places.  These days, exploring the street art murals is one of the top things to do in Reykjavik.

Themes of Iceland Wall Art

The natural world features heavily in the art on the Reykjavik streets.  In a country filled with tremendous natural beauty, it is no surprise that the artists would turn to these natural elements for their beautiful creations.  Common themes are bald eagles, wolves, fish, flowers and other natural elements.  The naturalistic themes in Iceland reminded us of similar works in Vancouver.

Bald eagle mural.
Wildlife and nature are common themes in Icelandic street art

A handful of modern mural paintings focus on human achievements, often with an eye towards social justice issues.  The rights of women and climate change are popular mural topics in Reykjavik right now.

Reykjavik Wall Poetry Project

The Wall Poetry in Reykjavik project was hardly the origins of street murals, however, it was an important turning point for the medium.  Wall Poetry brought murals larger than anything seen before to the Icelandic capital.

Mural by Elle of woman and wolves as part of the Wall Poetry project
A mural created by American muralist Elle for the Iceland Airwaves Wall Poetry initiative

The Iceland Airwaves music festival, held every November in Reykjavik, is one of the world’s most popular music festivals.  Dozens of bands fill the agenda of the multi-day festival, that draws tens of thousands of visitors from around the world.  And many of them fly to Iceland on Icelandair, the founder and sponsor of the festival.

In 2015, Iceland Airwaves and Icelandair partnered with the German collaborative Urban Nation to bring Berlin to Reykjavik.  The two-year project (2015 and again in 2016) brought semi-famous muralists from around the world to Reykjavik to create large-scale murals.

Caratoes mural on Laugavegur street created for the Urban Nation Wallpoetry program
This is one of the most famous murals in Reykjavik and is located right on Laugavegur street (by Caratoes)

The international artists were paired with a musician from the festival to create a work.  The Wall Poetry effectively visually translates or amplifies the auditory experience of the artist.  A musical playlist was created to allow visitors to experience both the mural and music together.

However, in a move that irritated/angered many in Iceland, Urban Nation excluded all Iceland artists from participating.  As a result, some of the works have spelling errors in the Icelandic language and some of the content/themes seem foreign or bizarre to locals. 

Looking back, at the best, the Wall Poetry project seemed a bit ‘tone deaf’ in its approach.  At worst, the project came at a time when the wounds over the banking crisis between Iceland and the rest of the Europe were still raw, and this only reinforced a marginalization of Icelanders.

Building murals can frequently be painted over or destroyed
The massive fisherman mural located at Skúlagata 4 that was created for Wall Poetry has been painted over and new futuristic work can now be found there

While many/some of the Wall Poetry murals remain, they are often not as popular as the Iceland arts originating from truly local muralists.  This feeling is only underscored by how quickly some of the Wall Poetry murals have been painted over.

Reykjavik Street Art Examples

Here are additional Reykjavik art examples we discovered on the streets of Iceland’s capital city.  When it comes to Reykjavik, the best murals and the best graffiti can generally be found closer to the water, both in downtown and near the harbor.

Flower paintings at parking garage in the capital
The paintings at this parking garage are some of the oldest surviving works in the city
The rainbow pride flag painted on the street in Reykjavik
Sometimes the art is literally on the street
Iceland arts are both colorful and playful, as can be seen in this sidewalk art
Sidewalk art in Reykjavik
Commissioned wall murals, such as this feather work by muralist Sara Riel
Guerrilla works paved the way for large-scale commissioned murals, such as this one by Sara Riel
Icelandic Mermaid mural that is attributed to artist Raus
The Mermaid (attributed to Raus)
The cat and ball of string murals in Iceland
The entry to this apartment building had opposing murals: a cat and a ball of string. Here’s the cat.
The ball of string is part of a two-part opposing mural
…and the string
This Rams head is one of the many beautiful street art murals in Iceland
The rams head mural
The Reykjavik street art hall of fame
This work on Laugavegur street is a kind of “street art hall of fame”: Kiddust and RWS crew tags alongside a stencil from Bubblegum of a giraffe.
Many Iceland wall art murals focus on social progress, social justice, or equality issues
Many works focus on social progress
Businesses hire wall muralists to decorate their premises, such as Braud & Co.
Businesses hire muralists to decorate their premises, such as Braud & Co.
Wall murals at MB Taqueria
…or MB Taqueria
Horse and animals mural by Ugly Brothers
Another Ugly Brothers mural
Mixed-media murals are popping up in the capital
Some murals are going beyond just paint. For example, the head of this pin is actually a mirror affixed to the wall that reflects back the viewer’s image
A rooster mural on a Reykjavik street
Some murals have exceptional quality or details
Electrical box with red heart and word ELSKID

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