Street Art in Vienna: Color Burst
Examples of urban art can be found everywhere in the capital. Out walking or peering out of the window of a bus, tram or subway – all kinds of outdoor artworks reveal themselves beneath the Viennese sky. Often highly imaginative, and usually colorfully designed, a number of the city’s walls, facades and building entrances – as well as the odd subway station – are works of art in their own right. Numerous initiatives have helped outdoor art to flourish in Vienna.
Since its foundation back in 2004, KÖR Wien – an institution dedicated to the promotion of art in public spaces – has initiated and supported close to 300 temporary and permanent artistic projects, including a great deal of street art. Making contemporary art accessible for everyone and encouraging public discourse in the process. The Wien Museum on Karlsplatz, which is scheduled to reopen at the end of 2023 after a major refurb project, offered up the fence surrounding the construction site for street art in 2021 and 2022.
And then there’s the Vienna Wall project: backed by the city, selected walls throughout Vienna have been made available for anyone to use artistically since 2005 – participating locations are clearly marked with Wiener Taube plaques featuring a pigeon symbol. The Danube Canal is undoubtedly the epicenter of street art in the city. Running through the city center, this offshoot of the River Danube is a veritable outdoor exhibition space. Here, the walls, railings and archways are covered with layer upon layer of spray paint. It is also where one of Europe's largest open-air galleries, known in the scene as the Hall of Fame, was created in recent years.
Vienna’s Magnetic Draw
The capital has also had its own festival for street art since 2014, Calle Libre, which is now the largest in Central Europe. "When we started, art in public spaces was still dismissed as graffiti by many, and was considered art’s poor relation," says Jakob Kattner, who launched Calle Libre (Spanish for free street) after a study trip around Latin America. Taking place every summer, this festival for urban aesthetics combines visual and performing arts with new media.
More than 70 walls, some of them several meters high, in 13 districts have so far been covered by local and international street artists. After all, the city enjoys an excellent reputation worldwide. Kattner: “Vienna is a mecca for art. And of course, that attracts a lot of artists." Some find very special inspiration here, including international stars Kobra and Kruella d'Enfer, both of whom made their mark in the fourth district with their murals. Influenced by Viennese greats Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, their 2018 works are still in place.
Kattner's vision? To make Vienna more colorful. This also goes down well with the Viennese. “Residents’ acceptance of street art has steadily increased over the years," says the festival’s founder. “We want to help shape the look of the city, and pave the way for discourse and cross-cultural exchange. In recent years, we have been able to show that urban art is a contemporary art movement that should be taken seriously. And of course, we’re pleased with the positive feedback we receive." Street art has long distanced itself from associations with vandalism. Cultural institutions are also increasingly forging collaborations of their own, as evidenced by various joint initiatives including partnerships between Calle Libre and the mumok, the Albertina, the Wien Museum and the Weltmuseum Wien.
Last August, Calle Libre broke new ground. In the eight years before, it had played out at various locations around the city. But last year, for the first time, the painting, spraying and partying centered on a single site all week long: the derelict site of the former Nordwestbahnhof station in Vienna's twentieth district – completed ahead of the 1873 Vienna World's Fair – where 22 artists worked side by side on a 400-meter-long wall. The resulting opportunity to exchange ideas was particularly well received. There were also music acts, street art tours, workshops, panel talks and much more – enjoyed by a total of around 18,000 visitors. There was only one downside to this wonderful summer spectacle at the beginning of August: the colorful wall is condemned to meet the fate that haunts all urban art – it’s days are numbered. While street artists can express themselves freely through their work, preserving it for posterity is a different matter entirely.
In With the New
The wall is in fact being demolished to make way for what promises to be a landmark new urban district. Scheduled to start in 2024, work to redevelop the old Nordbahnhof site will also see the creation of a ten-hectare green area known as Grüne Mitte. Covering some 44 hectares in total – making it the largest remaining central development area in the city – the new site will add new homes for 15,000 people and around 4,500 workplaces.
Circling back to street art: it is ephemeral, and lives in the moment. That said, two highlights from last year's festival are set to live on for some time to come: a 30-meter-high residential tower designed by Thiago Mazza (Brazil), which borders the festival grounds, and Trash Animal – a giant installation made of garbage by Bordalo II and sponsored by KÖR. Plans are afoot to conserve the latter and find a new home for it somewhere else in the city. And Calle Libre is already making plans for its tenth anniversary in 2023. Jakob Kattner: "The anniversary has to be special, of course." New street art is already being planned, with added splashes of color guaranteed for Vienna...
Learn more about street art in Vienna
Text: Maria Schaller