As a masters student in the Sustainable Urban Planning and Design program at KTH, James Thoem is constantly trying to make sense of the landscapes around him. His interests have led him to work in youth mobility, urban agriculture and activism in both his native Toronto and current home, Stockholm. Follow James on Twitter.
I’ve lived in Stockholm well over a year now and I am continually surprised by the ubiquity of public art. Bronze statues can be found in the smallest suburban neighbourhood courtyards to downtown public squares. Though unfortunately rare, murals adorn walls in Årsta and Skanstull livening up the landscape. Distinctly scandinavian concrete art adds texture to walls in Fartsa, and Hägerstensåsen. And of course, you can’t talk about public art in Stockholm without a nod to the world’s longest art gallery, Stockholm’s tunnelbana network.
As delightful and inspiring these glimpses of public art are, they are products of a formalised system. Not that there’s anything wrong with government run public art campaigns, policies like Stockholm’s Trafikens Konstnämnd, Toronto’s Percent for Public Art Program and Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program have had invaluable effects on daily life. But there’s equally, if not more, to be said for the value of informal acts of public art.
Call it graffiti, street art, vandalism, whatever you like, informal public art can be an incredible display of expression, democracy, or just plain decoration. However, due to a list of reasons -including a strict zero tolerance graffiti law- Stockholm has an obvious absence of informal public art, making for chance encounters much more enjoyable. A couple weeks ago I was pleasantly shocked to see the subway train pull into the platform covered in graffiti, adding even more colour to the already artistic subway network. Of course, proponents of the broken windows theory will happily bring up the vicious cycle of allowing graffiti to remain in place. Not to mention the legality of it. So what could be less intrusive than spray cans and krink markers? How about teddy bears and bananas in pyjamas?!
Enter the Nybohovshiss, a funicular connecting Liljeholmen station to the above neighbourhood of Nybohovsberget. Though run by SL (Stockholm’s public transit authority), this short uphill train journey requires no fare and is unadorned with the art that has made the Stockholm subway network popular. Travellers board a small subway car resembling a C20 model, sit tight for about two minutes, before the conductor delivers them safely to their destination. But once aboard, an otherwise nondescript commute through a mountain is interrupted by… a sea turtle? a comical cow? a elephant wearing a fez?
Over the years it seems as if staff have taken public art into their own hands, attaching stuffed animals to the cave walls to add a little colour to the short commute. I have to admit, on my first trip on the Nybohovshiss I started laughing out loud at the appearance of a bright yellow duck smiling back at me. And after numerous trips back, it appears that I’m not alone. I’ve seen both adults and children’s faces brighten at the sight of the passing stuffed animals. Aside from the odd tag and the few painted platform trash cans, this must be the most complete example of informal art within the SL network. Unfortunately dirty windows, constant movement and poor lighting make photographing the passing “installations” difficult. But believe me, it’s worth the trip.
I like to imagine the artist(s) combing second hand stores and garage sales for the next addition to the ongoing installation. How do they decide which discarded toys are worthy? Or maybe it’s a community initiative, with locals bringing the teddybears they’ve outgrown to be added to the cave walls. The few train conductors I spoke wih seemed to have no idea where the animals came from, only adding to the mystery. Nevertheless, this example of informal public art invites imagination, laughter and a unique sense of community to those who ride the funicular.