Interview with Tobias Barenthin Lindblad (SE) – Un-hidden Bucharest [en]
Shortly before Urban Vibes vol. 3 kicked-off this May in Moldova, we talked to renowned graffiti and street art author at Dokument Press, Tobias Barenthin Lindblad, about his participation at the event, about the history and potential evolution of art in the public space, how his interest in the movement started and what he’s currently working on, artists, events and cities to follow, introducing graffiti to the youth, why he believes culture to be the most important infrastructure for human society, and more.
f: Hello, Tobias, you are an author, lecturer and editor at Dokument Press – both a publisher and a knowledge providing company founded by Malcolm Jacobson in 2000, with its origin in the famed graffiti magazine UP, launched in 1992, when you also partnered with Malcolm. As a brief introduction for our readers, during these two decades, Dokument Press has become renowned in the field of graffiti and street art in Sweden and worldwide for the published book titles (reaching 10 titles/year since 2006 and appreciated not only for content quality, but also for design), in-depth lectures providing inside perspective and understanding on various related topics and artists, thorough research of street and youth culture, workshops where people can create their own artworks or which bring new insights about hip hop and art movements, subcultures and creativity, citizen participation and tolerance, for the city tours, exhibitions, debates and other art projects and events.
So please share with us the most defining moments for you during this ongoing involvement in developing the platform. What were the challenges, the breakthroughs, memorable events and book launches, which artists made a lasting impression on you, which projects are you currently working on? Also, where do you believe street art and graffiti are heading to, what do you envision for the future of this cultural phenomenon that has been in the spotlight in recent years?
Tobias Barenthin Lindblad:
I think the biggest challenge, or the most important variable in doing anything, is to have a love for what you do and to find a way in keeping yourself motivated towards the future.
To quote Swedish rapper Promoe, I try to think about what we do as a long distance run (hopefully, through life). What I also see as extremely important is to have good partners. They’re not easy to find, but I always try to expand our network and incorporate new friends to work with. From my point of view, I try to stay “hungry” and not get too comfortable. By biking all year round and trying not to get used to high standards, I have found it easier to keep my loyalty and a clear view of what I do.
What you should know is that things take time. After fifteen or twenty years, people have started to approach us telling us how important UP was for them, for example. I have learned that everything you do affects others and that things spread in the most surprising ways.
As we work a lot with politics in terms of spreading knowledge about graffiti and pressing the importance of having open walls as a way for citizens to participate in their cities, the opening of Stockholm’s first walls in 2016 is, of course, a significant memory. Also, the debates about graffiti we had with the former minister of culture on Swedish television back in 2010.
Currently, we’re working with several books on Swedish graffiti history. That is also a way to unearth stories and voices from people who seldom become heard in the public discourse.
We can clearly see that graffiti and street art become, more and more, a way for cities to brand themselves, a part in being “authentic”, which, of course, is not true as long as the main streets are full of the same chain stores all over the world: same products, same smells, same looks and tastes. In that context, graffiti becomes one of the few unique expressions that show a local flavour. It’s interesting to hear that real estate brokers in Berlin use tags on buildings as a selling point. Street art further blurs the borders between taste and law.
f: Browsing through the titles you published as an author and co-author, perhaps some of the best known, available on Amazon and elsewhere for graffiti enthusiasts to enjoy, are Metagraffiti, comprising more than 20 short films from Berlin, Copenhagen and Stockholm, Graffiti Cookbook aka “the complete DIY bible of graffiti”, the Overground series following the most influential European graffiti writers, and Tag Town showcasing the evolution of New York graffiti writing, with photographs by the legendary Martha Cooper and your foreword.
We found out that you were a graffiti writer in the past and are curious about what fueled your interest in the movement, made you join it to decide later to focus on documenting and supporting it.
Tobias Barenthin Lindblad: Well, I started to read when I was a five-year-old, and in the late 70s, Stockholm was full of political slogans and punk-scribbles. I soon learned it was forbidden, but found it so mystical and exciting. Who was doing this, and why? As New York graffiti came in 1984, I got fascinated as I couldn’t read, neither understand how it was done. It was such a thing that these anonymous artists could paint white on dark colours. Later on, I began to do sketches and paint myself.
Unluckily (for my ego), I never had enough focus nor the energy to be a good artist myself. However, I realised that I was good at talking about graffiti and at documenting it through photographs, something I started in 1987 and which is an ongoing project. To launch a graffiti magazine (UP) was the idea of Jacob Kimvall, who was my graffiti mentor in the early years, but it soon felt very natural.
f: Not so long ago you were involved in a tribute to Stockholm graffiti heroes for Magic City Stockholm. We found the story on Malcolm’s Instagram, and it was amazing to see you at work on the wall. What artists would you recommend our readers to follow from Stockholm? Who are the heroes whose work we mustn’t miss both in your country and worldwide?
Also, is there any artist whom you follow and admire but haven’t got the chance to interview/meet/chat with yet?
Tobias Barenthin Lindblad: There are so many good artists here as there are all over the world. Scandinavia is a bit special, as the so-called anti-styles were born here, and I think that it still plays an important part. Personal favourites over the years have been writers like Caster and Nug from Stockholm and Sabe from Copenhagen, but these are just three out of thousands of writers whose work I’m very fond of. I think that the most important graffiti, as well as music, is the stuff you get into your brain during your teens. Those styles tend to stay with you for the rest of your life.
Tobias Barenthin Lindblad © Urban Vibes 2019, Moldova
f: At the time we’re writing to you, you’re about to participate at Urban Vibes vol.3 in Chișinău, Moldova. Last year you were a co-organiser together with iZZY iZVNE, whom we interviewed recently. For this edition, you’re preparing a workshop for children and a lecture and masterclass in the new art hub dedicated to students. Tell us more about this experience, why it’s a must-visit event in your opinion and what participants should expect, about your connection to the Moldavian graffiti scene and your prior and current collaboration with the organisers.
Tobias Barenthin Lindblad: Urban Vibes is definitely a must-visit. As far as researchers in Moldova have told me, this is one of the biggest events for subcultures in the country.
I don’t know that much about the Moldavian scene. I visited Chișinău in 2013 and did a few pieces with local writers, and then again in 2017. For the workshops, I hope people will find new angles on lettering. I try to keep an organic rhythm of impressions and expressions during the session.
f: Since you’ve organised workshops for children and have been an author of a colouring book, tell us about discussing graffiti with the youth versus grown-ups. How do you usually introduce young ones to this new world? How do they react? What have you noticed they like most about graffiti? Have you ever taught someone who later became an artist?
Tobias Barenthin Lindblad: I try to find good metaphors for graffiti no matter whom I speak with. Akim from Berlin and The Magic Colors film on Metagraffiti first made me realise that graffiti is a lot about rhythm. Music and dance are good comparisons, especially improvised music such as jazz.
Kids don’t need much to get started, and they’re usually very good at making up their own letters. Adults are more prejudiced, so there we need to work together to loosen things up.
I guess there must have been people I’ve had in workshops who later became artists, but I don’t know of any in particular.
f: iZZY iZVNE was the winner of the Un-hidden Bucharest II Open Call, an urban regeneration programme conceived as a series of artistic interventions designed for the public space, co-created with the community, aiming at humanising Bucharest and promoting its understanding and exploration through art. The project also produced a map featuring pieces by local and international street artists who enriched the city with their interventions.
Have you visited Bucharest by now? What is your view of the Romanian street art scene? Moreover, you’ve been documenting the evolution of street art in various places around the world, both less and well known as graffiti hot spots. What do you believe is necessary for a city to thrive through its cultural/creative resources? What are the essential steps to grow in this direction?
Tobias Barenthin Lindblad: I visited Bucharest in 2013. I found it to be a very rough city, but as we only stayed for like three days, it’s just a first impression. I saw a lot of good styles, as in many cities on the Balkans, I like the influences from Berlin.
To have a strong culture, a city needs to shrink and have bad finances. Or, to quote Berlin artist Mathias Wermke, a city needs lots of left-over spaces. And those tend to disappear when a city gets rich.
In any case, a city that wants to have a strong culture needs to offer cheap spaces and needs to fund culture. Culture is the most important infrastructure for human society, and therefore requires the same state funding as other big infrastructures such as roads, healthcare and education, mass transport and energy.
f: You’ve been interacting with people through lectures, workshops, street art tours. What reactions/questions/observations keep recurring and, on the other hand, what surprised you so far? How do they see the past, present and future of street art? How can they influence its course?
Tobias Barenthin Lindblad: It depends. If I present graffiti to people who don’t know much about it, it’s often a discussion that has to do with taste and law – vandalism versus what people consider “good” or “bad”. What keeps on surprising me is how in odd places I meet ex-writers, they’re everywhere in society, from street sweepers to ministers in the parliament.
f: Is there a city that you found as an example of how street art is approached and has developed? What about events in Europe and beyond that push the movement forward?
Tobias Barenthin Lindblad: For many reasons, also personal, as I have family there, I think that Berlin has been the centre of graffiti and street art since the 90s. Both in terms of the amount and the styles, and also for the theoretical impact that writers like Akim and Zast (Jazzstyle Corner) have made.
Tobias Barenthin Lindblad © Hanna Bågler Pros
f: Some topics around graffiti and street art have been of public debate in the past years – gentrification, copyright infringement lawsuits by artists whose works are being used by major corporations and advertising agencies without consent, the preservation of a once ephemeral art form, and the list continues. In Romania, for instance, there is still great concern regarding vandalism. Let’s discuss these and others you believe are worth mentioning and clarifying for our audience, about the challenges and opportunities graffiti and street art are facing.
Tobias Barenthin Lindblad: Capitalism has proven to be very strong in making everything for an object to sell. That will eventually happen with street art and graffiti as well if we’re not already there.
For us at Dokument Press, graffiti in a city, whether it’s done with our without permission, is essential as a democratic statement, for voices to be heard and seen in public space, which plays such an important role in democratic societies.
To quote our author, architect Ola Andersson, it’s easy to imagine cities without democracies, but hard to imagine a democracy without cities. Street art is one way to claim space to start a conversation with the very powerful companies. The problem with companies is that they mainly exist for one single goal: to make gains for the stockholders. They don’t aim at building society or taking any form of social responsibility. If democracy is about dialogues, then we as citizens need to be able to answer public commercials, to have a dialogue with the companies. Graffiti and street art are ways to do that, but I’m sure there are many more, still unknown ways to do so.
f: We’d like to conclude our conversation with a few recommendations that can inspire and expand our views – who are the people, publications, initiatives dedicated to/ approaching graffiti and street art that have recently been of interest to you in documenting the phenomenon? Who do you believe is changing the game and the perspectives for what’s to come?
Tobias Barenthin Lindblad: Oh, it depends really on what you like and for how long you have been studying this topic. I think there’s marvellous work made in Germany, for example by the Graffiti Museum that has this big show coming up in Hamburg, maybe show is the wrong word, but check it out. What I can also recommend is the travelling Unlock Fair and Tag Conference, organised by Javier Abarca from Madrid. For those who are in Northern Europe at the end of May, please check one of the continent’s biggest outdoor festivals in Snösätra in Stockholm – it’s called Spring Beast.
This article is part of the Un-hidden Bucharest series of interviews with street art and graffiti artists, published weekly on feeder.ro. Together we will enter their artistic universe and learn how the city can be regenerated through artistic interventions in the public space.
Keep your eyes on feeder.ro for new interviews soon with iZZY iZVNE, Maria Bălan, John Dot S, Livi Po, J.Ace, Robert Obert, KSELEQOQYNQYSHY, Primitiv Print, Livia Fălcaru, Skinny Bunny, Obie Platon, Alina Marinescu, Maria Duda, Trun, Meguru Yamaguchi, Daia – Diana Grigore, Irina Marinescu, Kero Zen, Lost.Optics, Serebe, CAGE, ILUC, Nicolae Comănescu, Nicolás Alfalfa, Boeme1, SUNSHINERS, Jan Kaláb, Sorin Trăistaru – Bine Scris, Pisica Pătrată, Alexander Blot, and more.
Interview by Emilia Cazan
Images © Tobias Barenthin Lindblad
Un-hidden Bucharest is an urban regeneration programme conceived as a series of artistic interventions designed for the public space, co-created with the community, aiming at humanizing Bucharest and promoting its understanding and exploration through art.
The Un-hidden Bucharest street art project is organized by Save or Cancel, through feeder.ro and is co-funded by AFCN. The program does not necessarily represent the position of the National Cultural Fund Administration. AFCN is not responsible for the content of the program or the way the program results can be used. These are entirely the responsibility of the beneficiary of the funding.
Organizer: The Save or Cancel team, composed of Cristina Popa (random) – social designer, editor, and cultural manager, and Andrei Racovițan (ubic) – architect, editor, and artistic manager, together with the audience, artists, collaborators și partners.
Project partners: CNDB, Faculty of Sociology and Social Work, Zeppelin, IQads, Igloo, Urban things, România Pozitivă, IQool
About Save or Cancel
Since 2008, Save or Cancel is a medium of communication and propagation of the arts and culture, promoting and facilitating their role in contemporary society.
The self-initiated multidisciplinary programs of Save or Cancel aim to identify sustainable and adaptable opportunities for (re) valorization of the existence through architectural, cultural and editorial projects.
Visit the project’s page Un-hidden Bucharest to find out more about past, current and future activities: