Street art in Estonia is sprouting like a counter-culture flower, brightening up a country more known for its old school UNESCO heritage and Soviet legacy. What you’ll find there is steeped in Estonian history with a strong nod to its folk culture and the occupation. This guide to street art in Tallinn and Tartu is full of eye candy which will make you want to travel there. It’s the reason why I ended up visiting Estonia and I hope it will make you do the same.
Street Art in Tallinn Estonia
The formal street art program began in Tallinn during the Baltic Sessions of 2016. It was primarily a street dance festival but the event included “wall cleaning” activities and some mural work. Tallinn got serious in 2017 with the Mextonia festival, which put Estonia clearly on the global street art map.
The festival was conceived as a gift from Mexico to Estonia for their 100th anniversary. Both countries have a long history of being on the losing side of conquest and they both believe strongly in folk history and the power of symbols. The event was organized by Nueve Arte Urbano and Sigre Tompel of Estonia.
I was caught up with Sigre when I was in Tallinn and she was kind enough to walk me around the Teleskivi Creative City district, which houses many of the Mextonia murals. I was touched by the cross-cultural care that went into curating and executing the murals for the event.
“…Transgraffiti is a trans-personal kind of muralism, which distances itself from both; names and pop, by taking deep cultural symbols and re-expressing them in a transcendental and contemporary way.”
Murals in Telliskivi Creative City
Sixty artists participated in Mextonia and you can find a concentration of their works in the Telliskivi Creative City compound. This re-gentrified manufacturing and power plant was a crumbling Soviet relic until it was transformed into a hipster creative district with cafes, boutiques, restaurants and lot and lots of murals.
You can find some murals from the original Baltic sessions and Mextonia mixed in with graffiti and guerrilla murals.
Read More: Get a full dose of hipsterism, history and Soviet relics with this guide for things to do in Tallinn. If you have limited time, you can still squeeze street art into a 1-day Tallinn itinerary.
These murals seem a perfect fit for this hip and gritty neighborhood. Yet, the city was initially very uncomfortable agreeing to the commissioned murals. For a city that prides itself on (and gets gobs of tourist income from) its well-preserved UNESCO old town, the notion of spray painting the walls was an anathema. Yet, the festival happened. So, while it’s possible that Tallinn may never host a huge annual street art festival, like Upfest in Bristol UK, they are making a respectable showing as a street art city.
Not all of the murals in Tallinn’s Telliskivi neighborhood are sanctioned or commissioned. Just wander into the parking lot adjacent to the train tracks and you find several long walls full of guerrilla murals and graffiti.
The above is the work-in-progress from a graffiti artist who just claimed a patch of wall and got busy.
Street Art on the Cultural Kilometer & Thereabouts
Tallinn’s Cultural Kilometer is neither a kilometer long, nor does it feature high culture. However, wandering on and near this 2.5 kilometer long pathway will show you a fine selection of street art and graffiti. There are murals and graffiti inside the cruise ship terminal area, along the Cultural Kilometer and (for as long as it’s standing), on the old Petrai prison.
The cultural corridor runs from the Linnahall ruin west to Kalassadama street. It’s easily walkable from the cruise ship harbor, Telliskivi and Old town, and you can find it on Google maps. Within the corridor, you’ll find graffiti on the crumbling ruin of the old Linnahall and commissioned Mextonia murals representing Estonian culture along the pathway.
The work in the Cultural Kilometer was done by Jorge Peralta Galindo, Sens, Ariadna Galez, Abril Pequeros, Valhur Agar and Helana Hanni.
If you are coming in by cruise ship, before you go anywhere downtown, walk left just as you exit the ship and go down to the parking area. Along the sea wall, you find a series of murals that celebrating Estonian music and myths.
More Tallinn Murals
Taking a Street Art Tour in Tallinn
At this time, there isn’t a specific provider of street art walking tours. Hellooo…Tallinn cultural entrepreneurs…there is a demand for this and if you build it, we will come. In the meantime, you can self-guide most of the pieces by wandering around Telliskivi, Kalamaja, the Cultural Kilometer, and peeking through the fence in the cruise ship harbor.
The Tallinn tourism bureau was kind enough to hook me up with not only Sigre but also City Bike. They took me on a custom tour that went beyond the core spots to find street art elsewhere in the city. Their “Other Side of Tallinn” tour covers some of these locations. It’s about two hours and costs €19. You can also hire them to do a private tour and they can optimize it for street art at your request. The private tours cover 4-12 people. It costs a minimum of €150 for four people and then €35 per person after that.
Street Art in Estonia’s Tartu
Tartu is located two hours southeast of Tallinn by train. It is the home of one of the oldest universities in Europe, and has earned distinction as a UNESCO City of Literature. There is a synergy between Cities of Literature and street art. Melbourne is a City of Literature and a world class street art city. Reykjavik is also a City of Literature and has an emerging street art culture, as does Manchester, UK.
Tartu hopped on the street art bandwagon even before Tallinn. They established their Stencilibility festival in 2010 and have been organizing summer mural events ever since. Their manifesto states that “public space belongs to everyone who uses it” and “…if you don’t like it – improve it“. This is an organization not afraid to take on bizarre projects and edgy subject matter.
Tartu Murals at The Widget Factory and Karlova
The Widget Factory (or Aparaaditehas) was a military manufacturing plant from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. It was abandoned in 2006 and filled with squatters shortly after. It has since evolved into an urban creative hub in Tartu with artist lofts, galleries, restaurants and this lovely sea-faring whale mural by Awer.
The artist Bach helped to establish the street art ethic in Tartu in the ’90’s. It came out of a post-independence free speech movement and was inspired by the hip hop graffiti scene in New York City. This stretch of wall on Viru street houses many murals curated by Stencilibility.
Not everything in Tartu’s Karlova neighborhood is commissioned by Stencilibility. Wander around the side streets and around the abandoned cold war infrastructure and you can find some creative guerrilla works.
Other Tartu Street Art
There are also quite a few stencils and smaller murals closer to Tartu’s downtown core. Look for them along the main Johvi-Tartu-Valga road between the train station and town. There are also several literary themed pieces at the public library on Kompanii.
It’s quite fitting that a City of Literature would have literary themed street art. The piece below comments on how difficult it is to make a living as a starving writer and the one below that was inspired by a classic Estonian children’s book.
Read More: If you are into literary street art, then check out my street art guide to Shoreditch London where you’ll find an Alice in Wonderland. You can also find a riff on Where the Wild Things are in San Francisco’s Mission District and a nod to Gulliver’s Travels in Chicago.
Taking a Tartu Street Art Tour
You can wander around downtown, the Widget Factory and Karlova’s Viru street to find some of these murals. However, I strongly recommend taking a tour with Tartu Pseudo Tours. Salme runs the tours. She’s an artist herself and she keeps up with all of the new pieces. Her schedule is irregular so it’s best to message her on Facebook to arrange a tour. They cost €10 per person for a minimum of five people.
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Learn More About Street Around the World
Study great street art in other cities by checking out my guides to:
Top Street Art Cities in the World | Buenos Aires | San Diego | San Francisco | Los Angeles | Chicago | London | Reykjavik | Havana | Belfast | Bristol | Paris | Nashville
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Become an even bigger street art connoisseur by using an encyclopedia like the New Street Art, Street Artists 2: The Complete Guide, the World Atlas of Street Art & Graffiti or Lonely Planet Street Art to educate yourself about the medium.
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