A Disruption of Uniformity: Street Art and Gdansk’s Socialist Legacy


The port city of Gdansk in northern Poland has endured an eventful and rather tumultuous century; From becoming the semi-autonomous Free City of Danzig following World War I, to being the city in which the first European-based battle of World War II would commence, to being incorporated into greater Poland under Soviet rule in the immediate post-war era. Following decades of struggle against yet another foreign occupier, it’s safe to assume that the citizens of Gdansk would likely assign a much different meaning to the phrase ‘the long twentieth century.’

2019 marks an important anniversary for the citizens of Gdansk, as exemplified by thousands of bright red signs that currently adorn the city. The signs – which read ‘89 / 2019 Gdansk: a Celebration of Freedom and Solidarity – can be considered a self-assertion of Gdansk’s post-socialist identity which has evolved over the last thirty years. An identity which was founded in the creation of Solidarność, the labour-union-turned-political-party, headed by eventual Polish president Lech Wałęsa, and considered by many to be the driving force behind communism’s fall in Poland.

In this context of a renewed identity based on freedom and democratic values, one might ask how Gdansk has dealt with the tangible scars that the twentieth century has imparted upon the city; most notably, on the city’s urban environment. As is characteristic of nearly all post-socialist cities, Gdansk’s urban topography was greatly altered under Soviet rule. A shadow of grey was cast over the city as vast and imposing brutalist housing blocks sprung up, in marked contrast to the Dutch baroque buildings which lined the city from the 17th century. As aptly stated by journalist Akash Kapur:

“Once, these buildings had promised a new future. Their modernity – their sheer scale – heralded all the potential of a rebuilding nation, and of a more just ideology that would provide an alternative to western capitalism. By the 1990s, however, the sheen had vanished from the ideology and the buildings, too. Communism was a bad memory, and its architectural legacy inspired, a best, ambivalence.”

With this background in mind, we look to the community of Zaspa as an example of how some post-socialist cities have chosen to approach what might be considered ‘unwanted’ cultural heritage.

Built in the 1970s, Zaspa is the archetype of socialist-era architecture. A residential community composed of pre-fabricated concrete housing units, dozens of identical housing blocks spark something akin to déjà vu as one crosses from street to street. Or, at least they could, if it weren’t for the bright colours and the dozens of massive murals which currently adorn them, enabling one to avoid doubling back as they wander through the neighbourhood.

Today, Zaspa’s ‘Monumental Art Collection’ is comprised of sixty murals, painted by an array of international artists in a variety of artistic styles. The project of transforming Zaspa’s rather dull urban canvas into an open-air gallery began in 1997 in honour of the city’s 1000th anniversary, and one might say that the collection today remains an homage to the city’s history while simultaneously innovating a new identity for the city, independent of all ties with war, occupation and, of course, the legacy of socialism.

One of Zaspa’s most notable murals, in this respect, was completed in 1999 by Rafał Władysław Roskowiński, a Polish artist and the founder of the Gdansk School of Mural. The mural depicts a landmark historical event in which Pope John Paul II visited Gdansk in 1987 and hosted mass in Zaspa, an event which many Poles consider as a critical moment in the end of communist rule in Poland. In contrast to Roskowiński’s Pope, who is painted in bright golden hues in a ‘devotional’ style, is Solidarność leader, former president and, quite notably, Zaspa resident Lech Wałęsa. The figure of Wałęsa is painted in a much different style, exhibiting bold black lines and sharp angles, and exuding bright hues of blue and red. In tandem, the figures exude a message of hope, revolution and freedom. As such, this piece can be regarded as a prime example of Zaspa muralism as an homage to the past and a beacon for the future.

There were few additions to the collection following 1997 – that is, until 2009. An agreement with the European Capital of Culture Candidate Office, designated to put Gdansk ‘on the map’ so to speak, revived the project, resulting in the first Monumental Art Festival being organized. As is stated by Corina Tursie, the European Capital of Culture project, “was a real challenge for cities coming from peripheral European positions, ex-non-democratic countries, to overcome their inferiority complexes of belonging to old or new Europe, and to highlight their European identity dimension and their contribution to the richness and diversity of European cultures.” With Zaspa at the epicenter, dozens of more murals were added to the collection, limited not only to Polish artists, but extending to artists from other EU countries such as Spain, Italy and Germany.

With Poland’s accession to the European Union still a rather recent development, cemented in 2004, one might argue that embracing a wide array of international artists for Zaspa’s mural project represented the antithesis of Soviet isolationism and socialist ideology, and can therefore be seen as part and parcel of Poland’s post-socialist identity formation.

Jaro Stacul has suggested that, “an essential component of self-legitimation is the production of places of memory that would help forge a shared local or national identity.” In this respect, the Monumental Art Festival focused not only on the artistic talents of the chosen artists, but also the ways in the art would affect Zaspa’s local residents, as they would be the ones “‘convicted’ to daily contact and coexistence with their works.” And, indeed, it seems as though Zaspa’s mural project has been highly regarded by these very residents; today, visitors to Gdansk can view the murals of Zaspa independently, with a map, or – as is the highly recommended option – take part in a tour of Zaspa courtesy of Zaspa’s very own residents; an endeavour which started in 2011 by the Gdansk Mural School and was eagerly accepted by the district’s inhabitants.

Following the age of totalitarianism, a trend could be seen across Europe in which the material traces of both Nazism and communism were typically treated one of two ways – active preservation for future posterity and the continuance of memory, or the complete obliteration motivated by a collective’s desire to forget. The example of Zaspa is therefore notably distinct in its handling of what can be termed as ‘unwanted’ heritage, as well as the potential opportunities it illuminates for street-art as a driver for identity formation and urban renewal in post-socialist countries. The material traces of socialist Gdansk – in this case, the urban fabric – have neither been traditionally preserved or destroyed, but rather creatively transformed in what could be considered by some as adaptive reuse at its very finest.

1. Akash Kapur, “Can Poland’s Faded Brutalist Architecture Be Redeemed?” New York Times, October 10, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/10/t-magazine/poland-brutalism-architecture.html .

2. “Trip Tips: Head to Gdansk for a slice of its communist past,” Malay Mail, January 30, 2015, https://www.malaymail.com/news/life/2015/01/30/trip-tips-head-to-gdansk-for-a-slice-of-its-communist-past/830681.

3. “Rafał Roskowiński,” Muralse Gdansk Zaspa, accessed July 21, 2019, http://muralegdanskzaspa.pl/the-collection/rafal-roskowinski/#jpIIwalesa.

4. Corina Tursie, “The Unwanted Past and Urban Regeneration of Communist Heritage Cities,” Journal of Education Culture and Society 2 (2015): 125.

5. Jaro Stacul, “Redeveloping history in postsocialist Poland,” Focaal – Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 81 (2018): 773.

6. “Monumental Art 2009,” Murals Gdansk Zaspa, accessed August 5, 2019 http://muralegdanskzaspa.pl/monumental-art-festival/2009-2/.

7. Małgorzata Dymnicka and Jakub Szczepański, “Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Cities. The City of Gdansk as an Example,” Procedia Engineering 161 (2016), 1227.

8. Ibid, 1228.

#streetart #urbanart #contemporaryart #identity #Poland #Zaspa #SocialArt #socialistcity

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