My Corners: Marja Heinonen

Graffiti name: Graffitimama aka GMA
Age: 71
Visual artist and graffiti artist
Part of the SixFive Cru, a senior graffiti group
IG @marjaheinonenart

How did you end up as a graffiti artist?
“I worked in a IT business, and when depression hit Finland in 1994 I lost my job. However, I got to make a second career with the Ministry of Transport as a negotiating official. Back then Finland was about to enter the European Union and I criss-crossed around Europe working on communications policy. I spent ten years doing that, until a head-on collision with a bunch of drug addicts ended that business. Now I’ve been retired for over ten years, and I’ve been doing very well. Six years ago I got an invitation to join a graffiti group of pensioners with the words: ‘Marja, you’re crazy enough to do this, come and join us!’ I joined with my husband and we are still in it.”

On Sixfive Cru
“In the beginning the group was called K65. Our instructor is Emilio Mäkipää who despite his young age of 22 has had the groups authority since the beginning. No one in the group had any background in graffiti, although many members had some experience with more conventional arts, like painting icons, porcelain, or watercolors. Mostly we have painted from invitations, and people have organized different painting events for us. Although we’re somewhat of a bunch of bumbling bunglers, we’ve been welcomed with open arms. The graffiti scene has a reputation of being vague and esoteric, but we haven’t found that to be true at all.”

On the First Graffiti
“I painted my first graffiti with SixFive Cru in the Arabia Street Festival in 2011. I was a little nervous about painting in public in the midst of families with small children, but the attention we got was exceedingly positive. I immediately realized that it’s natural to paint in public and in broad daylight. We don’t have hoods covering our faces and we’re not running away from security guards. And if we did, it would be too exhausting.”

About GMA
“My pseudonym is Graffitimama or GMA. When I was in working life, younger male colleagues named me Grand Old Mama: I think it was a reference to the deep south of the United States, like a lush, older and wiser woman. The role of a Mama is very dear to me because of my children and grandchildren. I hope they see me as an old, gentle and wise person. This is the image of the Graffitimama.

On Feedback
“We’ve received a very warm welcome everywhere we’ve gone to. Our own age group has been exceptionally positive. People often ask what we do and admire that. Finnish people are said to be tongue-tied, but that’s not true near a wall. People take contact. A funny thing happened a couple of years ago. We were in Kuopio, painting an underpass. It was before noon on a sunny Sunday, and a lot of people were passing us by. Suddenly a woman of about forty or fifty – who can know the age of a beautiful woman – stopped beside us and bursted out laughing. She just kept on laughing and we were wondering why. Finally when she stopped laughing and was able to speak she told the reason: “Oh, I see, you are old!”

On Age
“We in SixFive Cru think that the attention that we receive increases tolerance and acceptance. We hope that people wouldn’t have to be isolated by their age cohorts, and that people of all ages could do things together. For example, we seniors recently painted the wall in Happi youth center together with kids under the age of ten. Even though SixFive Cru is a group of seniors, we don’t feel like seniors. We’ve started from our own premises, and we’re learning more and getting guidance each moment. I’ve started doing graffiti and visual arts at the age of 65, and I think I’ll be pretty good when I’m 90. Modigliani had a career of only thirteen years!”

Graffiti and Young Boys
“In our group discussions led by Emilio, we have contemplated the position of graffiti in society, and its relevance to young people, and also the importance of graffiti to art education. We live in a world of images. If you can spread some color to a big canvas at a young age, it fosters your visual perception. There’s a lot of talk of graffiti being male-dominated, and I think it can continue to be so, as long as women have equal possibilities to express themselves in their own ways. Graffiti is an outlet for boys to visually express themselves. It’s accepted and it even has some heroism in it. It’s also an important way for boys to convey emotions and to socialize.

Graffiti was the Gateway to Visual Arts
“I’ve always known that I can draw quite well, but I never drew anything. Once every while I made quick pencil sketches of my friends and relatives, and they looked very nice. After I had been doing graffiti for a couple of years, I realized a whole new world with the colors and doing things together, and I really felt the need to draw. I needed some guidance and I ended up in the art school of the Critical Academy. After studying for only a few months, I got so much encouragement from my instructors that I produced my first exhibition last summer in Huopalahti train station’s cultural space (Asematila). Now the pictures just keep on coming. I’ve received instructions on several topics, such as colors, techniques and subject matters. I’m so new at this that I’m open to everything. I’m always excited to try new things.”

Inspiration from Einstein, Dali, and Kekkonen
“Before larger portraits, I drew images of people’s faces from Helsingin Sanomat. I used the faces as drafts for larger works. Authors, athletes with their painful grimaces and elderly people, who have the whole spectrum of life drawn on their faces. Personal looks, brilliance, and madness fascinate me. For example, I drew the faces of Albert Einstein, Salvador Dali, and Urho Kekkonen. I greatly admired Dali as an artist, and Einstein as an inventor. Kekkonen was an extremely charismatic person and a long-time leader of the country. The latest face I created was of Sauli Niinistö, our current president. I value his work as a president and also the diversity of his personality, with that playfulness of his. I painted a three-meter tall picture of him with spraycans. Sauli’s face can be seen on the trackside wall of the Huopalahti train station building as a part of my exhibition from the 14th of August onwards.

Self-portraits
“At the same time when I was attending the Critical Academy art school, I also underwent cytostatic therapy. The art classes empowered me. In the first spring we painted self-portraits. In the small hours of the morning, when I couldn’t get any sleep and I worried, I got up and picked up a mirror. I went to my kitchen table, and started painting pictures of my face with my pastel colors. I had a whole wall full of those portraits in my first exhibition. One day, when I was overviewing the exhibition space, a woman came in. She looked at my works and started crying. She was obviously shocked by images. When she calmed down, we hugged and she told me she was a midwife. She had often met cancer patients in her work. When she looked at my pictures, she told me she saw the whole arc of my illness. She saw pain and the emotions from different phases of the cancer. To me, her words felt like an enormous gift and a surprise, since I don’t see that kind of suffering in my own works. The pictures are just me at a certain moment in time.”

The map shows you Marja’s Corners. Click on a place to read what Marja has to say about it.

TEXT: KAROLIINA SAARNIKKO
PHOTOS: MIIKKA PIRINEN