My Corners: Paavo Arhinmäki

Age: 40
Member of Parliament
Member of the City Council of Helsinki
As a direct result of his initiatives, Helsinki abandoned its zero tolerance policy towards graffiti, and subsequently opened free-for-all graffiti walls.

About Initiatives
“I took about a dozen separate initiatives during 2001–2008 to try and stop Helsinki’s zero tolerance policy towards graffiti and open up places where painting would be allowed. I fought against the policy that I felt was wrong and unjust. I was told many times that this matter was not that important and I shouldn’t waste so much energy on it. Sure, it wasn’t as important as education or housing policies, but since there were so many inequities in the city’s graffiti policy, I couldn’t turn a blind eye on them. I took various kinds of initiatives and accumulated international data to show that the prevailing arguments against graffiti back then held no substance. Step by step, things started to change. The city council members started to change as well – new elections brought members who understood urban culture, graffiti, and street art, and the public interest towards these topics began to grow.”

First Legal Graffiti Wall
“I always took initiatives to the City Council and the Parliament with a slightly different perspectives. One of my many initiatives was to get a legal open graffiti wall in Vuosaari. The Vuosaari Harbour had just been completed, and a part of it was a kilometre-long wall to protect the bird area. Someone notified me about it and I checked it out when I was cycling. When I suggested that the wall could be used for graffiti, the answer was once again a firm no concerning this particular wall. However, concerning the general atmosphere the City Council turned a new page. The Council made an unanimous decision that in general it had nothing against sanctioned painting sites, and that graffiti would be recognized as a form of art as well as a part of urban culture. In this instance, the attitude and direction changed completely. The first authorized graffiti wall was opened in Suvilahti. It got its start from the initiative by Helsinki’s current cultural director Stuba Nikula. Other Finnish cities soon followed Helsinki’s example and started opening up their own authorized graffiti sites.

On katutaidehelsinki.fi – Website
“The website shows the change that has happened. Appreciation for graffiti has risen in recent years and there are a lot less false preconceptions towards it. Finnish art museums have also obtained graffiti art and art related to it in their collections. Suddenly a city that had an extremely strict graffiti policy is now like this. Helsinki has many authorized graffiti walls even on an international scale. I often take international guests to see them and many are extremely surprised.”

The First Graffiti that you Saw?
“I remember seeing graffiti for the first time in 1984 in Kulosaari subway tunnel. I remember that one piece said bomb and the letter o was a picture of a bomb. Graffiti came to Finland and Europe that year with films. Afterwards, I’ve often thought where the graffiti painters got the idea for the painting. In those times people didn’t travel abroad too much, but maybe some of the young people in Kulosaari had more opportunities for traveling. Since this painting appeared in the fall, it might have been done by someone who had been to New York with their family in the summer. I can’t remember the feelings that I got from the painting, but I do remember that they were removed pretty quickly. My memory might be false – I had just started school back then. I think that the word spread that the piece was made by some junior high students who had to clean the wall where the piece was made. And I do remember that I got really angry about the fact that those colourful letters had to be removed from the grey concrete tunnel. It didn’t make any sense to me.”

On Pasila
“I moved to Pasila in late 1984. Pasila is one of the birthplaces of Finnish graffiti. There was a legendary train tunnel that was called Pasila Gallery. It wasn’t officially an authorized place to paint, but no one cared too much if you painted there or not. It became a hot spot where we hung out during school breaks and especially after school and during the weekends. People came there from all over Greater Helsinki. Many legendary graffiti artists painted there, like recently deceased Astron. In the late 1980s more or less every young person in Pasila wrote tags, at least in school papers. In my estimation there were thousands of people with their individual signature tags. Many wrote just a single tag, but hundreds were really enthusiastic about graffiti culture. Graffiti was a pretty open subculture until they started to arrest the people making pieces in the early 1990s.”

Graffiti as a Gateway to Visual Arts
“I’m a big friend of the visual arts as a whole, not just graffiti art. I make an effort to visit art galleries and museums all around the world. Graffiti is a visual art form and many younger artists have their background in graffiti. Graffiti was a gateway to visual arts to me as well. When the first graffiti pieces started to appear in Pasila, we got interested in Andy Warhol and pop art. From there on we discovered the rest of the visual arts. Many graffiti artists became visual artists or an arts lover.”

Conservative Graffiti
“Graffiti is actually a pretty conservative art form. In many ways, it’s still repeating the forms and patterns that were born in New York in the 1970s. And it’s somewhat uniform all over the world. For example, I had a work trip to Moscow and I noticed that the graffiti pieces were done with exactly similar letters like the rest of the world, even though they use Cyrillic letters. Right now I like to see something new and interesting. The general public likes polished and honed techniques, but I’m interested in things that don’t conform to traditions and that many might even think as smudges. Even if someone knew all the tricks and was really good at using a spray can, it doesn’t do much for me anymore. In a way, I’ve seen so much.”

Dozens of Initiatives and One Graffiti Club
“I took an initiative that resulted in the first graffiti club in Pasila in the late 1980s. We went to Narri, which on those days was a place for cultural youth work, and we said that we didn’t want to do theatre and that there should be something for boys as well. I said that we wanted a graffiti club. The first club instructor was a Finnish graffiti celebrity Henri Pulla, who was a two-time Finnish Graffiti Champion.”

Graffiti is an Art Form of the Youth
“Graffiti has been one of the most interesting forms of visual arts in the last decades. It possesses a primal power, and it got its start from the young people themselves, without any adult instructors. At the same time it is an art form that inspires young people, especially young boys and men. Graffiti is also a sound form of youth work, since it can connect with young people who otherwise wouldn’t get in touch with youth work.

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

TEXT: KAROLIINA SAARNIKKO
PHOTOS: MIIKKA PIRINEN