I’ve admired street art for many years but never dared to try my own hand at it. The closest I’ve ever gotten is participating in something called a street painting festival. In the mid-00s, my arts-centric high school organised annual participation in the city’s arts festival. A huge part of the festival was “street painting”, which meant literally that.
Art students and professional artists who signed up claimed a plot of pavement which was several meters square. We then used either chalk or tempera paint to cover the square. The professional artists could paint anything they wanted, but us students had stricter rules. We had to copy a well-known piece from art history. The piece that I copied was by Edvard Munch. “Madonna”, I think.
An important characteristic of the street painting festival was the temporal quality of the artwork. Every participant needed to use materials which the city could wash off of the pavement after the festival. Because of this, there was less pressure to create a brilliant masterpiece. Even if you messed up completely, you could take comfort in the fact that your work would disappear soon.
I’m sure this is a big part of why painting street art made me nervous. Spray paint and markers aren’t completely permanent of course, but they’re much more permanent than chalk on pavement. It took a huge dose of inspiration, courtesy of Helsinki’s existing street art, to convince me to give it a shot.
Choosing My Electical Network Box
Punavuori is my favourite neighbourhood in Helsinki. Punavuori is artistic, a bit hipster, and full of lovely Jugend architecture. It has a bunch of cafes, second-hand stores, and art galleries. In the 19th century, Punavuori was a common stomping ground for sailors coming ashore due to its high concentration of brothels and bars. The area has since undergone a level of gentrification, but sailor-themed businesses and street names preserve its history.
The street on which I found a tempting unpainted electrical network box is Merimiehenkatu. That literally translates to “sailor’s street”. It was only meters away from Merimiehenkatu’s intersection with Fredrikinkatu, which happens to be my favourite street in Helsinki. So, painting at an intersection of my favourite street, in my favourite neighbourhood? Sounded good to me.
In honour of Punavuori’s history – and because I have a soft spot for the rockabilly aesthetic – I chose to paint a sailor-inspired portrait. My father told me when he saw my original illustration (below) that the character had “mermaid hair”. That made me very happy!
Since I hadn’t ever done public art like this before, I had to do some careful planning before I painted anything. I rarely do traditional art anymore, especially on this scale, so I needed some guides. I wanted to keep my painting sharp and graphical, so I decided to use stencils instead of spray painting directly onto the electrical network box. To make a stencil big enough for a box approximately 1-meter x 1-meter, I had to print out my digital drawing across 20 sheets of A4 paper! I specifically wanted the character’s billowing hair to wrap around the corners of the box, so that made it even bigger.
Here is a rundown of the steps that I took while painting. I worked in chunks of 2-3 hours over the course of a couple of weeks, painting whenever I could make it out to Punavuori. The weather, of course, also affected what days I could paint on. After each painting session, I took a photo to document my progress.
I’m relieved to be very happy with how the piece turned out. People have given me good feedback about the painting already as well. Passersby as I painted, people who saw the finished work on Instagram, and even the electrical network Helen themselves have said nice things. Having finally gotten my feet wet in the world of street art, I might give it another shot someday!