an american fish in estonian waters

EvL Comes to Kalamaja … and Goes Far Beyond

 

A little EvL might just help Kalamaja keep its edge – as long, of course, as an EvL Genius is behind it all. Or perhaps you might know this unknown Tartu-based street artist (who is sometimes known as EvL) by his full nom de plume – or nom de guerre – of Edward von Lõngus instead. In his bio, Evl [the Practicing Anarchist] likes to claim that he is a “fictional character” or “a computer virus living outside computers, spreading from brain to brain through his creations.” To save everyone time, the Estonian press will just call him the “Estonian Banksy” for his use of stencils and the sharp political commentary of his work. But EvL is not Banksy – even if a tiny troll or moss-bearded gnome started spray-painting the word “Banksy” next to some of EvL’s works in Tallinn. Yes, EvL’s vision is just as international in scope as Banksy’s – and he also has been known to tag cities like London. But despite his claim to have “no single physical body” and to exist as “only ideas,” EvL’s work demonstrates a deep connection to Estonia.

Take EvL’s stencil known as “Kalevipoeg 3.0” which you can find spray painted on the walls of Kalamaja’s former Patarei Prison (see image above). While you might simply enjoy the juxtaposition of “Conan the Terminator” or “T2 the Barbarian” in this 2014 work, EvL [the Poetic Vandal] named his character after the hero of Estonia’s national epic – Kalevipoeg – a verse poem in 20 cantos written by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald. When Kreutzwald finished the first version of his Estonian masterwork back in 1853, Russian Imperial authorities – representing the very same government which built Kalamaja’s Paterei Prison in 1840 – banned the epic poem’s publication as it went against their policy of Russification. Oh, and if you’re wondering what that little Hedgehog is doing in the picture, well, the Hedgehog happens to be Kalevipoeg’s animal helper, providing him with the right information at the right time over the course of his epic adventure. And so, if today’s super-wired E-stonia were to design a Kalevipoeg for the future, then any new Hedgehog – upgraded to become a Hacker Hedgehog, of course – would need a cool computer in order to access all the latest information on the nets.

Sometimes the Estonian nature of EvL’s genius is a matter of timing – such as his wonderful “Naked Emperor” inspired by the classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes which was published in Denmark in 1837. This particular stencil first appeared spray painted on one of the main walks up to the Estonian seat of government right before the 2015 national elections – and not too far from where the Danish flag (the Dannebrog) first fell from the sky and inspired the Danes in their 1219 conquest of this place that would become known as Tallinn. EvL’s original “Naked Emperor” didn’t last for long as local authorities had it painted over “at the request of the building’s owner” (which happened to be the government itself) – and perhaps because his face looked a little too much like a former Estonian prime minister. All of this, of course, only served to increase EvL [the Revolutionary]’s fame – and the value of his work – as the media covered the cover-up of his art. As no stencil is ever entirely forgotten, EvL would later bring his “Naked Emperor” to the EU’s de facto capital of Brussels during his 2017 visit.

Ever since hitting the streets in 2008, EvL’s most thought-provoking works continue to be his most Estonian. Two of my favorites are his late 2010 stencils of Lydia Koidula (Estonia’s national poet) and Anton Tammsaare (Estonia’s greatest novelist). Both are depicted as homeless – Koidula is wearing all her clothes and coats while smoking a cigarette. Tammsaare is seated on the ground with a sign that reads: “unemployed.” The reason for this juxtaposition? Well, on January 1, 2011, Estonian adopted the Euro as its currency and so Koidula (who appeared on Estonia’s 100 crown note) and Tammsaare (who appeared on Estonia’s 25 crown note) were both technically out of a job – at least as the faces of Estonia’s national currency. And although these two stencils originally appeared on different walls of the Tartu City Library building, EvL has now united his ensemble into a popular diptych called “Koidula & Tammsaare.” Tartmus – the Tartu Art Museum – eventually purchased these two stencils, adding them to their permanent collection and thereby marking an important transition in Estonia’s evaluation of EvL [the Information Warrior]’s work. Indeed, the more street-art friendly university town of Tartu has always taken a different approach than Tallinn in their response to their native son’s work even giving him an award in 2014 for his work the previous year. This was before EvL’s 2014 stencil of “Cannabeard & the Witch-Hunter” caused a city-wide sensation. “Cannabeard” – whose beard is made of cannabis and who therefore gets arrested by the police – is inspired by a series of 1980s Estonian children’s tales about a character named Sammalhabe (Mossbeard) written by Eno Raud and illustrated by Edgar Valter. The original Sammalhabe is one of three naksitrallid (gnomes) who went on to star in a beloved 1984 Estonian animated short.

But getting back to Kalamaja, you can find another work by EvL [the Benevolent Hooligan] on the walls of the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (better known by its Estonian initials EKKM) – a very appropriate location given his growing connections to the Estonian art world. The visible work is his 2011 stencil known as “The Lost Superhero” which features a boy in a superhero costume. There was another work – now invisible – of a “Kid Drawing” (my title) which is hidden somewhere under the layers of paint put there by Mexican street artists visiting Tallinn as part of the 2017 Mextonia project. EvL himself once liked to superimpose his “Kid Drawing” – a stencil from 2012 – on pre-existing graffiti thereby giving this kid “credit” for other work. The work that the kid was “drawing” near EKKM was a rather strange Spider Man stick figure – very much in keeping with the spirit of “The Lost Superhero” at EKKM’s other end. You’ll also find various other works by EvL scattered across Kalamaja from its abandoned Soviet ziggurat of Linnahall to its hipster post-Soviet enclave of Telliskivi.  As it happens, EvL invites his fans to play his own augmented reality version of Pokémon Go and tag all of his tags online. Just be sure to hurry or else the grounds keepers assigned to various sites may have erased every trace of EvL before you even arrive.

From 2013 to 2016, EvL kept busy creating his cutting-edge work. EvL [the Social Hacker] launched his first Teletubby (2013) in what would become his Alternate Teletubby series – the first one has a CCTV mounted on his head. That same year, EvL also created his award-winning “Sure, Koer” (Die Dog) – a violent mash-up of two films – the U.S. cult classic Pulp Fiction (1994) and the Estonian mainstream classic Kevade (1969). The hugely popular film Kevade (Spring) is an adaptation of Oskar Luts’ acclaimed 1912-1913 two-part novel of the same name about life at rural Estonian school. The story features a gun-happy boy named Toots who serves as good-boy Arno’s fictional foil. In EvL’s alternate world, Toots – known for his “Die, Dog” tagline – joins Samuel L. Jackson in his portrayal of Jules Winnfield to become Estonia’s answer to John Travolta’s Vincent Vega. Pulp Fiction, by the way, also happens to be one of Banksy’s popular 2002 stencils. In Banksy’s original version, Jackson and Travolta appear holding bananas instead of guns.

While on the topic of classic films, EvL’s 2014 “The Last Scuffle” juxtaposes these two words with a frightening still from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) where our ape-ancestors make their first kill – perhaps his warning that everything threatens to come full circle. In 2015, EvL went on to design a stencil that was used as one of the covers for the counter-cultural newspaper-magazine known as Müürileht (Wallpaper). This ironic image shows a barefoot black boy wearing a t-shirt with the much-mocked “Welcome to Estonia” logo – disparaged not for the words themselves but for its strange and expensive insider design which turns the words into a puzzle which must be deciphered. With this poignant portrait, EvL [the Self-Declared Outlaw] questions how truly open and welcoming Estonia might really be. And yet to my mind, EvL’s most impressive and unsettling work of this period is his 2016 “Saturn Devouring a Burger,” based on Francisco Goya’s most frightening Black Painting which appeared around 1820. While it certainly wasn’t the first time that EvL tackled the topic of death, this stencil certainly made its mark.

Out of all of EvL [the Free Radical]’s works that you will find on display in Kalamaja, his most popular and most photographed one is clearly his “Dance of Death with Endel” – or “Endel With a Selfie Stick” (2017) – which you can find out at Telliskivi (see image below). Originally stenciled on a wall that was scheduled for demolition, “Endel” was saved from this premature death and moved to his new location like a memorialized piece of the Berlin Wall. Those of you who’ve visited Tallinn’s Old Town and its St. Nicholas Church will immediately understand that EvL’s “Dance of Death” is inspired by Bernt Notke’s stunning Danse Macabre, his late 15th Century masterpiece. While only a fragment of this huge original canvas survives (its twin in Lübeck has long since vanished), the Danse Macabre is still the single most important painting in Estonia. Given the German origin of both the painting and its artist, perhaps it’s appropriate that “Endel” made his first appearance in Berlin – Germany’s leading city today just as Lübeck once was back in its own heyday. In his curriculum vitae or CV, EvL even claims to represent the self-proclaimed Tartu-Berlin School of Street Art.

While I was exploring the self-declared Republic of Užupis on a recent trip to Vilnius, I came across another one of EvL’s works hidden away in an alley – let’s call it Death’s Final Piss (2018) – a possible nod to those drunken British tourists arrested for urinating on the wall of the Lithuanian President’s Palace not that long ago. Seeing Death once again, I realized that EvL [the Volunteer Firefighter/Sprayer] must be working on a series just like in Notke’s original painting which is made up of several panels where Death dances with a king, a bishop, a duchess, and many others to show that we are all equal before death. As I still can’t access FaceBook, I guess I was a little too slow to catch on …. Oh, well. But since I can use the Internet just like EvL’s Hedgehog, I tracked down Notke’s famous painting online to remind myself of the first image on the left which is “Death Plays the Bagpipes.” The second image is “Death Dancing with a Coffin.” The strange coffin which Death carries on his shoulder resembles a giant stick. And it is this image which provides a clue to the start of EvL’s own startling “Dance of Death” series.

As his way to protest against Estonia’s forestry policy, EvL [the Anti-Terrorist] spray painted his first “Stick-Dance Estonian Style” or “Dance of Death with a Log” next to the Estonian Ministry of the Environment in 2017. EvL’s work is a faithful reproduction of Notke’s with two exceptions. To start, the coffin is replaced by a log from felled tree. Next, EvL puts a chainsaw in Death’s hand. Ironically, Estonian Boris Kabur was the developer of the Druzhba (“Friendship”) chainsaw – the Soviet Union’s most popular chainsaw. It was also one of the world’s first chainsaws which could be used by just one man – thus serving as an unintentional metaphor for the nature of Soviet “friendship” which is why it became the topic of several Soviet-era anecdotes. For Kabur, however, the Soviet Union was no laughing matter as he developed his chainsaw in 1947 while imprisoned in one of Stalin’s Siberian gulags for the crime of being an Estonian. In any case, from his “Dance of Death with a Log,” you can trace EvL’s steps to his beloved Berlin where he debuted “Follow the Money” (2017) which shows two Deaths dancing with a soldier and a businessman. From Berlin, EvL was off to Paris where three more Deaths appeared in 2017: “Framed Death” or “Art Kills” features Death climbing out of a picture frame and echoes one of EvL’s earliest stencils from his Tartu days; “Pouring Gasoline on a Fire” (my title) pictures a gleeful Death dousing everything with gas from the hose of a pump; and “Dancing in the Rain” shows Death dancing a happy step – which could be straight of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) – while holding a red umbrella covered with white polka dots and wearing red rubber boots.

From Paris, EvL traveled to Budapest in 2018 where “Virtual Relativity” or “Click Here to Agree” shows Death dancing with two guys wearing VR masks as a visual comment on the rise of populism in Europe through the growing number of online echo chambers. Next, “Safety Dance” showed up in Vienna. Here Death is an airline steward demonstrating the dance of putting on a life vest – a comment perhaps on the fact that most European flights spend most of their time crossing over land rather than water. His latest work in the series seems to be “Shop ‘till You Drop” – echoing the famous title of another Banksy piece from 2006 – which appeared in Riga earlier this year and features a full grocery cart being pushed by a happy family dancing as Death joins in. Incidentally, EvL also left behind at least one more calling card on his recent visit to Riga – his popular “Hedgehog in the Smog” (2018) complete with a gas mask. Placed here, this stencil might also be a response to the Latvian restaurant “The Hedgehog in the Fog” – itself named after the forever popular 1975 Soviet animated film of the same name – for making use of EvL’s personal animal-helper and totem-icon.

As for me, I’m just hoping that I’ll live long enough to see the day when I can visit EvL’s complete “Dance of Death” show featuring all of his dancing Death panels gathered together in one place. The ideal location for such an exhibition, of course, would be Tallinn’s St. Nicholas’ Church right next to Bernt Notke’s original Danse Macabre. If you think that my idea is crazy, far-fetched, or that I’ve been infected with EvL’s “non-computer computer virus,” well, I happen to believe that everything is possible. Just look at the new relationship these days between EvL [the Pirate] and the Estonian Government. Instead of trying to erase every trace of his work, the Estonian Government seems to have decided that “if you can’t beat him, join him.” Or at least try to get him to join you by giving him a letter of marque and turning him into a spray-paint corsair roving other far-off lands ….

And so, in 2017, the Estonian Government chose EvL [the Folk Artist] as their Street Art Ambassador and sent him off on a European-wide tagging tour called (R)estart Reality – or Edward von Lõngus Goes to Europe – to promote Estonia’s 100th Anniversary. You should really check out (R)estart Reality’s website as it documents anonymous EvL’s travels across Europe, armed with his stencils of Lembit, Maali, Liisu, and a host of other long-vanished Estonians, originally captured in photographs now held in the collection of Tartu’s Estonian National Museum. This being E-stonia – the Land of Kalevipoeg 3.0 and his faithful Hacker Hedgehog – if you download (R)estart’s Augmented Reality app, then you can even watch these stencils come to life. All you need to do is to aim your smartphone at one of EvL’s works and then Liisu’s spinning wheel will start to spin, Lembit’s pipe will start to smoke, and the entire cast of these long-dead Estonians will defy Death one last time to Dance one final Dance just for you.

 

Image Above: EvL’s “Kalevipoeg 3.0” with his faithful companion “Hacker Hedgehog” on the walls of Kalamaja’s derelict Patarei Prison.

Image Below: EvL’s salvaged “Dance of Death with Endel” near the entrance to Kalamaja’s hipster enclave of Telliskivi.

Other Images: To see the other art work mentioned in this story, check out EvL on Instagram, FaceBook, as well as on his abandoned Blogspot diary. You’ll find images of his other surviving works in Kalamaja posted on my @KwerkeK Twitter feed from time to time. 

 

Selfie Death

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