Who thinks public art can contribute to making a city a better place to live? We’re used to taking in huge commercial messages every day, encouraging to part with our income to an often-unsustainable end. Why not sanction large-scale artistic murals to spark a different kind of thought, debate or gesture? That’s the raison d’etre of Hola Utopia!, an emerging urban art festival that takes place in Hannover, a city in the north-west of Germany.
Full disclosure. I’ve been involved with Hola Utopia! since it was first mentioned in 2019, mostly thanks to my job in communications at Montana Colors who sponsor the event. Maybe murals weren’t always my thing – I came into the subculture of aerosol art through old fashioned silver pieces on railway lines – but gradually I had started to appreciate large-scale figurative and abstract works through graffiti artists who have made an impact in the world of street art too, like Os Gemeos, Steven “Espo” Powers and Aches. Getting paid to travel was a novelty for me, so I was keen to get my hands dirty in Hannover, where the festival takes place.
Unfortunately, I never made it to the first edition in 2020 because reasons. However, I was glad to see that my colleagues at MTN Germany were able to make something happen in their city involving urban art with a positive message.
The murals at the first edition were well produced, occupying prominent walls dotted around the sleepy city. A small selection of national artists participated: Etaja and BeNer1; Stefan Hoch, Cheez and Vergerdte Welt; Mocx, Kalagrafik and Rookie The Weird. It was hard to evaluate from abroad, but it seemed that the event went off without a hitch.
After the event, however, a few doubts remained. How exactly do you judge whether a mural festival has been a success? The obvious answer is the quality of the artwork, but there are more factors at play. Does success mean likes, comments and tags on social media? Blog posts? Column inches in the press? Is it the money you’ve been able to raise to make it happen? Whether you could pay yourself for the time you’ve dedicated to the event? How well you’ve treated the talent? Without being embedded in the production of Hola Utopia!, I would never know.
In 2021, I got the chance to make my first trip to Hannover, which was also the first time I’d travelled to foreign parts to represent MTN. I was proud and excited as I was picked up at Hannover airport by Artie Ilsemann, Hola Utopia! founder and a colleague from MTN Germany. This edition had more of an international flavor, with Yubia and Irene López Léon flying over with me from Barcelona and Bart Sucharski making the drive over from Poland. German-Peruvian Nasca One took one of the prime walls, and renowned artists Anna T. Iron and Kartel also featured. Rookie The Weird returned, and two German collectives were assembled especially for the event: Team D.O.T.U. and Cuadro Frezca, with mixed results.
This time it was easier to understand the strengths of the fledgling festival, where it lacked and where I thought I could help. Hola Utopia! had once again secured good walls with excellent visibility, and the owners of the buildings were on board as sponsors, a great achievement in itself. The art itself had stepped up a notch, with particular praise reserved for the giant cartoon tiger Nasca One left behind, as well as the classy abstraction painted by Kartel.
How exactly do you judge whether a mural festival has been a success? The obvious answer is the quality of the artwork, but there are more factors at play.
Conditions were not always great, as the artists had to deal with some serious downpours, which are familiar to anyone who has spent a summer in North-Western Europe. Communications were improved with me on the ground as we started to generate some fun content for our small but improving follower base. My complete ignorance of German was a disadvantage, but Hola Utopia! is an ambitious festival aimed at reaching an international audience. However, the story behind one of the walls went completely over my head, and it turned out to be a story that would give Artie and Jascha great headaches in the months to come.
Cuadro Frezca was a gamble. The four artists from Berlin were invited to intervene on a huge tower block, without any real reputation as urban artists individually, let alone as a group. Everything appeared to advance as normal, until we realized that they were deliberately leaving the piece unfinished as a protest against the company that owned the building. The finer details of their artists’ statement escaped me, but it was clear that said company would be furious with the result. The group snuck off before they had to answer any uncomfortable questions from the people who had contracted them, leaving Artie and Jascha to try to placate the lawyers who inevitably got in touch shortly after the event had finished.
Selecting artists is easily the most exciting part of a festival. Slotting names into the bill is like playing fantasy football as you imagine a wall in your event painted by some famous twins from Brazil or a mysterious stencil artist from Bristol.
So, we learnt lots from the first two years of protests, image release forms and downpours and started to piece together a festival we could all be proud of in 2022. Artists would be invited from further afield, to increase the reach of our work. We would aim for parity between artists and scale down from the 10 walls in 2021 to better take care of our talent. We’d rent an extra car to take care of transfers and last-minute details. A can of burgundy red. A jumper for a chilly artist. A falafel wrap.
We also assigned a paid assistant to each artist to help complete the XL murals. This turned out to be a stroke of genius as the lonely experience up a cherry picker turned into a chance to learn and exchange ideas with a local resident, each of whom was a budding artist in their own right.
Selecting artists is easily the most exciting part of a festival. Slotting names into the bill is like playing fantasy football as you imagine a wall in your event painted by some famous twins from Brazil or a mysterious stencil artist from Bristol. You soon get back in your lane and draw up a line up you can actually afford, and the artists are delighted to hear from you. After the minimum of fuss, we selected seven artists to add to the budding selection of murals Hannover.
MTN HQ suggested Lily Brick and Galletamaria to continue to build bridges from Barcelona. We were also delighted to offer Ukranian twins Dilk One and Feros One the chance to come over, pending special permission from their government.
Nasca One was the first confirmation, and he was also asked to illustrate and design the poster for the 2022 event. Rookie was another person asked back after a great showing in the previous two festivals. The Dutchman Bier En Brood was identified as a perfect fit to produce an anamorphic painting that would surely turn heads. MTN HQ suggested Lily Brick and Galletamaria to continue to build bridges from Barcelona. We were also delighted to offer Ukranian twins Dilk One and Feros One the chance to come over, pending special permission from their government.
Artie and Jascha had put in some impressive groundwork by getting in touch with Ulaf, a businessman and accomplished photographer who had acquired an industrial complex where local legends The Scorpions apparently used to record. Not only did his company sponsor the event and provide a prominent surface to paint on, but he also facilitated an impressive warehouse space which would serve as a gallery for an exhibition of urban art, with contributions from Hola Utopia! artists past and present.
The festival program was completed with a German premiere of Street Heroines, a documentary tracking the progress of women in graffiti and street art primarily from the USA to Latin America, and a collaborative party afterwards in the same rough and ready Glocksee Indiego club.
Personal highlights? Getting my own thick-walled room to sleep in at the artists’ residence. The impressive turnout at the art show. The artists selling work at the art show.
It’s not easy to put into words the sensation of working in a festival. Workdays are 12 hours long almost everywhere I’ve put in a shift. I spent more time in a car in a week than I had the whole year previous. (Hannover, I discovered, is a car city). Artists are so giddy with emotion after a day up a lift that they confide in you like a close friend after just a couple of days. Everyone is too tired to even eat at the end of the day, which is convenient because no one is going to cook and the restaurants close at 10pm. You hear about intimate slices of life, from buying a home in Holland to the shops running out of green paint in Ukraine. Interestingly, almost no one talks about art much.
Personal highlights? Getting my own thick-walled room to sleep in at the artists’ residence. The impressive turnout at the art show. The artists selling work at the art show. Rookie The Weird giving me a guide to early German rap. Realizing Bier En Brood was a gabber. Playing Mortal Kombat 2 with Lily Brick after eating excellent pizza with Dilk and Feros. Checking kids’ Star Wars fan art with Nasca inside the youth club he painted. Flea marketing with Galletamaria. And the proof that it had all gone well, the traditional crew shots that I took with Artie and Jascha. I look pooped.
Hola Utopia! may seem like a bohemian festival, and it’s true that it has positive and progressive ideals at its core, thanks to the determination and vision of Artie and Jascha. However, the event has a very solid base thanks to the sponsors and authorities that support the project. Over the past few years, they have been shown that their return is worth their investment in terms of the incredible artwork and positive press that is produced with their help. Hola Utopia! is a framework to follow for anyone with the spirit to improve their locality.