08 Jun Gdańsk: Street Art in Zaspa
The Zaspa neighbourhood of Gdańsk is almost, almost, your average collection of boring, ex-Soviet apartment blocks. But on closer inspection, this residential area – just 10 minutes away from the central station – is different to any other Eastern European tower block complex you’ve ever seen.
During our stay in Gdańsk, my friend Katie and I spent a sunny spring morning wandering around the area, discovering amazing works of art behind (almost) every corner.
Street art fans, add this place to your bucket list – it’s a good’un.
What is Zaspa?
As far as visitors are concerned, until a couple of decades ago, Zaspa was just another anonymous suburb outside the pocket-sized city of Gdańsk. But in 1997, it became more significant. To cut a long story short, artists descended on Zaspa during a festival to celebrate a thousand years of the city of Gdańsk, and brightened up the place with 10 huge murals on the ends of some of the tower blocks. More were added in 2009, when the city was applying to become a European Capital of Culture, and in recent years even more have been added thanks to various initiatives and festivals in the area.
The result is an enormous open-air gallery, home to around 60 large-scale works of street art, many full of symbolism and political meaning, some by local artists, others by international ones, and all pretty spectacular to look at.
You might also like: a weekend guide to Gdańsk.
While it’s often referred to as a “gallery” (one of the world’s largest open-air galleries, if we wanna get technical), Zaspa is first and foremost a place where people actually live – a fairly typical city suburb – meaning you shouldn’t go there expecting to find cafés and restaurants around every corner, and you shouldn’t be an obnoxious, shouty tourist outside people’s kitchen windows either (even if many of the murals are worth shouting about).
That said, the cool thing about Zaspa is that it’s just far enough from the city centre to deter a lot of the tourists and all of the stag dos, meaning you’ll most likely have it to yourself to explore (we bumped into a small group of middle-aged Polish tourists as we arrived, and saw not another soul for the following 2 hours).
Getting to Zaspa from Gdańsk
Arriving in the Zaspa district is super, super easy thanks to Poland’s (surprisingly?) efficient SKM train service.
Tickets cost around 3/4 zloty for each journey, and you can get them from the automatic ticket machines in the corridor just inside the station, which are also in English – you can’t go wrong.
Trains depart from Gdańsk Glowny station a couple of times an hour, and the journey only takes about 10 minutes.
Arriving from Gdańsk, the apartment blocks you’re interested in are will be on the right of the train; leave from that side of the station, and you’ll soon see some murals peeping out, and will know exactly which direction to head in.
I told you it was simple.
Is Zaspa safe?
I know what you’re thinking – and I asked myself the same thing – is this outer-city suburb even safe to visit?
You might expect somewhere like this to be a bit dodgy and dangerous, but Poland is one of those countries where everything just feels pretty safe at all times, even when nobody else is around. I have to say, I didn’t find Polish people to be particularly friendly (bear in mind that I’m used to the Mediterranean, where old ladies start sharing details of their various ailments, political opinions, and preferred methods of pasta preparation after about 2 minutes of standing next to you at a bus stop) but they certainly weren’t threatening in any way whatsoever.
That’s not to say I’d feel safe wandering around Zaspa alone at night, but I’d certainly feel no more concerned there than I would in any deserted neighbourhood in my own city… and relax, you’re there to see the murals – you’re not gonna be there at night anyway.
The neighbourhood is also spotlessly clean, with green parks in between the blocks of flats, and locals who at best will try to explain the murals to you (at least, we think that’s what happened when an old man on a bike stopped to natter at us in Polish) and at worst won’t look at you twice.
It’s a pleasant enough place to walk around, don’t worry at all.
How to find the murals in Zaspa
If you want to do Zaspa properly, learning about the district and the murals in depth, you can get a free street art walking tour and be shown around by a local. There are three of these tours per week in summer, and you can book yourself onto one of them by visiting the information point on Długi Targ in central Gdańsk.
We, however, were on a bit of a tight schedule – already trying to pack in two day trips into one day – so had decided to go it alone.
I’ll be honest – I was a little worried about turning up and not being able to find any of the murals without a guide, but thankfully Zaspa – like the rest of Gdańsk – looks a lot bigger on the map than it is in real life, and while it’s not easy to find some of the murals if you don’t know where to go, it’s impossible to miss them all.
All you really need to know is that the complex is broken into two sections, which are separated by a road (Aleja Jana Pawla II). There are about an equal number of murals on either side, so you can choose which side to start on, and then just cross the road to the other half when you’re done.
If you want to see a particular piece of street art, or cross all of them off your list, you can use this super helpful map of the Zaspa murals to find each and every one. If that’s not your style, just go for a wander and you’ll come across plenty that way too.
My favourite murals in Zaspa
There are so many different topics and styles in the Zaspa mural collection (browse the full collection here) that any street art fan is bound to find one or two that they absolutely love. Many of the pieces are made even more impressive due to their sheer size – you can get an idea from the photos, but they do have to be seen to be truly believed!
Here are just a few of my favourites, which you can have fun hunting down if you do visit Poland:
“Lech Wałęsa” – Piotr Szwabe
Although you could be forgiven for mistaking this moustachioed character for the protagonist of a certain series about Colombian narcotraficantes, this wonderfully pixellated portrait in fact shows trade-union activist, ex-president and all-round famous Polish guy, Lech Wałęsa, who once lived in the Zaspa neighbourhood with his family. The mural was completed in the 25th anniversary year of Wałęsa’s Nobel Peace Prize win, by Polish artist Piotr Szwabe, who has contributed not one but four pieces to the Zaspa open air gallery, and I think we can all agree it’s a pretty cool work of art, as well as a historically significant one.
Uruguay meets Poland – Alfalfa & the Licuado Collective
This bright, internationally-inspired mural by a group of artists from Latin America (Alfalfa a.k.a. Nicolas Sanchez, and the Colectivo Licuado) feels like something out of a children’s book, and shows a little Polish girl helping a key-wielding Uruguayan boy to unlock his dreams. Eye catching colours, and awesome details like the silhouette of the Gdańsk skyline, images of the artists holding hands on the little boy’s T-shirt, and the sunshine coming through the keyhole at the top of the piece take this mural to another level.
“Memling” – Piotr Szwabe
When we first turned the corner and saw this mural, I will admit that Katie and looked at each other as if to say, “I don’t get it”. I then took a photo of the wall (more out of reflex than genuine interest), then looked at the preview on my camera, let out an “ohhhh!” and suddenly appreciated the piece a thousand times more. The huge scale of this mural – made up of around 4,500 large “pixels” – makes the artwork baffling unless you’re exactly the right distance from it, and I, a true fan of Neil Buchanan and his Big Art Attacks, just love that.
The keen art historians amongst you might be able to notice some elements from German painter Hans Memling’s The Last Judgment (the original having been imported to Gdansk in the 15th century), but the artist (good ole Piotr Szwabe again) not only translated the Medieval masterpiece into a videogame-style pixel mural, but also added good old Lech Wałęsa on the right hand side to give a truly Zaspa touch and a bit of a political flavour to the final result. Awesome, right?
Rocket totem – Wallride
Martin Håkansson, Bo Rutter and Simon Karström, three Swedish artists better known as Wallride are behind this incredibly fun comic-inspired piece. The concept is a bit more dark than the cartoon style initially suggests; the spaceship apparently represents “the totem of our civilisation”, ready to take off once Earth has been emptied of its natural resources by all of us greedy inhabitants. Amongst the doom and gloom however, is a stunner of a mural.
“The Pilot” – Shai Dahan
Last but not least, a mural which I love as much for the story behind it as for the artwork itself. This one – by super cool Israeli-born American artist Shai Dahan – came about after the artist heard about the emergency landing of a U.S. pilot whose plane came down in a field of cows. Wanting to avoid hurting the animals, he crash landed on the fence instead and… all the cows ran away.
So there you have it, the best street art gallery you’d never heard of. Give me a shout if you visit Zaspa – I’d absolutely love to know what you think of this place!
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