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Copenhagen Graffiti

Copenhagen is one of the most quietly beautiful cities I've ever seen. It's one of those European capitals that as a North American, you walk around in and spend most of your time wondering "how did we get it so wrong." A lot of its elegance comes from the uniformity of building height across the city, and the similarity of the architecture. (Compare that with a city like Toronto or Ottawa, where a given street will have three-storey Victorians abutting 8 storey offices sandwiched between a fifteen storey highrise and a two-storey grocery store.)

But there is one thing about Copenhagen that I found a bit jarring: It is easily the most aggressively graffiti'd city I've spent any significant time in. Virtually every building, facade, transit station, park bench, or pillar has been tagged, bombed, or stenciled, including the storefronts in the more chi-chi part of town. This isn't necessarily a problem: 'm a big fan of street art, and a some of the bigger pieces help underscore a neighbourhood's identity, like so:

And so it was into this seemingly welcoming environment that Shepard Fairey arrived last August for the opening of an exhibition of his work at a Copenhagen gallery. While in town, he swung by one of the most notorious vacant lots in the city -- Jagtvej 69, the site of a lefty squat at in the wonderfully multicultural Nørrebro district that was demolished by the city in 2007. Since then, the lot has become a sort of martyr of negative architecture, a sign of The Man's ongoing persecution of the counterculture. Here is the building right next door to the old squat:

On the side of a building facing the vacant site from the east (above), Fairey painted a mural that showed a dove in flight above the word "peace" and the number 69. The locals didn't seem to like the mural or its message. After the mural went up it was immediately defaced with "NO PEACE!" and "Go home Yankee hipster". A few days later, Fairey was beaten up outside a nightclub in Copenhagen's rather douchey meatpacking district (very similar look and feel to New York's) by someone who called him "Obama illuminati" and ordered him to "go back to America".

It really is an appalling work -- the street-art equivalent to John Lennon's ode to empty-headed peace-mongering, "Imagine". Fairey tried to make it better by trying to tidy up the work and make it cooler by adding a black helicopter to the bottom, but that only seemed to make the locals angrier. The thing continues to get vandalized, to the point where the bottom twenty feet are a riot of paint-bombed resentment. Here's how it looked when I was there last month:

The saddest part is that there is already plenty of excellent indigenous art on the buildings surrounding the vacant lot:

As a result, it isn't clear how Fairey thought he was helping, or what he thought he was adding. If anything, it looks like he was trying to keep his cred by piggybacking on the authentic anti-establishment politics of the Jagtvej 69 diehards.

But then again, it isn't clear just how authentic those politics ever were. A few doors down from the commune there was a McDonald's that used to get vandalised every night by anti-corporate lefty types. But someone was patronizing the joint, and it is significant that shortly after the building at Jagtvej 69 was knocked down, the McDonald's went out of business. There's a crappy little bakery there now.