The Calle Libre Festival turns urban walls into galleries

When Jakob Kattner looks around ­Vienna, he doesn’t see the historic architecture that tourists so cherish. He is looking for the next 10-story canvas. Every August since 2014, Kattner’s Calle Libre Festival of Urban Aesthetics has made the city’s walls come alive with the sound of spray cans at work. This year, eight ­international and local street artists will take to 6th, 7th and 8th district’s walls, from local hero “Ruin” to the Colombian “Stinkfish” and “Key Detail & Yu Baba” from Belarus.

“A hundred years ago, we were one of Europe’s capitals for innovative art and culture; I want to bring that back,” said Kattner, who has been producing street-art events since 2009.

Calle Libre cooperates with many art institutions and public spaces, fighting for funding, permissions and boom lifts, coordinating artists flying in from as far as Latin America and volunteers and assistants that help prepare the huge walls. For ­Kattner, funding is the biggest struggle. “Honestly, it is a pain in the ass. It is very hard to get permission and funding for public walls. Luckily, institutions like quartier21, Mumok and the Museums­Quartier help us.” He shrugs wistfully, “I wish the city administration would provide more.”

Street artists face issues and unique moments not experienced by more traditional gallery artists. They paint open-air and in public. Passersby watch their every stroke, commenting on the artwork materializing in front of their eyes and iPhones. The works are ephemeral, often abused by other spray-painters or removed once the permit has expired.

Galleries are virgin. The streets are not.

– Kashink

Rocky road to respectability

Huge murals like this piece created by the artist Millo last year at Andreaspark in the 7th district are only possible with boom lifts and many volunteers.Photo: ©calle-libre/ max splicke liss
Huge murals like this piece created by the artist Millo last year at Andreaspark in the 7th district are only possible with boom lifts and many volunteers.

Photo: ©calle-libre/ max splicke liss

As anarchic street murals  move into the lucrative commercial art market, many artists remain ambivalent about joining what they consider “the establishment.” While household names like Banksy now fetch six figures at auctions, the ­artist himself staunchly protects his ­anonymity – and street cred.

Kashink, a Frenchwoman sporting a drawn-on pencil mustache, also straddles that divide, still “bombing” walls, yet also being a featured artist at Art Basel Miami 2013. I met her at last year’s Calle Libre. “What could make us part of contemporary art would be to work more on our practices,” she said, “Painting outside is a specific thing.” Kashink had been frustrated earlier at the MQ: A local bible group was protesting the use of profanity; a neighboring restaurant wanted no aerosols during lunch service.

“It’s very important to have a sense of scenography, to have respect for  my environment,” she noted drily. “But then,  the more institutionalized my walls are, the more I want to paint outside illegally.”

Calle Libre still grapples with the legal street art’s notoriety, still often confused with vandalism. While municipalities are increasingly aware that a wall painted by a famous artist such as ROA (viewable on Shadekgasse in the 6th district) enhances their cultural image more visibly than any side-street gallery or even some museums do, the city and local residents sometimes work to block Kattner’s efforts, preferring the walls left just the way they are. And while Calle Libre’s budget increased a little this year, it’s still not enough, leaving idealism to transform plain city walls into intriguing, beautiful, provocative art every summer.

“Everyday life inspires me, the thoughts, the problems, the hardships of you and me,” mused Kattner. “I just want to see more grey walls turn into pieces of art.”

2014 Teaser video:

Calle Libre Festival of Urban Aesthetics

Aug 10-13, various locations

Previous articleOn Music: Rufus Wainwright
Next articleGrätzl: Piaristenviertel – Best of Both Worlds
Following studies in Anthropology at UCL, Film at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and Law at Loyola, Andrew worked for Miramax Films, 20th Century Fox Studios, and won two awards as a public relations counsel at Ruder Finn. After seeing the US political system from the inside while working for the VOA at a Democratic & a Republican political convention, Andrew returned to Europe to make documentary films, including "Vinyl: Tales from the Vienna Underground", which premiered at Karlovy Vary. He is currently curating for a film festival, developing new film projects, and developing an organic food app