Eugene Quinn’s irreverent campaign to reimagine Vienna, and break down hidebound rules of trade

If you stare at something long enough, it can start to give you ideas – at least that’s what happened to Eugene Quinn coming out of his front door on Karmelitermarkt every morning to gaze on the preposterous, new-age rainbow facade of the apartment building across the way.

This wild paint job at Leopoldsgasse 39 is now the crown jewel of Quinn’s walking tour “Ugly Vienna”, whose provocative wit has gotten him gleeful notice in the media from Vienna to London and New York, and as improbably far afield as Myanmar.

Quinn has been less well received by the Wiener Wirtschaftskammer (WKW – Vienna Chamber of Commerce) – not as you might imagine out of wounded pride for their beautiful city, but for daring to lead interested souls around the city without a proper license as a Fremdenführer, or Tourist Guide, a defined trade in Austria that requires a demanding two-year course of study (costing €6,000) and a very tough exam that, like that for the bar, many fail on the first try.

This, says the Wirtschaftskammer, is as it should be. They say the tour guides are the face of Austrian and Viennese culture to many visitors and the story they tell should be the right one. But this makes it extremely hard for any new ideas, and new narratives, to break through. This is where Quinn’s good-natured civil disobedience strikes at the heart of a question that modern, “Smart City” Vienna needs to face.

Tradition matters, and standards matter. But in a living city, there must also be room for the new.

A partial ‘Austrian Solution’

In Quinn’s case, there was a loophole, at least at first, a classic “Austrian solution,”  proposed last spring by the WKW itself.  As long he only talked about “Ugly Vienna” – and not any of “positive sites of interest” in the city, he would not be stepping on the toes of the professional guides. An interesting take, to say the least.

He should also, they advised, get a less demanding license as a Reisebetreuer, a travel manager, the sort who arranges accommodations, counts heads, and makes sure the bus shows up on time. This option is both much cheaper and requires only a one-year course – which, buses aside, should cover things,  as long as he doesn’t “go into too much detail” on Austrian history or culture – the purview of the licensed Tour Guides.

Unfortunately, and perhaps predictably, the next course for Reisebetreuer is not scheduled till next September. Until such time, Quinn has been told to “desist and cease.” And pay a €350 fine. A second offense will cost 10 times as much.

Quinn thinks this is silly. “They clearly don’t like me,” he said, as amused as he is perplexed.

“But they have the problem that the tour is popular and has gotten a lot of media attention, so they can’t quite bring themselves to just shut it down.”

Edit to add: a brief video clip of the Ugly Vienna Tour has been posted by tagesschau and is viewable via their Facebook page.


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Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of METROPOLE. Over a long career in journalism she has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler in New York, the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two US ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching for her work at the Department of Media Communications for Webster University Worldwide. In 2010, she was granted Austrian Citizenship of Honor (Ehrenstaatsbürgerschaft) for outstanding contributions to the Austrian Republic