Chase Travels: How The Koi Fish came to spray paint an old Nazi bunker in Norway
Once upon a time, under the pseudonym of The Koi Fish, started painting - you guessed it- splashing Japanese koi fish in Belgium. Shanghai soon followed, and their newest habitat is located the Far West of Scandinavia. You might remember this graffiti artist from our interview with Belgian filmmaker Romain Vennekens about his short documentary 'As the city grows, I grow'. Or you might recognize him from when he took over our Instagram stories a while ago, when he was touring around and painting in Norway. In the meantime he's been writing out his experiences there, allowing us a peek into the mind of a travelling artist who discovers foreign terrain and experiments with new artistic concepts. He even painted one of his recognizable fish straight onto a Nazi bunker from World War II. Bucket list, check!
Written by The Koi Fish, edited by Chess Teugels
I had been meaning to travel north for a long time now. Charlie, one of my best friends from the time I lived in Shanghai was Norwegian. After he invited me to come visit, with the high possibility of painting, I was sold. Over the weeks of planning that followed his invitation, my trip to Norway grew more detailed and it became clear that this wasn’t just a holiday. It was more of a tour, a chance for me to paint, explore and experience.
My first stop was Bergen, the old Viking capital of Norway, where I would meet Charlie. He is a member of the SVG crew, a group of creative young people in the city who form the backbone of the urban scene there. I was welcomed by rainclouds and cold weather. Despite being weary of traveling the whole day, Charlie and I went out for a few beers and I was confronted with the fact that a single beer easily costs up to 10 euros. I had always heard of how expensive Scandinavia supposedly was, but this still came as a big surprise to me. In the bar we met up with Rafael, the manager at Vibbefanger. An upcoming hip-hop label in Norway, including various SVG members and recently performing across the country. Rafael pointed me to a place where I could get my hands on some spray paint. He warned me that a single can would cost as much as 100 NOK (the local currency), which is little over €11, almost three times the price of graffiti in Belgium.
The expensive beer in combination with ridiculously overpriced spray paint didn’t exactly make me feel excited about my stay in Bergen, but a lucky encounter on day two quickly turned the tables for me. Close to Charlie’s place there was a street art gallery that we walked into when we were heading into town. They had some works by DOLK, so that immediately drew my attention, but it wasn’t until I wanted to walk out that I was truly flabbergasted. Two big smiles hung above the curator’s desk, decorating the faces of two paintings in a very familiar style. The paintings were the craftsmanship of Belgium’s very own Joachim, next to whom I painted a few years back at a graffiti jam in Leuven. I immediately started talking to the curator and before I knew it, he pointed me to a graffiti artist down at the docks who owned a studio and could supply me with MTN 94 spray paint for 50 NOK per can. All I would need to get busy bombin’.
Getting the paint turned out to be quite the adventure, as we had to get our ID’s registered by the guards to enter the docks. To my surprise, the artist I was buying the paint from was none other than Nemes, one of Bergen’s top notch graffiti talents. The paint was sold from his studio, so I got the chance to look at some of his work and especially the pieces still in progress were intriguing to see. My friends from the SVG crew who accompanied me to the docks struck up a conversation with him while I was choosing my colors. It was interesting to hear how Nemes was involved in the old school hip-hop community in Norway as well. In a way this was a meeting point between two generations of hip-hop inspired artists, a passing of the proverbial torch… Or in this case spray paint can.
With all the necessary gear, we loaded up and headed out. As it turned out, there were plenty of spots that were waiting to become part of one big painting. The goal was to pick spots that would kind of work together into one path that could be followed, to help people hunt for the different parts. In the first night of painting, I completed eight pieces, with the SVG crew acting as my guides. It was by far my most productive night, as the next sessions consisted of two and four pieces respectively. After creating the pathway of pieces however, it was time to paint the one piece to connect them all. It was time to head into the mountains and go bomb an old Nazi bunker.
After climbing the Rundemannen mountain with Charlie I learned two things: one, I was nowhere near as in shape as my gym routine had led me to believe over the past few months. Two, Charlie must have been a mountain goat in a previous life. The first half of the climb was absolutely brutal, especially since I was hauling 12 cans of spray paint, camera gear and other equipment with me to the top. I did not think this through.
It turned out to be worth it though, as the first viewpoint at mid-peak level was already more than breathtaking. From there it took us 20 minutes to locate the old Nazi bunker, which stood on the absolute top of the mountain. Charlie helped me set up the camera, we got out the coffee, the beats and the paint, and I got to work.
It was probably the most surreal painting experience I have had so far. Painting a World War II Nazi bunker on top of a mountain in the old Viking capital of Norway. It was a check off my bucket list. The few hikers that passed by gave us surprised looks, a few even stopped to talk to us. Most of them tried not to make eye contact and it was funny to see how people really had no idea how to handle the situation.
On the way down, we crossed a bridge that was the top part of a very large dam. Needless to say I painted it, because the location was just too good.
The next day we spent simply hanging out and sightseeing in Bergen. In the evening, we met up with another one of Charlie’s friends, a rapper and DJ named Simon Alejandro. At that time, he was about to move to Paris to start recording his album and I planned to meet up with him when I'm going to Paris in December. He introduced me to some Swedish and Norwegian rap LP’s and we combined a bottle of Limoncello and Prosecco while we browsed his huge LP collection and appreciated the finer things life must offer.
I spent the final night in Bergen with the SVG crew, as we all got together to visit the city’s Kulturnatt. Similar to what we have in Brussels, all of Bergen’s museums were open until very late and most of them were free to enter. We saw a lot of classic work, paintings by the Norwegian queen and the royal silverware collection, but the most impressive paintings were done by the Norwegian realistic painter Nikolai Astrup. As we went to see these museums before our last painting session, I was carrying spray paint in the pockets of my jacket. I usually feel very comfortable walking around with graffiti cans, but there was something very unsettling carrying them into five separate world famous art museums. It felt more than a little bad ass.
From Bergen, I took the train to Oslo. The journey lasts about seven hours and is rumored to be one of Europe’s most beautiful train rides. I must admit, it certainly lived up to its name. There's no shame in admitting that I more than once put on the Lord of the Rings soundtrack and similar epic music. The scenery I passed while I crossed Norway seemed to have come straight out of a Tolkien novel. In Oslo I would meet up with a German cellist that I met earlier that summer.
My stay in Oslo would serve to illustrate a very different part of my ‘street artist’ lifestyle, as I didn’t go there to paint extensively. I was lucky enough to check out an exhibition by world famous hip-hop photographer Chi Modu, who was exhibiting some of his rare Tupac Shakur photographs. And so I visited galleries and hiked, like I had in Bergen, but in Oslo I really took time to work on ideas, to read, and to structure my thoughts. Being productive and creating new art is one thing, but creating ‘empty’ space to allow new things to happen is just as important. I think that's true for any art discipline. Mirjam, the German cellist, was a great sparring partner for those things. As I was staying at her house, an old villa shared by five musicians, I ate vegan food and listened to more classical music than I had in years. There were also several bottles of wine involved and as The Beatles sang in Norwegian Wood ‘we talked until two’. It was an amazing experience and it perfectly balanced the nights of running around with the SVG crew in Bergen. In the end, I think that's what it was all about, balancing out the whole experience.
Creating street art, or any art for that matter, is as much defined by the moments of creativity as it is by the moments of gathering philosophies, ideas and inspiration. This is what I hoped to show in this travelogue.
Often times when people follow their favorite street artist on Instagram, they see the pictures of the gear, the piece and maybe sometimes a work-in-progress pic. But being a street artist is much more than that, it’s frustrating, unsettling and demanding. But most of all adventurous, surprising and filled with moments you would never expect. I climbed skyscrapers, explored forest dungeons and risked my life doing graffiti pieces, and that's what I usually show the outside world. But all of that is countered by hours of reading, sketching and talking. Moments that are rarely seen by the people who are not directly involved.
In short: street art and graffiti is a life style, a philosophy of engaging with your surroundings, a way of asking questions, at least to me. I hope that I managed to share even a small part of that with you.
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The Koi Fish