“Museums are dead, take a new art stance;
Paint mass suicide on the aspiration diktat” – Manic Street Preachers.
What I have noticed as a difference between living somewhere and travelling somewhere, is that sometimes, you see more as a traveller. One reason for this could be that you only have 3-4 days in a place so you maximise your time to see all the things when you want. When you live in a city, you procrastinate a lot about seeing parts of that city, as you can do it anytime since it is on your doorstep. In my third month, I finally made it to the quirky district of Zaspa in Gdańsk, Poland. You probably read that I now live and work here in Gdańsk, and study Polish too as well as having tried Irish dancing, on a food tour to Gdynia and on a pub crawl of the city.
“What took you so long?” – Emma Bunton.
In July, I was out for food and drinks with a travel friend of mine, Karolina Kohler (name changed at owner’s request but it was a friend) and she mentioned Zaspa to me as a cool off the wall spot in Gdańsk with murals. I was aware of it through Karolina but I had no idea it was going to be so vast and interesting! In September 2016, when my friend, the famous “Millwall Neil” was here, as a surprise for him, I decided it was time to backpack our way around the murals of Zaspa.
Karolina (covered up in the picture above) was out of the city at the time sadly so couldn’t join us, but Neil and I headed on a hot morning to this cool district.
Research Ahead of Our Zaspa Trip
In terms of research, often backpackers like to be unprepared and go with the flow and I’ve been the same at points down the years, especially in regions where there is zero information like my wacaday trip to Nukus or the time I was the first tourist at a winery in Adammia. However, the murals of Zaspa are numbered and some of the really special ones can be easily missed. Because of this, I decided to print us both out a map so we could plan our adventure easier and tick them off along the way.
Go to the Map of Zaspa page on the Murals of Zaspa website and download/print it from there. The same group is also on Facebook, so if you love these murals and my article, be sure to click like on their page as well as like on my real life travel blog page Don’t Stop Living.
Getting to Zaspa
Using public transport, there are three ways to get to Zaspa in Gdańsk. Personally I love the train system in Gdańsk, Gdynia and Sopot so I used it. It’s called the SKM and tickets are usually around 3 – 4 złoty per trip.
When we got off the train at Gdańsk Zaspa station, having come from Gdańsk Głowny, we see the murals on our right as we get off the train.
We turn around and go back over the bridge to the right this time and within minutes, we are right in the middle of the Zaspa housing estate. It’s an old style concrete block housing estate. People live their ordinary lives here in peace and harmony and Millwall Neil and myself are the only two tourists we see on our entire visit.
All About Zaspa, Gdańsk
Zaspa obviously has a history – it’s not a new neighbourhood. Gdańsk is a historic city on its own, and yet Zaspa is another hugely mysterious and interesting enigma for my travel mind to unravel. In the deep downtown Post Office and at the ill fated Westerplatte, the Germans once waged war here, later on the Soviets took control, then we had Solidarnosc, then the Berlin Wall came down, then Lech Wałęsa took control of Poland. Then from 1997 onwards, thanks to art, the district of Zaspa was about to change.
We are not talking revolutions here, or political carnage or war. We are talking art. Art is the winner. In a neighbourhood like this, grey or white walls on every block of communistic style housing building seemed drab and boring. Some parts of Gdańsk still reminded me of my time backpacking in Belarus or in Transnistria. But Zaspians had other ideas. Let’s paint the walls. The first 10 pieces in the Collection were painted in 1997 during a festival organised to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of Gdańsk.
More murals were then added, 12 years later, in 2009 with the Monumental Art Festival. The six editions of this festival extended the collection with 34 new pieces painted by renowned artists from all over the world. In 2010, Gdansk School of Mural started contributing to the project at Zaspa. More recently the Local Guides group, made up of Zaspa residents, added to the collection. They also run tours around the Collection, presenting the history of the settlement, local legends and stories behind the creation of murals.
As a prelude to this story, this is not unique to me I have to say. I grew up in Northern Ireland. We have wall murals everywhere. But they are hugely political and although pretty and well painted, somehow in my homeland they remain controversial and territorial. Like the one below, in East Belfast.
Of course politics always sneaks its way into art, you’ll be aware of that. Here, Zaspa is simply one of Gdańsk’s “bedroom districts”. There are not huge offices here, or high streets or top “whackpacking sights”. It’s just a residential area for Polish people to live and sleep. Why would a tourist visit it? Well aside from the fact that I love going to non descript places and writing about them (hey I was slagged for writing about places like Balkh, Ainkawa and Starogard Gdański). But as well as being a place where people live, from 1997 onwards, people started to paint murals on the walls. Absolutely amazing, a real reason to visit Zaspa and well away from the hoardes of tourists that dominate the pretty Stare Miasto (Old Town – and by the way, Gdańsk’s is the prettiest in Europe, for me).
Equipped with our maps with numbers and details on each mural, Millwall Neil and I set ourselves on a mission to try and see all 55 on the list plus the extra 4 special murals. As we meandered our way through Zaspa, we managed to tick off most of them, get lost a few times and possibly missed some of the murals.
We were in Zaspa for around two hours and we did the entire loop of the circuit, the numbers of the murals are not in order but we did have a list of dates of when the murals were each done.
Officially, due to the area size of Zaspa, this is Europe’s largest single collection of paintings by area they span. In terms of the murals, yes they all have:
4. Years they were painted
Not all 4 things are on each mural or on our guide and I will let you go there and be inspired for yourself, but here is a list for you from the Murale Gdansk Zaspa website.
Some of the murals have all of this information on them, some have some of it, others have zero information. Our sheets gave us the artists, the number, the year and the location but not always the name of the mural. As I always say with music or art, once an artist paints something, its meaning is still up for personal interpretation.
Noel Gallagher said the same of his music, he writes it and has his meaning to it. We can decipher it in our own way, and most artists are happy with that. So for now, this will be a photo article and you can decide for yourself what they might mean. These are only some of the murals.
All the murals have details of them on the official website, so I won’t repeat everything as this post is already content and photo rich, but the one below is of the famous Lech Wałęsa, Poland’s first leader after communism. Lech used to live here in Zaspa, Gdańsk, Poland, the details on this painting are here.
There are also murals depicting the Second World War, the fall of communism and futuristic murals which are open for interpretation. It’s a wild and colourful collection and on my travels through over 130 countries, this is the best collection of wall murals I have seen. Apologies to Sheffield in Tasmania and Belfast in Northern Ireland.
Zaspa Apart from Murals
In all honesty, we were only here to see the murals. However, there is also a nice church, some local shops and parks and of course residential buildings. As a bonus, there are two famous streets in the area. One is Nagorskiego Street, named after Jan Nagorski. Jan is a famous Polish pilot dating back to 1914, he did some epic polar expeditions back in the days when planes were just (excuse the pun) taking off. A wall mural of the Colosseum is near Jan’s plaque if you are looking for it.
The other famous street is Ulica Bajana, named after Jerzy Bajan, a heroic Polish army veteran.
Here are some photos of Zaspa without murals in them, including the church.
With thanks to my ever trustable travel buddy, Millwall Neil and to the tip off from lovely local lady who was so helpful but didn’t want to be named properly, I thank her a lot for her friendship. This was a simply superb adventure on my journey with the Don’t Stop Living blog!!
Here are some videos of my trip to the murals of Zaspa: