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MALMÖ — The capital of Skåne County, Sweden, enjoys a scenic coastal location, across the Öresund strait from Copenhagen, and has a strong creative output — in the words of one artist I met, it’s Sweden’s best city for street art. And it is this form that’s offering some of the most expressive responses to another, less-attractive side of life in Sweden’s third city.
In Malmö over 40% of the population is first- or second-generation immigrant, and increasingly popular far-right movements and politicians are tapping into related tensions over integration. Fascism, it seems, is on the rise.
“Fascism is growing and you can see it historically,” Lars Flysjö, spokesman for the group Skåne Against Racism, told The Local last year. “It grows when there is high unemployment, welfare cuts and workers from different countries are competing for the same jobs. The whole social situation factors into fascists expressing these actions.”
Last year the far-right Sweden Democrats polled 13% in the national elections, becoming Sweden’s third party, and Malmö, a stronghold for them, was the site of several violent episodes. Walking the streets, however, you can see that boldly painted images and murals offer an outlet for dissent from the sentiments of the new far right, and for a rejection of prejudice.
In March 2014, a group of feminists was walking through the Möllevången area, returning from an International Women’s Day rally, when they were attacked by a group of neo-Nazis that, the party later acknowledged, included members of the extreme right-wing Svenskarnas Parti (Party of the Swedes). Showan Shattan, who is of Iranian descent and the founder of the group Football Fans Against Homophobia, was stabbed and left in a coma. He has since recovered, but with lasting injuries.
The attack inspired the social media campaign #KämpaShowan (“Fight, Showan”). The next day thousands gathered in Möllevångstorget to protest, and the following week 10,000 people marched in what was the city’s biggest ever anti-fascist demonstration. The words “Kämpa Showan” and “Kämpa Malmö” were painted on walls and distributed via stickers, stencils, and paste-ups, accompanied by the anti-fascist cry ¡No pasarán!
In August of last year, a demonstration against a planned appearance by the leader of the Svenskarnas party devolved into chaos when a few of the estimated 1,500 protestors gathered in Linhamn Square allegedly threw smoke bombs. In an excessive show of force, police on horseback rode into the crowded square, trampling several people beneath them. Ten people were injured at the event, which is referenced in this paste-up in the city center.
The Seved neighborhood, which suffers from a poor reputation of social exclusion and occasional violence (last summer a man was attacked with an iron pipe, reportedly for flying an Israeli flag), has been brightened up considerably with the “Graffitihus” on the corner of Sofiagatan and Rasmusgatan.
Completed in September, the Graffitihus project was initiated two years prior by local resident Danielle Wendin and some artist friends. The illustrations covering two walls are inspired by fellow residents: a girl known as “frog” is represented by the amphibian, while the giant peacock filled a request from a woman who lives across the street. Look closely and you’ll find some more potentially subversive elements, such as Porky Pig dressed as a cop. “It’s about breaking down negative things and making it into something positive,” Wendin told Sydsvenskan.
Close to the Graffitihus is a building where the Brazilian-born, Malmö-based street artist Limpo has illustrated one side. Limpo lives and works in the area and runs free art workshops for local children and young people. The idea, he told a local newspaper, is “that children can get together beyond language, religion or nationality.”
Malmö’s street artists have access to two legal graffiti walls in the city, and both often feature commentary on global political affairs, from US presidential elections to the situation in Gaza. There’s so much competition for space on these walls, however, that pieces don’t last long. At Hangaren, a giant warehouse–cum–community center just outside of Rosengård — another area that’s often the subject of negative media reports and where nine in ten people have an immigrant background — artists have free access to a space where they can work on large-scale pieces will remain in place for at least a few months.
Last May, artists from around the world painted in Malmö for the Artscape international street art festival. As part of the festival, Artscape ran a series of free workshops and invited the public to participate in the creation of a permanent or semi-permanent mural in their own local area.
When I visited last fall, much of the work could still be seen throughout the city, such as this piece by the Colombian street artist Stinkfish.