“Museums are dead, take a new art stance;
Paint mass suicide on the aspiration diktat” – Manic Street Preachers.
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. Gdańsk became my base in July 2016 and as well as being able to tour places nearby like Starogard Gdański, Tczew, Pelplin, Kokoszkowy, Rywald, Malbork, Stutthof and Leba, we seem to forget how much Gdańsk has to offer on its own. I will probably never get round to writing all the stories I want about Gdańsk, with my Dolne Miasto football, my time living in Brzezno, watching Lechia Gdańsk, touring the bars of the Old Town, hanging out in quirky Wrszczesz and touring Gdynia formed wacaday Micronation “Krolestwo Dreamlandu“. For today, it’s ZASPA!
So, in my third month, I finally made it to the quirky district of Zaspa in Gdańsk, Poland. It seems like an appropriate article for my new Dziwaczne Odkrycia, “Quirky Encounters” series: Artistic Wall Murals in the District of Zaspa, Gdańsk.
In July, I was out for food and drinks with a travel friend Karolina Mueller, and she mentioned Zaspa to me as a cool off the wall spot in Gdańsk with murals. I was aware of it through Karolina, who was a good friend but I had no idea it was going to be so vast and interesting! I am really sad to report that that Karolina contacted me and asked for her full name to be removed. This pains me as I was a fan of hers and followed her Instagram feed. I guess if you followed my stories, you will discover who it was but I just can’t mention their name sadly.
In September 2016, when my best 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 claimed to be “out of the city” and “too busy” at the time sadly so couldn’t join us.
But Neil and I headed on a hot morning to this cool district anyway. Neil was pretty excited. Having roomed with Neil in 4 continents and backpacked hardcore with him a few times through 10 countries and many more cities, we were excited!
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 but Zaspa is more accessible. 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.
Despite being a neighbourhood, this place is well organised. 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 Facebook Page and Instagram Feed.
Getting to Zaspa
Neil and I started our journey in Gdańsk from my flat in the Stare Miasto. We love to walk and use public transport in equal measures. 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 we used it that day to travel to Zaspa. 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. I’m amazed that a huge work of art like this is not touristy, and in the summer too. But this is why I loved it too and also why I am writing about it – to get you to visit it!!
All About Zaspa, Gdańsk
Zaspa obviously has a history – it’s not a new neighbourhood, it’s been here for years. 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 majestic Zaspa. 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 remind me of the Soviet era, building wise. 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. 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, but no more than 5 were missed. I ticked them off as we went, photographing most of them.
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 and tried to check ever single wall for a new mural. This is probably the travel article with the highest photo: words ratio ever. But it’s worth it.
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. This was my favourite mural in the set, for its meaning and because I toured the Solidarnosc Centre and War Museums of Gdansk as well as some German Death Camps.
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 150 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.
1.Jan Nagorski Street
2.Jerzy Bajan Street
The other famous street is Ulica Bajana, named after Jerzy Bajan, a heroic Polish army veteran.
The main church is central and easy to find.
All around the estate/neoughbourhood of Zaspa are shops. We were cheap backpackers with water and snacks in our bags so we didn’t buy anything here, but of course you can. There are also barbers, alcohol shops and some cafes.
5.Zaspa Swanky New Flats
Away from these old school textbook Soviet concrete blocks, there are some swanky new flats.
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: