Twice in my time living in Helsinki, I have had the strange experience of learning a new urban ‘alphabet’.

The first time was some twenty years ago, and it was the result of a career change. I had worked for some years in catering – hotels and bars – while slowing advancing with my studies, when I landed a job in the corporate sector. Nothing too fancy or glamorously financial, rather writing and editing texts, which were overwhelmingly business-related.

How often do we pass a commercial center or business ‘park’ and actually pay attention to the various business names and abbreviations we see in large neon lights? Rarely in my case; and the only names that were recognizable were the usual suspects, either familiar local firms or famous multi-nationals, be they fast food chains or tech giants.

Yet because of my new work, little by little, a large number of company titles became familiar, and they emerged from the otherwise anonymous blur of letters and names.

Areas of the city and its suburbs that were alien, uninteresting, and almost humanly uninhabited gradually became known and familiar. And more human.

Well-wrought graffiti – and even more so full-scale murals – can add much to urban areas; humour, colour, even beauty, sometimes in the most unlikely, rundown neighborhoods.

An attractive tattoo on the city’s surface

Years later, something similar happened, on a smaller scale certainly, but it too made me pay new attention to new things seen from the bike, bus or train window.

My son became interested in graffiti ‘writing’ (this is the preferred term, not ‘painting’). There are, of course, city-designated areas where people are allowed to practice graffiti, so I would accompany him to these spots. At some point I even tried it myself; not a huge leap, as I trained as a graphic artist in my late teens, and still like to draw and paint.

It was really enjoyable; big carefree movements and fresh, anarchic use of colour. All this, knowing that someone else would soon paint over what you have just painted. Layer after layer of ephemeral colour. If you have never tried it, you should.

From then on, I started to really pay attention to graffiti. There is not very much in Helsinki, compared to, say, Belgrade, which is covered with graffiti, much of it ugly, political slogans and the like. It is less like an attractive tattoo on the city’s surface than a skin infection.

Which is a pity: well-wrought graffiti – and even more so full-scale murals – can add much to urban areas; humour, colour, even beauty, sometimes in the most unlikely, rundown neighborhoods.

Nick Alexander standing in front of a graffiti painting in a jogging gear.
Nick Alexander (photo source)

In my city of birth, Dublin, a man started jogging as a way to deal with alcohol abuse. Nick Alexander said that in his unhappy past he walked with his head down, avoiding eye contact, not paying attention to his surroundings.

However in his new life – post-addiction, and running daily – he finally opened his eyes to the city. He suddenly discovered street art, which he found at times ‘breath-taking’. Much of this art was in the less glamourous and less well-known parts of Dublin; the Liberties, Smithfield, what he calls a ‘hidden Dublin’.

He combined this interest with his love of running, and now has a business in which he takes people for jogging tours of Dublin to view the street art.

Read more about his ‘runseeing’ city exploration here.

Brendan Humphreys is a researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki. He is a historian and anthropologist specializing in Eastern Europe. Among his varied research interests, he is currently working a cultural history of urbanicide.