Irmantas Gelūnas

Lithuania via the Walls: How Street Art Shapes and Reflects a City

Lithuania’s street art scene is progressing rapidly — the capital city of Vilnius has restarted its annual Art Needs No Roof project, while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reignited the country’s passion for larger-than-life murals that send a message. Travelers visiting Lithuania can explore Lithuania’s heritage and modern values painted onto its buildings.

The concept of street art — displaying artwork in open spaces —  is spreading rapidly throughout Lithuania. The genre has spawned many projects in public spaces, providing a platform for artists to express the feelings of society through art and giving cities a sense of modernity.

Such projects are receiving attention throughout the whole country: the Yard Gallery in Kaunas, the second-largest city, has become an iconic reflection of its local communities; while the city of Marijampolė in the south boasts an impressive collection of 32 murals, some of which were created by artists from New York, London, and Hong Kong. In addition, the capital city of Vilnius has recently started its annual Art Needs No Roof project, allowing artwork to be shown off in the streets.

“Street art is very public — unlike in galleries, the pieces will be witnessed by all — and has the potential to both complement spaces visually and send a message,” said Linas Kaziulionis, a classically-trained contemporary Lithuanian muralist, draftsman, and painter, whose work has been exhibited nationally. “It is a growing phenomenon in Lithuania. As I work, more and more people ask questions and are genuinely interested in the genre.”

A diverse range of styles and forms

The diversity of the types of street art found in Lithuania makes the term difficult to define. For example, the one-of-a-kind Open Gallery is part of a long-term, multidisciplinary project that seeks to portray urban culture in a fresh way and reinvigorate the post-industrial New Town of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Paintings on industrial walls, installations, sculptures, performances, and non-profit film screenings are just a few of the innovative alternatives the program aims to offer to conventional art genres.

Some of the more quaint, historic expressions of urban art can be found in the courtyards of Vilnius’ Užupis district — which once declared independence as part of an April Fools stunt. A living sentiment to its artistic inhabitants and visitors, every nook is filled with curiosities — expressionist busts lie hidden in courtyards and a mermaid sculpture observes those relaxing on the swing above the Vilnelė river. 

Klaipėda features a more sculptural and surrealist take on street art, with the Gardeoldis boat bursting its golden sails out of a rooftop or pipes melding with images of mushrooms. However, Lithuanian street art can lie right under the nose of visitors, much like the 3D Abyss in the capitals neighbourhood of Viršuliškės.

An ode to hope and compassion, the colorful illusion of the ruptured ground was created by one of the world’s top 3D illusionist street painters, Edgar Mueller, as a reaction to the harsh emotions that erupted after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The artist's illusions include lava craters, thinning glaciers, rivers, waterfalls, and enchanted caverns and includes passers-by in the art piece as they gaze into the depths.

Reflections of today and political statements

With street art being so highly visible, it can quickly become an area of public discourse, where artists reflect on contemporary issues and attempt to capture the mood of the public. As such, many historical and political dilemmas become sketched onto Lithuania’s walls.

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kaziulionis painted the mural "Stand with Ukraine," which depicts a Ukrainian soldier and his wife embracing at a train station, on the wall of the General Jonas Žemaitis Lithuanian Military Academy.

“I have already done two murals on the subject. I wanted the message of support to be conveyed quite directly by reflecting the sensitivity of the situation through my own eyes and, hopefully, have that message be seen and understood by people,” Kaziulionis explained.

A work of modern art called Walls that Remember by Lina Šlipavičiūtė-Černiauskienė honors the Jewish population of Vilnius's historical memory by recreating old photographs. In the seventeenth century, Vilnius' Jewish neighborhood was known as the Glass Quarter; today, images of craftsmen, businessmen, and others gaze out from the walls onto the modern world.

Makes cities alive

Socially engaged street art is relatively new to Lithuania, having just begun to emerge in the middle of the 1980s, yet it has transformed the country’s metropolises with its eclecticism. Nowadays, it is not necessary to visit a museum or gallery to witness pieces of art — the average person passes by iconic images while about their daily business.

Generally, the integration of art into society at large is a key feature of the movement. The choice of a place for this is important because artists seek to communicate with the citizens through drawings in public spaces, and therefore street art should be seen as a reaction to the contemporary world.

“Street art, when created in accordance to its surroundings, can highlight the best features of public spaces, creating new value to a simple wall. Made in a way that blends a mural or installation seamlessly into the space, it makes cities feel more alive,” noted Kaziulionis.

Lithuanian street art today goes far beyond simple paintings on walls. The movement can spark the appearance of artwork revealing conversations on the values and views of the country's people. By witnessing these stories, travelers visiting Lithuania could learn the values that the nation lives by.