For a country with such a small population, Iceland has a surprising amount of public art – sculptures, murals and more. I found it everywhere on my recent trip to Iceland, but it was the Hellissandur street art that really caught my attention. This small town, on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, claims to be the “Street art capital of Iceland”.
Hellissandur And Kári Viðarsson
Dating back to the 16th century, Hellissandur is one of Iceland’s oldest fishing villages. Although tourism is increasingly important to the local economy, many of the town’s residents are still involved in fishing and fish processing. However, the introduction of modern technology and techniques led to the closure of the Hellissandur fish factory, and other businesses gradually disappeared.
In 2018 Kári Viðarsson, a local performance artist and theatre director, came up with the idea of revitalising the abandoned factory buildings, and of giving the whole town a facelift. He had already been involved in the conversion of a factory in the nearby village of Rif into The Freezer, an innovative hostel and cultural centre. Now his plan was to bring together a team of international artists to cover the walls of the fish factory and other neglected buildings with colourful murals.
A Community Project
As you drive into Hellissandur today you are greeted by a large painted sign saying “Welcome to the Street Art Capital of Iceland”. There are more than 30 murals to discover, many of them on the outside walls of the old fish factory. Each picture takes a local theme as its subject.
Although the murals were created by professional artists, this was very much a community enterprise. Local people were involved at all stages, and many provided hospitality for visiting artists. The whole project culminated in the 2019 Hellissandur Street Art Festival, with music, events, and lots of tourists.
A Serial Killer And A Sci-Fi Classic
The local themes include Iceland’s only known serial killer (Áxlar-Björn, who was executed in 1596). Then there is “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”, Jules Verne’s famous novel in which a team of explorers descend to the depths of the earth via an Icelandic volcano. (That volcano is Snæfellsjökull, in the national park just a short distance from Hellissandur.)
Here are a few bits of Hellissandur street art to look out for:
Sauður (or “Sheep”) is likely to be the first mural you spot as you come into the town. Created by Lacey and Layla, a Canadian duo, it celebrates the importance of sheep to the Icelandic people.
This one was my favourite. It shows the legend of Bárður Snæfellsás, the 9th century half-man, half-troll who gave the region its name and is seen as its protector. The artist was Camilo Arias.
The white-tailed eagle is quite rare in Iceland, but you can admire this image by Hikki10 at the back of the community centre.
Finally, who could resist this shelf of books? This is the Old Bookstore, which used to be a bookshop and is now a holiday home known as The Bookstore Family Apartment (perhaps somewhere to stay if you want to explore the area further…)
Hellissandur is around 200 km north west of Reykjavík. The town itself is small, and you can easily explore the murals on foot. While there you might also like to visit the Maritime Museum in the Fishermen’s Garden, with its traditional turf-roofed huts that were once common in Iceland.
Hellissandur is on the edge of the Snæfellsjökull National Park. The area is ideal for exploring the landscape, hiking and birdwatching. You could even take a trip to Snæfellsjökull itself, the glacier at the top of the volcano. Just don’t expect to be able to journey to the centre of the earth!