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Kraków’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCAK) is truly a marvel to behold, but the city’s biggest collection of contemporary art is not housed indoors. To see the spirit of Kraków rendered in art, take to the streets and marvel at one of the city’s many public treasures: street art.
The Mall Wall at Galeria Krakowska
Kraków’s burgeoning street art scene boomed in 2011 when the city’s monster mall Galeria Krakowska, near Hotel Indigo Kraków – Old Town, held a contest to beautify a wall facing the main train station. Justyna Posiecz-Polkowska won the Mall Wall Art competition over hundreds of artists, with a mosaic-style mural rooted in Polish folk art—now one of the largest in Europe.
The birth of the Krakow Street Art Route
The Krakow Street Art Route was born from the competition, and the organisation now manages the most comprehensive online collection of street art. Each year, the organisation leads three-hour vehicle tours of 32 notable pieces in and around the city. If you miss the annual journey, the site provides maps for self-guided pilgrimages to these dynamic monuments. From March through October Krakow’s Free Walking Tour company also offers street art walking tours every Thursday and Sunday at 10:30.
A guaranteed stop for every tour is Piotr Janowczyk‘s mural in Kazimierz, the historic Jewish district of Kraków. In 2015, he brought five bare walls to life on this street with murals of local historical icons. Among them is King Casimir the Great, the neighbourhood’s namesake, who welcomed Jews into the neighbourhood in the 14th century. Cosmetics empress Helena Rubenstein, who was born in the district in 1872, also makes an appearance. All of these local heroes are connected by a “golden ribbon” of prosperity over their eyes.
Kazimierz’s street art hommage to its Jewish heritage
In Kazimierz, it’s not unusual to discover murals honouring the district’s legacy. In fact, the Jewish Culture Festival, which began in the 1980s, has commissioned numerous projects that dot the historic walls. “I wanted to show the Israel that had lived for centuries in Krakow as a diaspora and the present Israel which has gone back to its starting point and developed into a modern state,” wrote artist Marcin Wierzchowski.
His yellow Jewish cut-out piece piece sits beside the Galicia Jewish Museum. “Both worlds originate from the same stem.”
For a city steeped in historic turmoil and strife, it’s not surprising that many of the most prominent pieces are political and provocative.
Italian artist Blu’s Ding Dong Dumb in Krakow
Across the Wisła river in Podgórze is a giant yellow bell that is visible from across the water. This “Ding Dong Dumb” has been a landmark since 2012, after the piece was created in just three days during the Art Boom Festival. The artist, an Italian painter known as “Blu,” sends a thoughtful message. It shows a sea of minions underneath the bell with the words “Never Follow.”
Concrete art against Auschwitz as a tourist attraction
Artist Mirosław Bałka protests against tours to the former Auschwitz-Birkenau camps and Wieliczka UNESCO salt mines with his interactive sculpture. The letters cut out of the ceiling of a concrete tunnel reads “AUSCHWITZWIELICZKA.” Today, hundreds of locals and tourists walk through this tunnel each day en route to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCAK) and the former Schindler factory. Strikingly, in the right lighting, the cutout letters slowly expand along the inner walls.
The history and essence of Kraków is encapsulated in these urban masterpieces. Kraków’s artists have left surprises around every corner, and you’re guaranteed to find a piece that speaks to you.
Continue to explore Krakow’s hidden gems, from the art of Polish pickling – there is such a thing – to Bartek Kozina’s tips on where to get the best coffee.