BEAR SPRAY: Artist ‘tags’ Svalbardbutikken with larger-than-life polar predator as part of weekend art exhibit


For Martin Whatson, the hardest part about “tagging” one of Longyearbyen’s most notable buildings in the minus 10 degrees Celsius cold isn’t incurring the wrath of the law (it’s not graffiti if city officials say it’s OK) or his spray paint cans freezing in the cold. Rather, due to how the cold affects the pressure in the cans, it means spraying much thinner droplets that are slow to dry.

“It’s much more drippy,” he said, making precise painting of his polar predator a predicament.


The stencil/marker/spray paint on canvas work “Polar Bear” may provides clues as to how Martin Whatson’s giant painting outside Svalbardbutikken will look when complete. Image courtesy of Martin Whatson.

But the early stages seemed to be going reasonably well as he started painting a larger-than-life polar bear on the north exterior wall of Svalbardbutikken on Thursday afternoon, part of his “Arctic Northern Street Art Tour” that will continue here through Sunday (possibly Monday, depending on how long the outdoor painting project lasts). In addition to the bear, which he intends to paint in a wide variety of splashy colors similar to his other works, an exhibition of his “indoor” art will be unveiled at 7:30 p.m. at Galleri Svalbard and remain on display until Sunday.

After the first stage of his “tour” in Longyearbyen he will spend four days next week in Tromsø, and then make stops in Bodø and Oslo in early June.

Whatson, who grew up in Oslo, states in his official bio that he “was an active part of the emerging graffiti scene of the early 90’s which at the time maintained zero tolerance.” He writes that during the past decade he has “developed an unmistakable aesthetic combining abstract movement with figurative stenciled compositions. His works can be seen to mirror the rise and fall of the streets, as he symbolically recreates the urban environment, then vandalizes it to reveal his vibrant transformations.”

Standing outside Svalbardbutikken contemplating his cold hands, Whatson said he was inspired to do the project because the Arctic setting is exotic compared to traditional street art.

“Very few people do outdoor painting in cold locations of the north,” he said.

(Actually, more so locally in recent years thanks to recurring events like Arctic Action.)

Whatson said he plans to work on the bear in stages, possibly finishing it as early as Friday or as late as Monday depending on conditions and other activities he’s doing while here such as the Svalbard Skimarathon.

While city officials have given their blessing to the massive mural, it’s unknown how long they (or Mother Nature) might continue to bless its existence.

“My approach to street art is lasts as long as it lasts,” Whatson said. “It if here’s two days I’m OK with it, if it lasts two years I’m OK with it.”