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Street Art in Vienna: The Legacy of Joseph Kyselak

Mural showing a woman's face and a flying bird
You'll find street art all over Vienna

Vienna and street art? Is that a match? Yes, it's a match! Vienna's largest street art festival, Calle Libre is starting today, the 27th of July. Until 05 August, Vienna celebrates street art. But did you know that Vienna has always been at city of colourful walls? Find out why in this blog post!

Since 2014, the otherwise - at least superficially - rather well-behaved and conservative Vienna puts on a super cool outfit and becomes the host of Central Europe's largest street art festival, the Calle Libre, for a little more than a summer week. From today until August the 5th, you can once again fully immerse yourself in this fascinating art form in public space: exhibitions and guided tours provide information about the broad spectrum and the essence of street art. And of course, the most exciting thing is to wander through Ottakring in search of this year's "walls" and watch the artists at work. After the end of the festival, the artworks then usually remain for some time (sometimes for years), until they finally disappear at some point, in other words: are painted over. After all, a key aspect of street art is its transience.

But who on earth is the Joseph Kyselak mentioned in the title? And what does he have to do with street art? Hmmm, with what is shown today at the Calle Libre Festival, actually very little. However, he was one of the first "taggers" to go down in history, because on his numerous travels and wanderings he often enthusiastically left his name in capital letters in the most impossible places.

Born in Vienna's Josefstadt, he grew up in his parents' apartment at what is now Lerchenfelder Strasse 20. One unfinished philosophy university course and seven (!) trainee years in the very exciting sounding "K.K Vitikalfondskassenoberdirektion" later, he discovered his true vocation: long-distance hiking. Starting on August 12, 1825, he crossed the Alps from Graz to the west in four months. Over the Koralpe and the Mallnitzer Tauern his way led him to Sterzing, into the Ötztal, into the Stubaital to Innsbruck and then on rafts and ships to Passau and back to Vienna. He described this (for this day and age) almost exotic journey four years later in his report "Drawings of a footjourney through Austria". The title is actually a lot longer, but would go beyond the scope of our maximum reading time here.

And everywhere, even on the highest mountains in Austria, he carved or scribbled "KYSELAK WAS HERE". Thus he went on to become a graffiti legend even during his lifetime and after his early death from cholera in 1831, also in Josefstadt, the stories about his legacy became more and more spectacular. For example, it was claimed that he had conquered the mountain Chimborazo in Ecuador. Alexander von Humbold was later said to have found the writing "Kyselak 1837" on the summit of Chimborazo. A classic case of Fake News, because Humboldt already climbed the Chimborazo in 1802 (he didn't summit however!) and Kyselak was already dead in 1837.

Another legend says that Kyselak was summoned to the then Emperor Francis I because he had repeatedly "graffitied" imperial buildings. After solemnly vowing to the emperor never to do so again, he was graciously dismissed. When Kyselak had left, the good emperor is said to have found the name "Kyselak" and the corresponding date engraved on his desk.

So our Joseph Kyselak lives on in the legends about him and in his "tags," whether on the summit of Chimborazo or on the emperor's desk, on a column in Vienna's Schwarzenberg Park or on the ruins of Kapfenberg Castle, on the fortified tower of Perchtoldsdorf or on a rock face in the Wachau, in plays and films ("Kyselak, the first graffiti-tagger"). And of course in a gusto piece of poetry by Joseph Victor von Scheffel, which sums it all up very nicely:

With heavy indignation I look at a monument of wild human kind

See - there beckons wild and yet so kind

A greeting of the present:

Dizzy from the high descent

Looms the mountain crescent

And at the highest summit of the wall

The name KYSELAK stands above them all

I hope you now have a real desire for street art in Vienna. Take advantage of the summer and dive into the old and new history of the city!

All information about the Calle Libre Festival can be found here:

More stories about Joseph Kyselak will be told at my next guided tour through the 8th district. The exact date will be announced on this website. Be sure to come along!

See you soon,

Your Claudia from the AlpineFoxes

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