Street Art at Nat Geo Travel

England, Iceland, Street Art, sweden

My story on street art has just been published at National Geographic Travel: 7 Cities to See Powerful Street Art

Given a limit of seven places and the intent of geographical diversity, many deserving cities could not make the cut. So here are a few more favourites. 


Reykjavik Winter Morning Wanderings


When I visit Iceland in the winter, my favourite time to stroll the streets of Reykjavík is in the morning, when, until late morning, the city is concealed beneath the long winter night’s cloak and tourists are few and far between.

I left my hotel after nine, while the streets were lit only by lamp posts and shop windows. I wandered through the town all the way to the old harbour, where I waited for the dark to slowly lift and for the sky to turn that ghostly winter blue I love so much.









 What I was listening to:

Uni Stefson (MTV Iggy)


Sadly the music publication MTV Iggy closed down late last year — and took all of the writers’ work with it. So that my articles may live on, I am going to publish a few of them here. Beginning with this profile of Icelandic artist, Uni Stefson from July 2014.

Uni Stefson Finds Inspiration in the Icelandic Landscape

–Karen Gardiner

For his first solo outing, Unnsteinn Manuel Stefánsson has taken quite a departure from the frantic bouncy electropop and infectious hooks of Retro Stefson, the band he has fronted for eight years. Performing as Uni Stefson, his new release, titled Enginn Grætur (“Nobody Cries”) is an evocative, slowly building composition, built around a 19th century poem and backed by an emotive string arrangement by Viktor Orri Árnason.

Stefánsson first learned the poem, Stökur (“Quatrains”), when he performed it, set to a different composition, with his high school choir. “Eight years later”, he says, “I was in Berlin over the winter, writing music for the new Retro Stefson album. I wasn’t meeting anyone; I spent days, weeks by myself so when I had to do the vocals I couldn’t use my voice, I felt I had nothing to say so, out of frustration, I took up the guitar and started playing random chords and sung a melody to this poem.”

The poem’s author was Jónas Hallgrímsson, romantic, naturalist and advocate of Icelandic independence. Hallgrímsson wrote the poem during his last year of life while living in Copenhagen and suffering from a great depression. “He’s one of the great Icelandic poets”. Says Stefánsson. “It is said that if his mother tongue would have been English, he would have been one of the most famous in the world.” That’s not to say that Enginn Grætur is yet another Icelandic landscape-inspired cliché. “It’s more a personal poem I could relate to rather than another ode to the Icelandic nature”. He says. “You can get sick of that. People who look at Iceland from the outside are a little obsessed with the Icelandic musicians being inspired by the nature, but I think Icelandic musicians are just inspired by each other.”

Indeed, Stefánsson credits the size of the Icelandic music scene for fostering the environment in which musicians can experiment more freely than perhaps they could in bigger cities. The downtown neighborhood of 101 Reykjavík, where he estimates 90 percent of Icelandic musicians live, is “kind of like a village. That’s what makes Icelandic music special. It’s totally different to other cities.” Moreover, he says, “If I was in a band in Central Europe, I would have to go to an expensive studio. I would have to write something that sells. I would have in the back of my mind that I have to write a hit song that will get played on the radio. In Iceland, you never earn any money from music, so you can forget about that from the get go and just write a good song that you want to hear yourself.”

Still, while Enginn Grætur is an interesting contrast to the more global sounds of Retro Stefson, Stefánsson did not set out to write something quite so Icelandic sounding. “I was a little afraid of having the lyrics in Icelandic because of the nationalist political parties that are coming up in Iceland. Singing a 19th century poem, a romantic poem, seemed kind of off for me.” He spent six months working on the track, but halfway through, during the period of Reykjavik’s mayoral elections, the specter of nationalism entered civic life with highly publicized Islamaphobic comments made by one of the leading candidates. While Stefánsson claims Iceland is the least prejudiced country he has lived in — he was born in Portugal to an Angolan mother and has lived in Germany — the controversy affected him. “I was quite sad and it slowed down my process. But, in the end, I said that as a half-African and half-Scandinavian, I can sing this poem just as anyone else could. That was the way to be true to myself. I don’t want to mix too much of a political message in my music, but if I can release a song that has a personal statement, then I am happy.”

Stefánsson is will be releasing more of his solo “minimal” tracks over the next few months. He will be playing at Iceland Airwaves and in Toronto later this year. As for Retro Stefson, they will start recording a new album in January.

While Stefánsson doesn’t put much stock in naturalism, he says that the crescendo that the track’s three minutes slowly build up to is meant to sound like a volcano erupting. What’s a more Icelandic sound than that?

Photo by Saga Sig

Roadtripping out of Reykjavík

Along Iceland's Route 1

Along Iceland’s Route 1

When I look back on the summer I spent working in Reykjavík I always feel foolish that I spent so little time outside of the capital. I was busy and consumed by my own little life, but it is ridiculous that I lived in Reykjavík from June to August 2006 without seeing very much of the country.

I attempt to redress this by taking advantage of Icelandair’s free stopover on my once/twice yearly trips home to Scotland from my current home of New York City. Like taking small sips of fresh Icelandic air, I rent a car in Reykjavík and try to gulp down as much as I can with the few days I allow myself before heading back to the real world — and the filthy air and grime of New York City.

My most recent trip, in early May, took me onto Route 1 and to the black sand beach of Vík in the southwest of the country. A late learner and always a nervous driver, I feel strangely calm driving  on the Icelandic roads. Once out of the city, as the otherworldly landscape begins to reveal itself, I perhaps find myself a little too relaxed, frequently slamming on the brakes to to a photo of some jagged mountain, shimmering waterfall or cute horse. It’s usually OK, once out of the city I am often along on the road for as far as I can see.




















Ragnar Kjartansson at the New Museum: Me, My Mother, My Father, and I

Art Exhibition, New York


In May 1975, Kjartan Ragnarsson and Guðrún Ásmundsdóttir shot a slightly schlocky love scene for Iceland’s first ever feature film, Morðsaga (Murder Story). As Guðrún, playing a bored housewife, fantasises about ripping off the shirt from Kjartan’s, playing a plumber, chest, she cries out: “Take me here, by the dishwasher!” Legend has it that the day after the scene was filmed, the performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson was conceived.

My Favourite Photo from Reykjavik



Seeing as my last few posts have been about Iceland (trying to catch up on all my recent travels), here is a cute shot of a cute house in a cute city.

This was taken .. somewhere on the walk back from Cafe Loki near Hallgrimskirkja. It was early January and there were a few straggling Christmas decorations around the city, but I kinda hope this is not a festive display but an everyday display.