Stockholm is a charming and unique city. Besides being a meeting point where Lake Mälaren and the Baltic sea converge, this European city is also a rare treasure where modernity and serenity unexpectedly coexist. Apart from its external life, where its fourteen islands are surrounded by clear and crystal water, and the land decorated with vibrant greenery, Stockholm has an incredible inner life. Often performing very well in international rankings, the Swedish capital is considered one of the world’s most competitive cities, with a high quality of life and a vigorous intellectual and artistic scenery. There is, moreover, a little inner secret, hidden beneath the surface, – its subway. Stockholms tunnelbana is considered one of the longest art galleries in the world. A must-go-to place nobody visiting the city should miss.
In the 60s, Stockholm’s public transports (rail, metro, bus, and boat) were united in one company, the Storstockholms LokaltrafiK AB. After years of discussions and debates, the Swedish community decided to display public art in Stockholms tunnelbana, as a means to allow everyone to experience art for the price of a metro ticket. Opened in 1957, Stockholm’s central station – T- Centralen – was the first to have an art installation on its ground. Nowadays, around ninety subway stations are decorated with artwork – sculptures, paintings, installations, murals, – and it is no longer tedious and stressful to wait for the metro to arrive. One can simply look around and appreciate the delightful artistic surroundings.
T- Centralen Station
The first stop is T-Centralen, Stockholm’s central station. It is a mandatory stop that connects the blue, green, and red lines of the subway and brings together every corner of the city. Opened in 1957, it was the first station to have artwork. In 1975, the Finnish artist Per-Olof Ultvedt was the city’s choice to decorate T-Centralen’s ‘blue line’ platform. Ultvedt decided to paint the cavernous walls blue and white, adorning them with flowers and leaf creeper drawings, which, according to the artist, would generate a sense of relaxation and peace for anyone hurrying to meet their schedule. There are, also, other drawings on the walls, such as the shapes of the workmen that build the station.
Surely, it is a unique experience to walk on this station and be caught up in its walls, which move our mindset away from the clock and the stress of getting somewhere in time.
Östermalmstorg Station – red line
Östermalmstorg station, situated in Östermalm – the city’s most affluent district – was opened in 1965, the same year Siri Derket embellished the station with her artwork. Derket was a Swedish artist and sculptor, who studied at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts, and whose work was usually centered on environmental issues, equality of gender, and world peace. In this red line station, one can see and appreciate Derkert’s sketches in the walls expressing these social issues. There is the word “peace” written in several languages, as well as the names of important women of feminist history, such as Sappho (the ancient Greek poet), Hypathia (the mathematician and astronomer of Roman Egypt), Simone de Beauvoir (the French writer and activist), Virginia Woolf (the British author and advocate of women’s independence). It is a significant art piece that makes any curious visitor eager to decipher its meaning.
Stadion Station – red line
Stadion subway station is located next to Stockholm Olympic Stadion, in the district of Östermalm. This station was opened in 1973 and decorated by the Swedish artists Karl Åke Pallarp and Enno Haleck, who painted a huge rainbow on the cavernous scenery of the station in an attempt to bring the sky below the surface. Besides, there is also an artistic reference to the 1912 Olympics, which was held in Stockholm. Nowadays, Stadion station is often associated with LGBTQ + rights and an election place to promote this community’s victories throughout the years. It is a cheerful and colorful place, impossible to go unnoticed.
Tekniska Högskolan Station – red line
Still in Östermalm and moving to Norra Djurgården district, there is Tekniska högskolan station. Opened in 1973, this station is right next to the KTH Royal Institute of Technology. By the artist Lennart Mörk, its artwork can be considered a tribute to modern science and its discoveries. There is a ‘Polyhedral’ displayed, representing Plato’s five elements: water, fire, air, earth, and ether, as well as Leonardo da Vinci’s studies on a flying machine. Also, the Copernicus revolution, – the spur for the rise of modern science – Christopher Polhem’s mechanical alphabet, and Newton’s three laws of motion are exhibited in the station. It is one of the most intriguing stops, where one has the sensation of being in an innovative and futuristic dimension.
Universitetet Station – red line
The Universitetet subway station, near the Stockholm University, and the Museum of Natural History, was opened in 1975. Thousands of students commuting to their classes can marvel at Françoise Schein’s work. The Belgian-Parisian artist adorned the station with tiles, portraying “the father of modern taxonomy” Carl von Linné’s travels around the Baltic. Moreover, Schein’s piece of art alludes to the UN Declaration of Human Rights and climate change, bringing awareness for significant environmental issues. The artist started producing this work in Lisbon, using the so-called ‘azulejos’, – Portuguese tiles – and then, Schein brought the piece to Stockholm.
It is an insightful artwork, full of significant ideas, one to be appreciated attentively.
Kungsträdgården Station – blue line
Opened in 1977, Kungsträdgården is one of the most stimulating stations in the city. Located underneath the beautiful public garden of Stockholm’s center, its artwork is somehow a replica of what once existed above it. Designed by the artist Ulrik Samuelson, the walls – covered in red, white, and green – are inspired by the previous baroque French garden that once lived above. Furthermore, the figures in the mosaic ceiling and the sculptures in the surroundings resemble the former Makalös palace’s decorations. There are also relics rescued from demolished edifices in the 50s and 60s, exposed in the station.
Perhaps the most bizarre fact about this place is its unusual fauna. The station is the only habitat of an unidentified fungus and cave spider named Lessertia Dentichelis, which is not found anywhere else. Kungsträdgården is, undeniably, a peculiar place…
Solna Centrum Station – blue line
Solna centrum station, which is also a shopping center, was opened in 1975. This station’s walls represent a long-debated issue in the country during the 70s: deforestation and depopulation in the countryside. The artists Anders Åberg and Karl-Olov Björk, adorned the walls with red and green colors, representing, respectively, the bloody sky and the forest. There are other drawings, throughout the station, addressing socio-ecological issues, such as the drawing of a helicopter putting out a fire. Overall, it is impressive scenery, somewhat gloomy, and thought-provoking.
Solna Strand Station – blue line
It is impossible to be unmoved by Solna Strand Station’s art installation. This station, inaugurated in 1985, is the gallery of an art project called Himmelen av kub (The heaven of the cube) by the Japanese-Swedish artist Takashi Naraha. Famous for his sculptures’ dual dimension of yin-yang searching for unity, Naraha represented, in Solna Strand, the contrast of opposites – a dark cave and heavenly cubes – attaining a harmonious and distinctive scenery. There is an unexplainable feeling of plenitude when walking on this platform.
Hallonbergen Station – blue line
Hallonbergen station is neither political nor abstract. Instead, it takes us back in time, reconnecting us with our childhood, and chances are it is particularly amusing and captivating for children who travel through the station. The station opened in 1975, and it has Elis Erickson and Gösta Wallmark’s artwork exhibited. These artists were inspired by their childhood drawings, as well as their kids’. The result was a fun and playful environment with walls full of boats, pirates, funny faces, animals, and other colorful sketches. It would take ages to take a look at every drawing that fills the walls.
Tensta station – blue line
In Tensta subway station, the art intends to welcome the large immigrant community that lives in the district. The station, installed in 1975, was decorated by Helga Henschen, Arne Sedell, and Lars Sedell for over a year. Their art pieces are named “a rose for the immigrants”, “solidarity” and “kinship”.
The white walls are adorned with animal drawings and sculptures, such as penguins, among other paintings. A big blue scene has the word “esperanza” (hope) and “amor” (love) written in white letters. To sum up, it is a welcoming place, where several cultures gather together in beautiful and expressive artwork.
Hötorget Station – green line
Hötorget subway station, established in 1952, has a strong 50s character that reflects itself in the bathroom tiles covering the walls. The tiles were preserved even after the station’s art installation was located. Gun Gordillo, a Swedish artist who performs with neon lights, was the one decorating the station’s ceiling with lights that wander above the commuters’ heads, granting them a journey cooler than expected.
Odenplan Station – green line
In 1952, the Odenplan station was inaugurated. In 2017, the infrastructure was updated with a new train track connecting this platform with the central station.
Throughout the years, Odenplan was a gallery for around fourteen artists, including David Swenson. This artists’ work, LifeLine, is a 400-meter-long installation composed of white fluorescent lights that represent the heartbeats of the artist’s son as shown on a Cardiotocography monitor. These lights illuminate the room and create a magnificent impact on those walking down the escalators.
Thorildsplan Station – green line
Another exciting station is Thorildsplan and its videogame scenery that absorbs us magically in it. The Swedish artist Lars Arrhenius composed a pixelated artwork that reflects Thorildsplan’s surroundings above the surface – its sidewalks, stairs, elevators, the sky, and the clouds – as game levels. It is a perfect place to escape the daily, realistic scenarios and embrace an atypical and exceptional setting.
Slussen Station – green line
Finally, Slussen station is on the island and district of Södermalm, famous for its bars and nightlife. The metro line was opened in 1950. Recently, in 2017, an art exhibition by Liv Strömquist was set in the station and raised controversy. Strömquist is a comics artist and a broadcaster, who studied political science. Her art has a strong political trait, mostly feminist and leftist, often with a satirical tone. Her work The Night Garden, displayed in Slussen station, represents a woman’s unshaven legs, and women’s menstruation, among other felt tip pen drawings. It was heavily criticized by commuters who thought the artistic display of women’s period was disgusting and inappropriate. Strömquist, on the other hand, has a different opinion, believing taboos ought to be deconstructed, and the human body celebrated. Despite the criticism, the artwork was not removed, proof of the city’s open-mindedness, which is not hesitant to challenge those who are not ready to embrace it. It is truly remarkable to see these images walking in Slussen, where the usual discomfort towards menstruation is beautifully normalized by Strömquist.
Stockholm’s subway as a mirror to the city’s liberal spirit
Many other stations could be mentioned, such as Morby Centrum, where one can find an art installation that creates an optical illusion. Or, perhaps, Fridhemsplan Station, where a ship is displayed in a glass box. Indeed, there are many other stations in this city where public art is exhibited. The stations indicated in this article were chosen not only because their art naturally stands out, but also for its meaning and history. Stockholm’s subway is simply a distinctive and exceptional feature of the city. It keeps art alive, passengers active, and turns a simple subway trip into an exciting and captivating experience. One can even say it is a mirror to the city’s liberal spirit, which gathers in its vast underground trail a plural group of artists who had the freedom to create in the stations whatever they felt and, then, share it with the community. In short, it is an efficient and original way of allowing people, no matter their background or interests, to appreciate art and interpret it autonomously and freely.