No. 5: The Užupis Dream Tree (2019)

The Užupis Dream Tree is the fifth installation of Project: 100 Dream Trees, located in Vilnius, Lithuania, in the Republic of Užupis.

Find it here: Uzupio g. 3, Vilnius 01200, Lithuania

Project: 100 Dream Trees No. 5: “The Užupis Dream Tree” (2019)
Acrylic on wall, 2.5 x 2 m

Užupis is a neighbhorhood in Vilnius popular with artists, and has been likened to Montmartre in Paris, and to Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen, due to its bohemian and laissez-faire atmosphere. Since April 1 1997, the district had declared itself an independent republic – The Republic of Užupis. (I got this from Wikipedia, where you can read more about this place).

Welcome to Užupis

Užupis means “beyond the river” in Lithuanian, and the district is separated from Old Town Vilnius by a small river called Vilnia. As you leave Old Town Vilnius and approach the bridge to Užupis, you are greeted by a signboard (something like those signboards telling you that you’ve reached the border of a state or city or town).

The Užupis Signboard

What the symbols mean:

  • Blue smileyface: Your smile is your visa.
  • 20km/h speed limit: Chill and take your time here, no rushing about.
  • Mona Lisa: This is an artistic place, so be artistic and artsy.
  • Car falling off edge into water: If you don’t follow the first three symbols, the citizens of Užupis have the right to throw you into the river.

The Mermaid of Užupis

As you cross the bridge on the left side and enter Užupis, look down to the river and see the Mermaid of Užupis welcoming you.

But be warned – you mustn’t stare into her eyes for too long. It’s said that when you enter the Republic and stare straight into her eyes, you’ll soon be seduced to remain in Užupis… forever.

The Užupis Art Incubator

After crossing the bridge, turn left and walk along the river, and you’ll discover the Užupis Art Incubator, home to most of the weird and artsy things in this weird and artsy republic.

(I took this photo after opening hours, so the doors are closed. During opening hours, both red doors are open like in the mural.)

This Dream Tree has been merged with part of the Užupis Art Incubator building, where the Užupis tourist information office and souvenir shop are also located:

(You can also get an Užupis stamp for your passport here, but I was told not to do that because some countries get iffy about fake stamps in such an official document.)

Take a stroll by the river outside the Užupis Art Incubator, and see all kinds of art installations, like this piano… :

… and stacked stone sculptures in the water:

And this is where the Music Makers are found (also because in reality there’s a bar with live music at at this part of the river):

There’s also a tree of records… :

and a tree of books,… :

…which inspired the tree branches at the top of the mural:

The Cat President of Užupis

Do you see the ginger cat at the top, nestled between the sky blue and yellow cloud-leaves?

This is the Cat President of Užupis – rather, the late Cat President. He used to live in the local bookstore, and passed away six months ago. The cats of Užupis were so devastated by the loss that they haven’t been able to organize elections for his replacement. Perhaps that might change in a few months’ time.

Home of the Artists

Take a look at the platforms in this Tree, and you’ll see one is for listening to records (because it’s under a tree of records, how original lols)…

… and the other is the home of the artists:

At the time of writing this post, Užupis has 7,000 residents, of which 1,000 are artists.

And what is that white circular dream-catcher lookalike thing?

This is a mandala art sculpture, one of the many art pieces found around the Užupis Art Incubator. These mandala art pieces can be seen hanging from the bridge that leads into Užupis from Old Town Vilnius:

The Angel of Užupis

You might also have noticed an angel between the Tree of Records and the Tree of Books:

Meet the Angel of Užupis, who stands in a square just a 3-minute walk from the bridge:

This Angel was unveiled on April 1, 2002, and has since become a symbol of the revival Užupis.

The Constitution of the Republic of Užupis

A stone’s throw away from the Angel, you’ll wander to a long wall with more than 30 reflective plaques on it, known as the Constitution of the Republic of Užupis. The Constitution has 41 items on it, and has been translated into more than 30 languages, and installed along this wall:

Here’s the one in English:

You can find the Constitution in all the languages here.

I was told that the Constitution was enacted at a local bar, hence I’ve included a bar scene at the start of the Constitution wall in my mural:

Interestingly, I met one of the leaders who enacted the Constitution, the Foreign Affairs Minister of Užupis Republic, Thomas Chepaitis. On the third day of my work on the mural, he had strolled by and introduced himself, and now we are Facebook friends.

(He’s also asked me to be the ambassador of The Republic of Užupis in Singapore, and I’ve asked what I gotta do for that, and I’m awaiting his response).

Tibetan Square

Lastly, you might also notice this scene behind the Constitution wall in the mural:

This is Tibetan Square, a small park near the river, just outside of the area of Užupis Art Incubator.

There is a little tree here, which was planted by the Dalai Lama on his third visit to Vilnius:

These are some of the stories and aspects of life in Užupis that I observed and learnt about during the eight days that I spent here. Of course there is so much more to this little Republic that I don’t know about, and perhaps one day I will return for a longer stay, and become one of the 1,000 artists who live here.

How “The Užupis Dream Tree” Came About

A month before I painted The Užupis Dream Tree, I was putting the final touches to the third mural of Project: 100 Dream Trees – “The Cēsis Dream Tree”, located at a kindergarten in the town of Cēsis, Latvia.

Just ten minutes after I had painted the final stroke, two friends from Singapore arrived at the mural site:

They were on a 10-day road trip in the Baltics, and had just driven to Cēsis from Vilnius. We went for a coffee in town, and that’s when they told me about Užupis. I decided then that I wanted to paint a Dream Tree there, though I had never heard of the place before, and have no knowledge of it.

Less than a week later, on 22 May, I arrived for my second artist residency of 2019 in Kintai, a small coastal town in Lithuania. Knowing now from my experience in Cēsis how long it can take for a mural to be approved and a suitable wall to be found, I immediately told Karolina, one of the organizers of Kintai Arts Residency, that I would like to paint something in Užupis as well, and how can I go about doing that?

Karolina shared this with the director of the residency program, Audra, and ten days into my stay at Kintai, Audra met with me for a chat about this possibility. She said she has asked around, but the Užupis Art Incubator didn’t have space for a mural, and there didn’t seem to be other available walls on such short notice. This is also because the neighborhood is in a heritage area, and will require the approval of the city council, which can take up to two months to be granted, or rejected.

Luck? Or a Sign of What’s Meant to Be?

After leading with the above “bad” news, Audra revealed that she lives along the main street in Užupis, the street that leads straight from the bridge into the heart of the district (where the Angel stands), and she believed the driveway to her building would be the perfect spot for such a mural!

She said, “I will ask my neighbors if they are okay with this, and if they are, we will go ahead. Then later we will tell the city council, and by then they may say okay to having the mural here.”

I was concerned about the possibility of having painted the mural, only to have it painted over a few months later by the city council. To which Audra responded, “This is the way we do things in Lithuania. Just do it first, and ask later. Otherwise nothing will happen.”

It was a risk, and I wasn’t sure if it would be worth it. But the only way to know would be to just do it.

And so from 12 Jun, I stayed for eight days in Audra’s apartment in Užupis, and painted The Užupis Dream Tree in the passageway leading in to her courtyard from the main road:

It took a total of 6 days to complete this mural – two for conceptualizing and preparing reference sketches, and four for the actual painting process.

To date, this is the fastest I’ve completed a mural, and I realize it’s because I didn’t need a ladder (the wall is only 2m high), which means no time is wasted trying to position the ladder – especially on cobblestones – and climbing up and down (and challenging my slight fear of heights).

The driveway also gave me shelter from sun and rain, and allowed nice cool winds to come through. This was also the best access I had to a bathroom and clean water – just through the door a little past the wall, and up one floor to Audra’s apartment.

Nonetheless, this mural still came with its challenges.

The Challenges

Challenge #1: Uneven Ground

While cobblestones are charming, and add whimsy and cuteness to the view of the courtyard from the main road, they aren’t always the easiest to walk on.

I always had to be mindful of where I was about to place my foot, especially when I wanted to take a few steps back to look at the mural as a whole. I had almost tripped a couple of times, and one time I didn’t set my tripod down properly, and it toppled over. (Thankfully I have a good mobile phone case and screen protector!)

Challenge #2: Getting Chased Away by Cars

This driveway is only large enough for one car to pass through, and there’s no space for even a super skinny model to be standing at the side while that happens. Which means every time a car wanted to drive through the passageway, I had to move myself and my tripod, and wait in a nearby doorway, until the car had passed.

This is where my sensitivity to my surroundings came into good use, as I always had to be alert as to when cars were about to enter from the main street to my left, while on my right I’d listen out for people closing their car doors, starting the engine, and tires hobbling down the cobblestones.

It was a test not only of my hearing abilities, but also my physical reflexes of responding quickly and moving out of the way, and learning the best path to the doorway across the cobblestones where I was least likely to trip.

(Thankfully I didn’t need a ladder for this mural, so there was one less item to worry about carrying out of the way, and one less opportunity to train my upper body strength lols.)

Challenge #3: People

Painting previously at a local kindergarten, and in a small town of less than 1,000 residents, there seldom were people who interrupted my work. Usually they just pass by, stare, maybe say something nice in limited English, and then continue on their way. Thus they were never an issue for the earlier two mural in Cēsis and Kintai.

But here in Vilnius, along the main street of Užupis, this was the most human traffic I had ever encountered in this 100-Dream-Tree journey so far. There were always residents of this complex walking or driving through this driveway, going about their daily routine. Then there was the neverending stream of people who’d pass by on the street outside – tourists on their way into and out of Užupis, local schoolchildren on excursions with their teachers, and residents of the district and of Vilnius walking their dogs, getting to work, on their way to meetings etc.

Ego Trip

I was photographed numerous times, received compliments of “beautiful”, “nice painting”, and sometimes the residents who drive through will pause and look at the painting before they continue to drive out onto the street or into the courtyard. Some people thanked me for the mural, some just took their photos without saying a word, some asked me where I’m from and “Why penguins?”

I started to notice how my state was affected by these people I had encountered. My head swelled when I received compliments of my work, and even more so when I was asked about it. And when the building’s residents pass by and say hello and smile, I felt validated that they accept my work here.

There was a Russian guy who had asked “Why penguins”, and was trying to use the voice function on Google Translate to translate my answer in English to Russian, but it didn’t work. So he called his girlfriend, put his phone on speaker mode, and I shared my answer with her in English, which she then translated to him.

Another time, I glanced back and saw two boys watching me paint, and I smiled at them, then turned back to the wall to continue. Then when I turned again, I had an audience of maybe ten to fifteen schoolchildren and their teacher. They were so intrigued by the process, and even by my mobile phone recording myself at work, and were whispering among themselves how cool it all was.

Negative Encounters

Conversely, I get annoyed at loud people, and the loud camera clicks from some mobile phones. I get annoyed by the tourists who expect me to stop working so they can take photos of the mural. I get annoyed by the people who take their photos and compltely disregard me even when I say hello.

And on the first day of my work here, I had felt so discouraged because of two negative encounters.

The first was a woman resident in her 30’s who approached me on her way out of the driveway. She looked at me very suspciously, and asked what I was doing here, adding that I wasn’t not allowed to paint here. Her tone was hostile and unfriendly. I told her I had permission from Audra, and she seemed uncertain about it, but seemed appeased enough and went on her way. I saw her again two days later, driving her car into the passageway, looking grumpy and grouchy, and she didn’t even glance at me as she passed.

The second was an elderly lady with a grocery trolley bag, and standing at the entrance of the driveway, she started scolding me in Lithuanian. I assumed she was saying something about me painting on the wall, but I couldn’t understand her words, which seemed to get her more agitated. A passer-by translated that I wasn’t allowed to paint here, and the old lady was threatening to call the police.

Luckily, a young lady in her 20’s was on her way out from the courtyard, and she helped me to translate to the elderly lady that I had Audra’s permission to paint the mural. The elderly lady calmed down, though she still looked at me suspiciously. The young lady then carried the old lady’s trolley bag of groceries to the same door that leads to Audra’s apartment, and I then realized this was one of the elderly neighbors Audra had mentioned who didn’t speak any English.

Side-note: The Importance of Feet Health

I watched as the elderly lady slowly made her way across the cobblestones to the door, using the mural wall as a way to support herself. It was painful to watch her trying to balance on the uneven floor and hobbling to the door. She had on pale yellow socks and sandals, and I could see her toes were very bent and gnarly, which is probably one of the reasons why she had difficulty walking.

One thing I’ve realized as I’ve worked on a three murals in the past two months is how important my feet are. After painting on walls for hours – at times balancing on a ladder, at times squatting to paint something lower – I’ve discovered that my feet do take a toll and they hurt in certain places at the end of the work day.

As a somewhat image-conscious person, I’d prefer to wear my (still comfortable) leather boots so I’d feel and look more “artsy”, even when my feet hurt after long hours of standing or walking in them.

But if I’m going to paint 100 of these Dream Tree murals, and travel to many different places to do so, feet health trumps image. Sports shoes have been my go-to choice these days, especially when working on the murals and when going for an exploratory walk around the wotn or city, and I’m starting to care less that I don’t look “artsy” enough.

Back to Dealing with People

After these significant negative encounters, and both on my first day of painting, I felt so discouraged and resigned. What if they call the police? What if the city council passes by and stops me? What if later after I’ve finished, the city council says the mural is not approved and it has to be painted over? Maybe I should just quit right now, since I’ve barely even started, and then I’ll have the next few days to just enjoy Užupis and Vilnius.

These feelings stayed with me into the second day of painting, and it took me a lot longer than usual to get out of bed and get out of the door to work. But it got better as the mural progressed, and I received more compliments and acceptance, and I didn’t have such negative encounters again.

On my third afternoon of painting, I saw the same elderly lady emerge from the door and hobble across the cobblestone to the street with her trolley bag. When she returned an hour later, I helped her carry the full trolley bag to the door. She was a lot less unfriendly this time, and maybe even smiled at me, and this time I felt happier after our encounter.

From all the people I’ve encountered during these four days of painting, it was a learning opportunity to roll with the compliments and punches, and to be able to continue working according to my intention for my project, whether I received a good response from the “audience”, or a negative one.

Sometimes people have a bad day once, and when you see them again, they are okay. And some people are just grouches and there’s nothing I can do about it. And some people will see these murals as something cool but completely disregard me as the artist. It’s all part of the journey, and part of the process, and out of my control. The only thing I am in charge of is ensuring I fulfill my goal of these 100 Dream Trees, and whatever else is created from this experience.

5% done, 95% more to go

Thus concludes the chapter of The Užupis Dream Tree, what it represents, how it came about, and some of the challenges and learnings along the way.

“The Užupis Dream Tree” (2019) with artist MaryAnn Loo.

With its completion, I’m now at 5% of my goal for Project: 100 Dream Trees, and 95% more to go.

Until next time, a new adventure awaits…

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