How Swedish street artist Ola Kalnins makes his mark.
When Ola Kalnins tagged his first wall at the age of thirteen, he didn’t have grand dreams of becoming a global graffiti artist. He was just a preteen kid who loved skateboarding and the thrill of sneaking out.
“When you’re 13, you try graffiti for 13-year-old reasons,” Ola reflects. “I wasn’t allowed to be out that long. I was so young, you know, making up all these strategies on how to get away. I got a kick out of it.”
Despite the circumstances of his start, the second Ola picked up a spray can he knew that street art was his calling. After that first session he sought out real gigs painting cafes and shops in his Swedish hometown, but he also continued to be enamored with the counterculture spirit graffiti embraces.
“It’s all about finding the right spot. The risk and logistics of it,” explains Ola. “You’re doing something that you’re not allowed to do, according to society. You are getting harassed by police and lying to your parents. It definitely comes with discipline.”
It was this discipline that ultimately launched Ola’s successful career. After making circles on his bike in NYC, asking store owners if he could tag their walls, a landlord saw Ola in the street and offered him a job.
“He stopped me to ask if I would paint his house, and that house happened to be on Manhattan avenue,” recalls Ola. “It opened up a whole new world.”
Ola spray painting a mural in his hometown of Malmö, Sweden.
Appreciating art beyond the walls
These days Ola is an internationally celebrated muralist, with over 50 gallery exhibitions under his belt and commissions by some of the world’s most iconic brands, including Adidas, Carhartt, and Absolut. But even though Ola’s made a splash in the art world, he still struggles with calling himself an artist.
“I don’t use the phrase too much.” he says. “Not because it’s a lie or because I feel like I’m not an artist, but because it’s more.”
He goes on to explain that the heart of his work exists outside the high-end gallery shows and long days stuck in the studio, stating “I need to be out there. Walking around, discovering places, climbing things.” Ola also points out that graffiti is as much about the community as it is about the tangible pieces of art.
“Nowadays, the things I appreciate the most are the bridges it’s built for me to foreign cultures and how it can navigate me wherever I am in the world,” he says. “I have a network that takes care of me. I know street ambassadors in every city that have minds like mine. To this day that is the biggest value of graffiti.”
Ola adds that he simply doesn’t like to be put in a folder.
“The art world is the art world, but passion is passion and you are you,” he says. “There are so many aspects that are bigger than the actual painting.”
Ola's signature 'skullnins' emblem seen here in Havana, Cuba
Creating a ripple effect of creativity
As someone who’s spray painted everything from abandoned buildings to luxury storefronts, Ola didn’t bat an eye when we asked him to tag our official Radinn van. Painting the side with his signature “skullnins” emblem, he told us how closely his own principles—and the culture surrounding street art—mirror Radinn’s “Make Waves” motto.
Ola was eager to leave his mark on the official Radinn van.
“If you are actually making waves, that means other people can surf them,” Ola figuratively explains. “It’s like making rings in water. Small things that can grow and spread and affect. To inspire and stimulate, I think, is more important than getting props or acceptance.”
Ola deeply believes in the power of this so-called ripple effect, especially early on.
“Every kid, every human, is an artist from the beginning,” he says. “All children have certain phases where they like to paint, it’s just what happens to you along the journey that makes it stick or not.”
For Ola, that means staying curious, putting himself out there, and finding the freedom to tap into his unique creative spirit.“One of the blessings of us being born as human beings is that we all have an unexplainable urge to create. People are not always raised to think this free, to act on the need you have to express yourself. But that’s been my filter. That’s been my tool to discover things in life.”
“You cannot record or document an experience. You can only experience it at that moment. Jetboarding is a lot like graffiti in this way. It has the physical and geographic aspect. It’s a present artform.”
Ola trying out the Radinn for the first time.