Five questions for the man painting the world’s largest Dala Horse

American street artist Shai Dahan grabbed the attention of Swedes when he painted a traditional Dala Horse in his town of Borås. He is now returning to New York to paint it again – this time bigger than ever.

Five questions for the man painting the world's largest Dala Horse
What traditional Swedish Dala Horses usually look like. Photo: Trons/TT

Dahan will be going to New York in October to paint an almost 20 metre tall Dala Horse on the side of an apartment building on Broome Street in Lower East Side. The Local spoke with him ahead of the project.

Why are you going to New York to paint the world's largest Dala Horse?

Well, I lived in NYC prior to moving to Sweden (left NYC for Sweden in 2010). NYC has had the biggest influence on me when it comes to “street-art” and it is where I really became an artist.

Once I moved to Sweden, I began to build a career on painting realistic Dala Horses. That career now will be celebrating its 10-year anniversary so it is kind of poetic to return back to the city that inspired me to get into public art and leave the one symbol I built my entire career on. And to do the world's largest only made sense because its New York, and as you know in NYC the motto is “Go Big or Go Home”.

So I chose to “Go Big and then, go Home”.

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A sketch of the Dala Horse that Shai Dahan will paint in New York. Photo: Shai Dahan

When The Local spoke with you in 2015 you said that Swedish laws for street art are quite restrictive. Is it getting better?

Yes and no. In 2015, I just finished our first No Limit Festival which I was the founder and curator of. We were one of the first street-art festivals in Sweden. Now, many cities have festivals, murals and even commercial companies and communes hire artists like myself.  It definitely has become easier in that sense of open doors.

BUT, in some cases it is still far behind. Stockholm for example, is VERY restrictive. Creating large scale murals there is not easy and in some areas the “zero tolerance” rule is still in place. When you see small towns like Borås, Ulricehamn, even Ludvika, offer walls for artists, but Stockholm doesn't, you get the feeling that Stockholm is falling behind.

I recently participated in Wall Street Nacka which was a festival in Nacka, so it feels like there is progress, but Stockholm should be the New York City version of Swedish public art but it doesn't seem to be that way at the moment when it comes to large-scale murals at least.

Shai Dahan with Swedish footballer Anders Svensson outside Borås Arena. Photo: Shai Dahan

Is this part of a bigger project, or is it just you doing this independently?

It's both.  I started The Dala Project last summer which was me going around Sweden putting up Dala Horses in different cities (tiny little ones). 

With NYC, it is a nice contrast to go from the small horses of last summer and now put up a GIANT.  

Also, I have this “art bucket list” which is composed of things I wish to accomplish during my career. Some I have accomplished already like being a keynote speaker at TEDx, painting a mural in London, painting in Art Basel, creating a bronze sculpture and making a street-art festival.

But there are quite a few items I still haven't accomplished. Doing a big wall in NYC is one. Doing the world's largest Dala Horse was also one. Now I get to do both in one project. So its kind of a great way for me to tie two dreams into one.

Shai Dahan has been painting realistic Dala Horses for years. Photo: Shai Dahan

Did you become a street artist in New York? Is this the first time you're painting a Dala Horse there and do you have any special feelings about bringing that aspect of Swedish culture back to the US?

I met my wife in the US (she's Swedish) and we lived in both Los Angeles and New York. While I played around with public art in LA, it was mostly painting surfboards and skateboards. When I moved to NYC I met a group of street artists who I began to do projects with. This included the world-famous Underbelly Project (which had 100 renowned street artists go into an abandoned subway station under NYC to paint the largest collection of murals, then sealed up with bricks so the public can't see it).

I also did a bunch of street-art group exhibitions and things like that. But most importantly, I began to do art on the streets.  Once I moved to Sweden, I continued and began to do larger and larger walls.

Now to return to NYC and bring back a Dala Horse (the thing I built my success on) is very fond for me. I am very excited because it is quite hard to do large murals in NYC and I get to be part of a very small club of artists who can say they accomplished it. It took me 13 months to sort out this specific wall, but it has been YEARS of me trying to find a building owner to give me a wall. So it's a big deal for me personally and I think it will resonate with Swedes. There are many Swedes in NYC (The Scandinavian House, The Swedish Church, Aquavit). But also Swedes in Sweden should be proud that something so symbolic will get to be placed 20 metres up in the city of Manhattan for millions of people to see.

Shai Dahan with another one of his murals. Photo: Shai Dahan

You told The Local back in 2015 that you were pursuing other projects because you “didn't want to just be known as the Dala Horse guy”. What other projects are you or have you been working on

I constantly want to evolve as an artist. Since 2015, I had the pleasure to make a bronze sculpture, I had the pleasure to make Sweden's largest mural for the European Athletics Championship U20, I had the honour of meeting her Royal Highness Queen Silvia and presenting her with a painting during the FEI Horse Show, and continue to do new projects and charities. I painted an entire tiny safari animals at the entire floor of the Children's Cancer Ward at the Borås Hospital.

So while I do love painting Dala Horses, I still try to continue to push the limits and do other things. Yes, I have a few projects up my sleeve after NYC in 2020 and 2021 that I can not announce yet, but I can say, that with all that I have accomplished in the last 10 years, to me, I honestly feel like I am just getting started.

A 13-metre horse in Avesta, Dalarna, is the world's biggest Dala Horse statue. Photo: Emma-Sofia Olsson/SvD/TT

Shai Dahan is an American contemporary painter and street artist who works with paintings, drawings, murals, illustrations and sculptures. Follow his work here.

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