TALLINN - Navitrolla's weird, bright-hued creatures have become a staple of contemporary Tallinn. Many a tourist has stopped in a gift shop to buy a postcard with a purple open-mouthed dog peaking in on the side to send home to the United States or Japan, as if to say, "This is Estonia."
But this March, the 35-year-old artist will earn a grander level of notoriety when a large fresco of his work decorating the side of a Tallink ferry (which goes between Tallinn and Helsinki) is unveiled.
The opening will bring to an end a year-long project, during which Navitrolla supervised countless painters (he doesn't know how many exactly) dressed in warm clothes, working on the side of a ferry on a canvas the size of two football fields. The work was all done in Finland, amid, at times, the country's infamously sub-freezing temperatures. "Mother Nature is quite wicked," he says.
And there will be his child-like but not unbearably cute animals, which remind one of a benign Maurice Sendak, drawn large. "Something weird, something not so weird," he says. If the one ship turns out well, maybe the rest of the fleet will carry Navitrolla's design.
It seems, in some ways a logical step for Navitrolla (a pseudonym derived from the two southern Estonian villages, Navi and Trolla where he grew up; his real name is Haiki Trolla), an unashamedly commercial artist, who has designed plates and ice cream packages. He speaks of his own work without even a hint of pretension, and an unaffected earnestness. "It's hard to say something smart about your own art. Sometimes I don't know what my hand is doing." He senses that his work has matured - "Ten years ago I was in kindergarden. Now I'm in high school," 's but he can't quite say how.
His trademark is the open-mouthed creature. At times the mouth is very wide, as if ready to swallow something enormous. At others it is small and seems to look like a self-satisfied smirk. He started drawing animals this way after looking at pornography as a kid.
"I always saw these models with their mouths open," he says. "Ninety-nine percent of them had their mouths open. I thought it was kind of a human habit, but I thought naked people with open mouths doesn't make sense. So I started [drawing open mouths] on dogs and other animals. I just liked it."
Some earlier landscapes, "Peaceful Fight" (2000) which shows two bulls locking horns against a grassy land and "Pig F's-ing a Dog With Horns" (1992) which shows some cross-species sex against a brightly-lit mountainous shoreline Thomas Kinkade would admire, seem a little comical.
"It's not my purpose to make fun," Navitrolla says. "It's just the world around us. I just describe it. Many people say to me that they can see the sadness that comes out of this comical humor. I'm not a person from a circus making people laugh."
He is, he says, only looking for "beauty and harmony" and not painting anything based on realism.
Much has been written about the Estonian art world establishment's famous dislike for Navitrolla's work.
"This is a stupid situation," he says. "I don't care. This is my work. I make these pictures. The say, 'This guy, he's not educated.' I just do what I like."
As for Navitrolla, he can't remember the last time he went to an exhibition of somebody's work other than his own.
"I don't like art. I'm very honest. I went to an exhibition some years ago and the art was just so depressing and that's what surrounds us [in this world]. That's not what I want to do."