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Cuba vintage car tour with Havana Urban Adventures! Renting a classic convertible, Callejon de Hamel Santeria.

rent american classic car havana

When you think of Havana, Cuba — do classic cars come to mind? These sleek, 1950s-era automobiles are the only rides on the road in this fascinating country, where time seems to have frozen.

My dream was to ride down the Malecon in a vintage convertible… and this came true thanks to Havana Urban Adventures!

red vintage convertible cuba

Urban Adventures offers one-of-a-kind, offbeat experiences in cities worldwide. These aren’t your typical tours; they’re small group or private adventures that let you dive deep into local life. 

Read on to see how I cruised through Havana in this slick red “almendrón” (the Cuban word for antique auto)…

callejon de hamel havana

… and learned about Santeria (the Afro-Cuban religion of divine spirits), at the art-filled Callejon de Hamel. 

(Photography by Asta Mail and me.)

havana urban adventures car tour

In my first post about Cuba, I wrote about the joy of staying in a “casa particular” (Prado Colonial) and supporting local businesses. (You can read the full review here; definitely reach out if you’re looking for an authentic place to stay in Old Havana.)

When we made a booking with Urban Adventures, we received vouchers with confirmations of the start time, location, contact details and other info. In our case, the classic car came straight to our front door to pick us up for the 2 hour ride.

cuba urban adventures local guide

“Best day ever” is accurate, when it comes to their tours. As you may recall, I also linked up with Urban Adventures in Athens and Bucharest. I’m impressed by how their guides are always full of passion for their hometowns. In this case, Armando (Mandy) greeted us with a smile, and whisked us off on an adventure.

yellow cuban taxi, old cars

While the driver navigated, Mandy filled us in on the colorful sights around us. We rode through Habana Viejo and Miramar, where we glimpsed colonial architecture, monuments, and the glamorous Fifth Avenue. Such a joy to ride through these streets in an antique car, and soak it all in.

plaza de la Revolución cuba

Our first stop: Plaza de la Revolución, or Revolution Square.

Behind me, you can see a memorial to Camilo Cienfuegos, one of the four leaders of the Cuban Revolution (along with Fidel Castro, Raul Castro and Che Guevara). Manny explained that “Vas bien, Fidel” (You’re doing fine) refers to the supportive comment he made to the leader during his speech to the people.

che guevara memorial havana cuba

Next to him is this iconic counterculture portrait. I’m sure you recognize the face of Che Guevara, the guerrilla revolutionary! Che’s slogan, “hasta la victoria siempre” (Until victory always), exemplifies how he always strove to the fullest in his quest to help the people of Latin America.

José Martí Memorial, havana Revolution Square

On the other side of Revolution Square rises José Martí Memorial. It’s a tribute to this 19th century national hero of Cuba, and consists of a statue of Marti, a star-shaped tower, and gardens.

Camilo Cienfuegos Ministry of Interior building

Cuba has a fascinating political / cultural history that is unlike any other country (and very different from its neighbors in the Caribbean).

I was keen to learn more about the Communist takeover from a Cuban perspective, so I later visited the Museum of the Revolution (Museo de la Revolucion) in Old Havana. It’s filled with black and white photos of the leaders, and facts / records that may surprise you. I recommend it to all my fellow history buffs.

girl with antique cuban car

Onward to Vedado, a more modern and residential district of Havana. We drove through neighborhoods with beautiful homes, and then stopped in Havana Forest to take photos.

Outfit of the Day: Do you dig my Goth 1950s look? My hooded mesh black top is Cyberdog, my long floral skirt is from Hong Kong, and I’m wearing these exact John Lennon round sunglasses.

rent hire classic cuban cars

Asta and I were surprised to see this jungle area, in the middle of busy Havana! We took a moment to explore this lush park, featuring a river and waving trees.

havana forest, park jungle cuba

Many Santeria practitioners come here to perform rituals in the stream, including animal sacrifices. Keep an open mind, and if you see worshipers dressed in white, don’t point a camera at them.

(There’s more on this Cuban religion further down in the post, so read on.)

colon cemetery havana cuba graveyard

We passed by the sprawling Colon Cemetery, founded in 1876 in the Vedado neighbourhood. Named after Christopher Columbus, there are over 500 mausoleums covering 140 acres. I’ll have to come back next time to walk through this impressive graveyard, packed with white tombstones.

havana coches americanos

There’s truly no better way to get into the spirit of Cuba than by taking an old American car tour. What’s the deal with these antique vehicles everywhere?

urban adventures havana car tour

In 1959, Fidel Castro banned foreign vehicle imports, making it impossible to purchase cars from abroad. Since then, pretty much the only wheels on the road are remnants from this era, when American expats cruised through Havana in hot rods.

malecon cuba sunset

Our Urban Adventures vintage car tour ended with a drive along the Malecon, as the sun was setting. We sat in the back of our cherry red convertible, and took in the soft breeze and warm light…. pure Cuba bliss.

classic antique cars havana driving

I loved spotting cars with space-age “tail fins”, a 1950s signature. So many classic American names on the road here: Chevy, Plymouth, Buick, Ford, Oldsmobile.

sunset silhouette havana cuba seawall

The Malecon is Cuba’s seawall, which wraps along the coast for 8 km (from Old to Central Havana, and ending in Vedado). You’ll see locals hanging out on the stone wall at all hours, but the scene is most beautiful at sunset.

The Hotel Nacional de Cuba

We ended the journey at The Hotel Nacional de Cuba. It’s a grand, historic hotel that was the favorite of 1930s American gangsters, famous crooners, and silver screen stars.

havana Yuri Gagarin monument

Inside, we looked at a display that celebrated National Hotel’s most famous guests, including Yuri Gagarin, the first human in outerspace (who met Castro in 1961, and was celebrated in Cuba). Such a cool spot to drink a Mojito and reflect on the old days.

old car tours havana review

I think these photos say it all… Urban Adventures’ vintage car tour is the sweetest way to explore the neighborhoods of Havana! More info here on how you can book a ride with them in an antique American convertible. (You can even put in a request for a specific car color.)

urban adventures afro cuban religions tour

Asta and I loved our Urban Adventures tour so much that we did another the next day. We met guide Yanet for the Afro-Cuban religions tour, which let us explore Santeria and the local spirituality. As always, our experienced guide enabled us to get insider access to a subculture.

Salvador Gonzáles Escalona afro cuban art

The journey takes place at Callejón de Hamel, a hub filled with alleyways of bright murals and sculptures. The artist, Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, began this project in 1990 to renew the surrounding neighborhood, and create a space for the Santeria community.

cuban street art murals callejon hamel

We admired the colorful paintings by Salvador, mixed in with works made from scrap objects like bathtubs, pinwheels and mechanical tools. The eclectic vibe reminded me of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens.

I wore a rainbow-witch outfit that day. You can find many of my clothes for sale here on Depop; contact me if I can send you anything from my personal wardrobe!

santeria community cuba

Our guide, Yanet, explained the installations and spoke about the roots of Santeria. This Afro-Cuban religion has origins in the native spirituality of Africa, and became syncretized with Catholicism during colonial times (when slaves were brought to the New World).

cuban witchcraft voodoo dolls art

Cuba’s spiritual practices are a mix of local customs, folklore, and beliefs from various sources. Some people mistakenly associate Santeria with voodoo, but these two are very different (voudou is a syncretic religion practiced mainly in Haiti.)

callejon de hamel artist salvador

Callejon de Hamel is free for anyone to visit. It’s hard to imagine that this once was a sketchy, desolate area: Salvador has transformed it into an inviting, positive space. You can often catch musicians and rumba dancers performing in these alleys.

afro cuban god elegua

Yanet taught us about the orishas, or gods of the Santeria pantheon. One of my favorites is Elegua (on the left), represented as a playful child or old man. Visitors leave Cuban cigars in his mouth to keep this trickster happy.

afro cuban religion rituals

There’s also a god of war (Changó), goddess of love (Oshún), a mother figure (Yemayá), a hunter (Ochosi), healer (Babalú Ayé) and more.

santeria cuban religion beads

Santeria translates to “worship of the saints,” as there is a creator god and a number of lesser deities. These orishas rule over various aspects of human nature and endeavor, and you can call upon them depending on your particular situation.

catholic saints afro-cuban gods

When the colonialists shipped Africans to the Caribbean to work as slaves, they also baptized them as Catholics and banned their tribal faiths. However, the Africans still worshiped their orishas in secret, by associating them with Christian saints like St. Christopher. Santeria therefore developed as a unique syncretism.

santeria altar to african gods

We met a babalawo, or priest. His role is to be a spiritual adviser, and help people in various ways — including by fortune-telling with the tossing of shells.

Urban Adventures has special permission to enter the home of Salvador (the artist) and his family. We got to see their personal shrines to the orishas, where they make offerings of food, and bow in a way that touches each elbow to the ground.

santeria water goddess

In Santeria, each practitioner is associated with one protector deity (which you determine through ritual and the advice of the babalawo). This family member’s orisha is Yemaya, the fierce mother of the seas — hence the blue decorations, shells, fish and other objects related to her.

cuban gothic goth death skulls

These personal shrines stay with them their entire lives. When Iku (the deity of death) arrives, the babalawo consults the spirits to find out what to do with the objects (burn them, bury them, etc).

havana festival parade stilt walkers

We loved learning about Cuban spirituality and culture up-close. If you simply walk through the streets of Old Havana, you’ll come across colorful aspects — like this costumed parade of stilt-walkers. 

colonial doors old havana

The colonial legacy is everywhere to be seen, especially in the dramatic architecture and tall doorways.

colorful buildings havana

Havana is a safe city, and “chill” is the best word to describe the residents. You’ll see locals hanging out on doorsteps, and chatting with their neighbors.

weird havana fashion

Headwraps and bright clothing are a common sight.

cuban women costumes

I came across a fortune teller, clad in white and with strands of beads draped around her neck.

hemingway cats cuba

Havana is also associated with author Ernest Hemingway, who lived here from about 1940-60. Many tourists visit his favorite bars, La Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio, where he drank daiquiris and mojitos. (I didn’t visit, as I was more interested in seeing the romantic gardens all around Havana.)

yulier rodriguez cuban street art

We ran into more street art by Yulier Rodriguez. His provocative, signature style is unmistakable.

che guevara revolutionary murals havana

How fitting to find a motorcycle, in front of this mural of Che Guevara! When he was a young medical student, Che rode 5000 miles through South America (as documented in his book “The Motorcycle Diaries.”) The journey opened his eyes, and stirred his dream of seeing a united Latin America.

On the right, we see “Estudio, Trabajo, Fusil” (Study, Work, Rifle), the motto of Cuba’s Communist Youth Union.

cuban communist posters revolution art

It was interesting to learn the Cuban point-of-view of historical events and figures. They highlighted achievements such as the excellent medical and educational system, which is open to all Cubans regardless of their income.

live band havana cuban music

Without doubt, Havana is a city of music and color! Where else can you pay 2 CUC ($2) for a mojito, and enjoy an energetic rumba?

cuban bed breakfast hotel

These silly boys welcomed us back to our casa particular, Prado Colonial. I’m all about supporting small local businesses, and staying with a casa is one of the easiest ways to do so. (More info and photos of our hotel here.)

old havana vintage cars

Gracias Havana Urban Adventures for making my “greased lightning” goals a reality! If only I could take this classic auto home as a souvenir…

Have you been to Cuba? Planning a trip? Feel free to leave a comment if I can help you with travel tips, and I’ll gladly reply.

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Visiting Dracula’s Bran Castle: Vampire tour of Transylvania! Vlad the Impaler, Romania Goth Halloween.

bran castle dracula towers

“My friend. Welcome to the Carpathians. I am anxiously expecting you.” – Count Dracula’s invitation to Jonathan Harker, in the Bram Stoker novel.

Last Halloween, I got to live out my vampire dreams (or nightmares)… at Dracula’s castle in Transylvania!

With the support of Experience Romania, I got to come and learn about the real Vlad Dracul, a ruler whose history is wrapped up in horror mythology.

moi meme moitie dress elegant gothic lolita

For years, I had the “Goth goal” of visiting Bran Castle in Brasov, Romania. This dark fortress is associated with the bloody tales of Vlad the Impaler. 

I wore my Moi-meme-Moitie dress; the silhouette and design are straight out of Nosferatu. This is an Japanese Elegant Gothic Lolita design by Mana, who you may know from the Visual Kei bands Moi-dix-mois and Malice Mizer.

visiting bran castle romania

Keep reading for an exclusive look inside Bran Castle, including photography in areas that tourists aren’t able to access. We’ll wind up in a torture garden, and get to know the Romanian vampire. (All photos by Joey Wong.)

bucharest to brasov transylvania scenery

As you may remember, I was invited to Experience Bucharest around Halloween 2017. On one of our free days, photographer Joey Wong and I met up with our local Romanian friends, Alex and Beatrice. They kindly drove us from Bucharest to Bran Castle in the early morning.

(To get to Dracula’s castle, it’s also possible to take the train, but there are limited departure/arrival times. You can also rent a car, or hire a private driver for the trip).

When you see the dawn breaking over the misty landscape, it’s easy to understand why Romania is the land of vampire tales. 

brasov romania Wallachia

The drive from Bucharest to Brasov is a beautiful one, especially in fall when the leaves have Halloween hues. If you’re based in Bucharest, this is a perfect day trip to Transylvania. (You can also stay overnight in Brasov, if you want to spend more time in the region).

The journey to Bran Castle takes about 3-4 hours by car, depending on traffic (it’s a good idea to leave early, in case you get stuck). On the way back in the afternoon, the ride took longer.

carpathian mountains romania tourism

As we got closer, the roads became windy, and the Carpathian mountains loomed over us.

The Carpathians are a mountainous range through Central and Eastern Europe, with the largest portion in Romania. These dramatic hills are home to brown bears, wolves, lynx… and maybe some blood-sucking bats?

halloween party dracula castle bran romania

Transylvania is the central region of Romania, located north of Bucharest. Its high-contrast clouds and craggy mountains looked straight out of a horror movie. When we saw these horses under an ominous sign… we knew we must be getting closer.

strigoi romanian vampire legends

At last, we made it to Bran Castle! On their website, you can find access, admission and visitor info. When we arrived, there was a line up for tickets, which cost about 7 euro (there are senior and student discounts). Bran Castle kindly welcomed us as press, giving us permission to photograph usually-restricted areas.

Dracula Castle address: Strada General Traian Moșoiu 24, Bran 507025, Romania

vlad the impaler dracula grave tombstone

Visitors have to first walk up a steep path to the castle, lined by dark gravestones like this one. Do Dracula’s remains lie beneath the soil?

Not quite. In fact, Bran Castle is only loosely connected to the historic Vlad the Impaler, who may have never even stepped foot here. Keep in mind that ever since the publication of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” novel, the man and myth have blurred in the public imagination. This castle is located in Transylvania (where the fictional Count lived), and has an appropriately imposing, Medieval look… what better setting to dive deep into the bloody legends? 

vlad the impaler portrait dracul

Inside, you’ll find portraits and historical information about Vlad III, also known as Vlad Tepes or Vlad Dracula. In real life, he was the second son of Vlad Dracul, the 15th century prince of Wallachia, Romania. Records show that he signed two of his letters “Dragulya” or “Drakulya” — which means “the son of Dracul.”

interior bran castle dracula

Vlad actually lived in Wallachia, the area south of Transylvania. In the late 14th century, a group of German colonists built Bran Castle in Brasov (where I’m standing). Their descendants may have wound up as Vlad’s victims, during his reign.

courtyard bran castle restairant

Although Bran castle wasn’t the primary home of Vlad, it has the “Dracula” feeling conjured by the novel and other vampire works (films, comics, you name it).

Author Bram Stoker never even went to Romania before writing his book. He based Count Dracula’s castle on Whitby Abbey in England, which I also visited.

impaling on stick romania vlad

Vlad was called “The Impaler” by the Ottomans, and was also known as the Butcher or Demon. What’s the deal with the nickname?

As the castle banners indicate, impalement was Vlad’s favorite method of execution — spearing bodies on a stake, and leaving them to die. He executed thousands in this manner, and even created a “Forest of the Impaled” with 20,000 pierced bodies. Some say Vlad enjoyed dining with his palace associates, surrounded by a circle of impaled victims.

history tour bran castle

Vlad is usually depicted as a villain, but there’s another side to the story. Many Romanians consider him a hero, and one of the country’s greatest rulers.

visit bran castle tickets admission hours

It’s important to understand the context of Vlad’s actions. As a youth, he was imprisoned by the Ottomans, and severely abused. When he took reign, his harsh punishments were a way to strengthen the central government from dissenters. Some historians interpret his cruelty as rational acts to secure the independence of Romania, as the land was surrounded by the much stronger Turks.

goths romania transylvania trip

During his reign, Vlad actually lived in Poenari Castle, a cliff-side citadel in Wallachia. You have to climb 1,480 concrete stairs to reach the top. Poenari castle is located quite a bit further from Bucharest, so I’ll have to wait until next time to visit.

real count dracula castle

Vlad the Impaler was possibly imprisoned inside Bran Castle for a few months; he was exiled and jailed multiple times during his three reigning periods. Regardless, the Transylvanian castle is sensational, and makes you feel as if you’re a character in the Dracula story.

secret tunnels dungeons vlad dracula

What dark secrets hide within these walls? Perhaps a crypt lined with coffins?

Bran Castle does have a system of secret tunnels, which weren’t discovered until later. These narrow, steep passages were built as escape routes. On regular tours, you aren’t able to go inside… but this vampire got special permission.

interior historic bran castle

In 1920, Bran Castle came into the possession of Queen Maria, the last queen of Romania. In 2009, it became open to the public as a museum and attraction. Inside the castle, you can see relics of her royal residence, including art and furniture from her personal collection.

vlad tepes impaler dracul

No wonder Queen Maria made this her special residence. The castle architecture is captivating, with winding staircases and picture windows.

romanian strigoi vampire tales

On the upper levels, you can learn about Vlad and the folk tales that inspired vampire legends. My Romanian friend Alex found his ancestor on the family tree… proof of his vampire bloodline!

I read about “strigoi,” the evil souls of the dead that kill victims by sucking their blood, and have the ability to transform into animals (forming the inspiration for modern vampire tales). If pregnant women drink cursed water or go outside without covering their heads, then Satan puts a red bonnet on them and their newborns. Unless it’s removed, the babies will transform into “strigoi” — the undead that live among us.

bran castle architecture windows

The sunlight… it burns, it burns!

Standing inside Dracula’s Castle, I realized how much the legend has inspired fashion, art and pop culture — from Lost Souls, to Interview with the Vampire, to Buffy.

brasov transylvania landscape

Through this arched window, I looked out at Transylvania. Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel turned the region into a household name associated with vampires. With a landscape like this, no wonder this is perceived as a magical, mysterious and dramatic land.

vampire bangs girl hairstyle

Similarly, we’ve all heard of the word “Nosferatu,” which refers to The Devil in modern Romanian. Photographer Joey Wong captures the spirit in this image.

sleep inside dracula's castle hotel

Can you see my reflection in the mirror? I didn’t stumble across any coffins in Bran Castle, but the entire castle had a haunted feeling (creepy nooks, squeaky staircases, four-poster beds straight out of Dracula movies).

transylvania vampire tours travel

When night falls… it’s not difficult to imagine “strigoi” flying out from these woods!

girl inside iron maiden torture device

Bran Castle also hosts rotating exhibitions. When we visited, there was a collection of torture devices used in the Middle Ages.

I felt genuinely scared, standing inside this iron maiden lined with deadly spikes. The lady’s evil smile makes matters more frightening.

vlad impaler's spike wooden impaled

I’m pointing at Vlad the Impaler’s favorite instrument. Sometimes, the stake was sharp and killed victims quickly. Other times, it was dulled and oiled, and went through the body in a way that didn’t pierce the heart — prolonging the pain and duration.

eastern europe tortune instruments

I shudder to think of what it was like, living in the time of these torture devices.

bran castle vampire fashion

What a treat to visit Castle Bran and immerse myself in the world of Vlad the Impaler. Even though it’s technically not “his castle,” I loved the sinister experience and Transylvanian setting.

count dracula romanian red wine

I leave you with some Romanian vampire souvenirs. I took these photos at Bucharest’s Henri Coandă airport; you’ll find a huge selection of Dracula-themed red wines in the shopping area before departures. I wish I could have bought them all… but I had no room in my suitcase.

dracula liqueur draquila

In addition, there’s a selection of vampiric liqueurs. Who needs tequila when you can drink Draquila?

I was intrigued by Potion of Dracula, a plum brandy or “palinka” that hails from Transylvania. The 40% proof liqueur is packaged in what looks like a magic flask, with an antique lock and keey.

conte dracula wines romania

Don’t you think the 555 should be 666? I didn’t have the opportunity to try any of these Count Dracula wines, but I did enjoy the Romanian red that I had at an Experience Bucharest networking event.

bat vampires count dracula keychains

I was tempted to pick up these cute magnets and keychains, which I found at a rest-stop during our roadtrip from Bucharest to Dracula’s Castle.

dr frank n furter doll rocky horror

How do Romanians feel about being associated with vampires? It’s a mixed bag, but many of them embrace the Vlad Draculea “bloodline” and its impact on pop culture.

Most of the airport’s souvenirs had a vampire theme, including stuffed toys and “Vladut’s Story” plums in chocolate cream. There was even a plush of Tim Curry’s character in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, who hails from”Transsexual Transylvania!”

romania vampire dracula toys souvenirs

I guess he’s Count Chocola for a reason… quite a few of the Dracula gifts were chocolates. Love the coffin figure as well.

romania halloween club vila bran

A million thank yous to Experience Romania for the best Halloween ever. I loved exploring the country, and am dying to come back and see more.

dracula gothic travel tourism

Whether he’s a folk hero or fanged horror villian, Dracula has captured the imagination of millions worldwide. At Bran Castle, you get to become part of the legend.

So I leave you with a quote by Bram Stoker’s Count: “Once again…welcome to my house. Come freely. Go safely; and leave something of the happiness you bring.”

(And if you’re hungry for more bloody tales, here are all my travel posts about Bucharest and Romania!)

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Takashi Murakami: Japanese kawaii exhibit at Vancouver Art Gallery! Hello Kitty Taipei airport lounge & gift shop.

Takashi Murakami vancouver art gallery flowers

When one of your favorite Japanese artists is in town… It’s time to get trippy!

If you love manga, anime and “kawaii” Japanese pop culture, then head down the rabbit hole to Takashi Murakami’s exhibit at Vancouver Art Gallery.

octopus tentacles japanese art murakami

For the first time, Murakami’s major works have come to Canada. Over 50 pieces spanning three decades are currently on display at VAG (from Feb 2 to May 6, 2018).

The retrospective is titled “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg,” so get ready to dive into a world of tentacles.

taiwan sanrio terminal lounge

Read on to the end of this story, where I’ll also share photos of the Hello Kitty airport lounge in Taipei (since we’re on the topic of Japanese pop-cute). It’s definitely the world’s weirdest airline lounge, featuring Sanrio characters!

takashipom octopus eats own leg exhibit

Murakami Takashi (村上 隆) is one of Japan’s most intriguing contemporary artists. You might recognize his smiling flowers and cartoon bears, which were on the cover of a Kanye West album and Louis Vuitton purses.

However, as I found out from this exhibit, Murakami’s artistic tentacles reach far deeper than pop commentary on consumer culture. The exhibition’s title, “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg,” refers to a Japanese parable where the creature survives by sacrificing parts of himself. In this way, “Takashipom” consumes his native history and spirituality, transforming them into colorful new visions. 

vancouver art gallery murakami exhibition

The Vancouver Art Gallery went all-out to welcome Murakami. Each window is plastered with happy flower decals, and the rotunda looks like it’s been attacked by a pink and blue cephalopod, Godzilla-style. The artist himself came here for the opening, dressed in a tentacles-hat for the occasion.

rainbow candy raver kawaii decora

The Murakami exhibition is already an immense success, drawing in queues of visitors. Instead of spending time in line, I recommend that you purchase a ticket in advance from the Vancouver Art Gallery website (it lets you choose the specific date of your visit.) You may also want to aim for a weekday visit, since the space was packed over the weekend.

The Japanese artist is known for his eccentric outfits. I was pleased to see that a few visitors dressed up for the occasion; I loved this girl’s Harajuku decora candy style.

murakami octopus paintings sculpture

During the grey winter months, it’s a joy to wander among giant neon paintings with friends.

Murakami’s best-known works are influenced by Japanese “kawaii’ (big-eyed, round cuteness), with nods to anime, manga and otaku culture. However, these critters always have a deadly or bizarre twist

japanese kawaii weird murakami sculptures

The exhibition spans several huge rooms, and includes wall-sized works and ceiling-high sculptures. Many feature Mr. Dob, his cute character who is a bit like Hello Kitty meets Mickey Mouse.

In his 3D work “DOB in The Strange Forest,” Murakami surrounds the innocent mouse-bear with seeing-eyed mushrooms. In the back, he’s become an unhinged monster spewing vomit (the painting is called “Tan Tan Bo Puking.”)

murakami colorful art bears

The mutant Mr. Dob reflects on how icons can run amok, hiding sharp fang beneath inviting surfaces. Despite this commentary on consumerism, Mr. Dob has (ironically? purposefully?) become a popular design on Louis Vuitton bags and other branded designer goods.

(Click the images below to see Murakami’s art x commerce collaborations):

smiling happy rainbow flowers murakami

Anyone can take photos inside the exhibition, which makes it highly Instagrammable. One of the most popular selfie-spots is in front of this happy floral wall. Murakami once described these flowers as making him “feel almost physically sick, and at the same time I found them very cute.”

smiling flowers flower ball murakami painting

We’re mesmerized by “Flower Ball.” As Ben mused, “Where does art end, and wallpaper begin?”

superflat mr dob anime art murakami

Murakami is best known for his “Superflat” high-meets-low, 2D pop imagery. However, he explores many other facets of Japanese culture in other works, often with a darker vibe.

red demon sculpture takashi murakami

One of the most powerful rooms held towering red and blue demon totems (Embodiment of “A” and Embodiment of “Um”). These statues imagine a present-day belief system, built on ancient myths and folklore.

famous contemporary modern japan artist

Murakami was devastated by the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami. The tragedy inspired a new direction in his art: he drew upon Japan’s cultural heritage to create spiritual narratives.

murakami 500 arhats buddhist artwork

One of these masterpieces from this era is on display: a 10-panel painting called “The 100 Arhats.” It was painstakingly made by layering hundreds of silk screens, and depicts Buddhist monks who roamed Japan and helped enlighten people.

murakami lions skulls painting

Many of Murakami’s works are inspired by “Nihonga,” the late 19th century fusion of Western and Japanese artistic techniques. In the above work, “Of Chinese Lions, Peonies, Skulls and Fountains”, he illustrates the legend of the lion who guards Buddhist temples. The cute baby cub and rainbow stream of skulls made it one of my favorites.

takashi murakami rare works blue dragon

Murakami’s works are big, in terms of both size and concept. This is “Dragon in Clouds – Indigo Blue”, a re-imagining of a 1763 Japanese fantasy painting by Soga Shohaku.

japanese tentacles octopus statue

Takashi Murakami is often compared to Andy Warhol. The Japanese artist is better received outside of his homeland, where some deride him for being too commercial/marketing oriented. Personally, I think these detractors are only skimming the surface; both artists made provocative works that went far deeper than soup cans and smiley flowers.

vancouver canada murakami takashi gallery

Intrigued? I encourage you to come out to Vancouver Art Gallery to see Murakami’s works in person. There’s no other way to get a full sense of his scale and impact.

murakami octopus stuffed toy plush

Exit through the gift store... There’s a selection of pins, toys, prints and more. This demented octopus plush caught our eye. Looks like something that Charles Manson might embrace.

smiling flower pillow murakami decor

Have you heard of Takashi Murakami? Are you also a fan of his work? (You can browse his fashion designs below:)

mary wyatt london, edwardson eyewear sunglasses

A final close-up of Murakami’s flowers (note the tiny faces), and my outfit of the day. My red 90s beret and Domination top are by Mary Wyatt London. My round minimalist sunglasses are Edwardson Eyewear.

bulgari serpenti silver leather wrap bracelet jewelry

I’m also loving my new Bulgari Serpenti metallic leather bracelet, which matches my snake plant! I only wear jewelry with edge; the ring is Alex Streeter. (More Blvgari bracelets below):

hello kitty airport lounge

Since we’re on the subject of “kawaii” culture… I thought I’d end with photos I took during a stopover, at Taipei’s Taoyuan Airport. If you go to Terminal 2, gate C3… you’ll discover a Hello Kitty airport lounge! 

hello kitty playground, kids park

Although Hello Kitty is from Japan, the mouth-less cat is popular all over Asia. Taiwan loves her so much that they have an airport lounge in her name. The large waiting area has plenty of seats, a kid’s play area, and a nursing station featuring images of baby Kitty and Daniel.

hello kitty themed airport

Taiwan’s Eva Air even launched a Hello Kitty jet, which mainly flies routes to Japan. Everything about the flight is in her likeness: the tickets, staff outfits, food, and art on the side of the airplane. (The Hello Kitty plane was so popular that EVA Airlines now also has Pokemon and Gudetama themed flights.)

taoyuan airport taiwan hello kitty

In Taipei’s airport lounge, Hello Kitty is depicted as a world traveller. We see her wearing pilot goggles, and toting a suitcase behind her with a wink. The murals show the cat flying on her pink airplane to Sydney, India, New York, Rome and Paris.

hello kitty airport gate, nursing room

These pictures are pretty accurate if you think of it… Since Sanrio launched her in 1974, Hello Kitty has taken over the world. I see merchandise with her face on it everywhere I travel.

eva air hello kitty airplane

I filmed an Instagram video here that shows you more of the pink, ridiculous terminal. Is this Hello Kitty heaven… or hell? That’s all up to you.

Hello Kitty Dream World store

Right next door is the ultimate gift store, aptly named Hello Kitty Dream World. Taiwan Taoyuan airport has a few Sanrio shops, and they’re open from early morning to late evening.

taipei airport hello kitty shop

“I like to stop at the duty free shop!” Especially when it’s filled with rare Hello Kitty and Sanrio character goods. I was tempted to get stationery, stuffed toys, jewelry, backpacks, kitchen items…

taiwan sanrio stores souvenirs

Hello Kitty isn’t just for children. Sanrio has released multiple designer fashion and jewelry collaborations. I’m eyeing this Hello Kitty sequin dress, cashmere sweater and more below…

taiwan taoyuan airport sanrio

Over the years, Sanrio has added more adorable animals to the family. Above is Bad Badtz Maru, Pompompurin, Cinnamon Roll and My Melody.

hello kitty airport store shop

Some of the character items are on the weird side. I need a Hello Kitty robot cleaner in my life…

taipei airport hello kitty

If you’re planning a trip to Taipei or doing a layover, look out for the Hello Kitty lounge in Taoyuan Airport (Terminal 2, section C3).

plush toys hello kitty dolls

I grew up with Hello Kitty, so I’ll always have a soft spot for her. How about you?

And what do you think of Takashi Murakami’s mind-bending exhibit?

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HR Giger Museum & Bar in Gruyeres, Switzerland: Goth sci-fi travel guide! Alien movie art, Necronomicon paintings.

hr giger museum entrance sign

Star Beast achievement unlocked. I made it to the HR Giger Museum and Bar in Switzerland! 

While in Europe last fall, I made a weekend detour to Gruyères to see the museum dedicated to one of my favorite artists: H.R. Giger. I’m sure you’ll recognize his surrealist concept art for Alien, Species, Poltergeist 2, the never-made Dune, and other sci-fi horror films.

If you share my fascination with Giger’s biomechanical visions, then this travel story will make you want to drop everything and fly to Switzerland. Read on for a tour of the Giger museum and bar, including exclusive photos of his rare artwork inside the chateau!

cybergoth goth dancer fashion

This unassuming Swiss castle houses a motherload of dark biomechanical creatures. Open since 1998, the museum contains some of Giger’s most famous works, as well as rare early pieces and erotic art. We’re grateful to La Gruyère Tourism for the warm welcome and help with journalist access to the museum.

Outfit Details: It seemed appropriate to dress cybergoth for the occasion. My outfit is 100% Cyberdog: I layered their semi-sheer bodycon dress, alien “yogalien” tank top, and black mesh hooded long sleeved top. Cyberdog’s futuristic sci-fi fashion is sold online, as well as in their giant Camden Market store.

museum bar h.r. giger gruyeres

Giger museum access / How to get here: Photographer Joey Wong and I came from London, and it only took us 1.5 hours to fly to Geneva. We then traveled from Geneva to Gruyeres by train, using the First Class Swiss Travel Pass from Switzerland Tourism. This gave us unfettered access to the country’s trains, buses and boats; it turned out to be a beautiful journey through the countryside, which I’ll show you in an upcoming post.

Musee HR Giger address: Château St. Germain, Rue du Château 2, 1663 Greyerz, canton Fribourg, Switzerland. Gruyeres is a small town with only about 2000 inhabitants, so the museum is easy to find.

giger birth machine Gebärmaschine

The cosmic horror begins outside the museum, which is flanked by several ominous sculptures. The front entrance has a metal adaptation of his painting Gebärmaschine (“Birth Machine”) from 1967. Giger created this work as a commentary on population growth.

hr giger statues museum switzerland

The “birth machine” depicts goggled babies holding guns, sitting on bullets inside a larger pistol. Giger meant to convey that the babies would be shot out, but in fact, only their heads would be (the decapitated bodies would remain in the bullet casing). Somehow, that seems more fitting for this master of sci-fi terror!

On the left, the front staircase has the coolest handrail ever — a twisting alien spinal cord. 

visiting hr giger art museum

Starting with the exterior, the museum evokes a feeling of dark, otherworldly mystery that is quintessentially HR Giger.

(My silver futuristic hair clip is Hair DesignAccess by Sylvain Le Hen.)

hr giger biomechanical sculptures

These extraterrestrial figures convey Giger’s signature aesthetic, which he called “biomechanical.” The term describes his surrealistic approach, which fuses organic elements with the mechanical. Part human and part machine — melded together in a beautiful yet uneasy alien hybrid. 

giger alien sculpture

Giger’s forms tend to resemble human bodies, but with a deadly twist. It’s surprisingly powerful to stumble across these cosmic creatures in Gruyeres, an otherwise quaint Swiss village.

goth cyberdog cyber dress shoes

Science fiction, double feature. My magenta to purple ombre hair is by Chad Evans in Vancouver, BC.

My black leather Gothic shoes with silver buckles are similar to these boots; click below for more options.

travel guide gruyeres giger musee

This elegant building is Château St. Germain, which dates back to 1663. HR Giger visited Gruyeres several times, and had an exhibition in the village. He fell in love with the scenic region, and bought this Swiss castle in 1997.

hr giger museum outside statues

Since there was massive demand, Giger turned St Germain Castle into a museum with architect Roger Cottier. In 1998, the H.R. Giger Museum first opened its doors. It remains the permanent home to most of his key works, as well as the largest collection of his furniture, paintings and sculptures from over the years.

hr giger alien film concept art

Visitors aren’t allowed to take photographs inside, but we were lucky to have media access. Read on for exclusive images of Giger’s works within the museum. But first…

hr giger bar exterior design

… let’s head next door to the The Museum HR Giger Bar, which opened in Gruyeres in 2003! 

My dress and collar are by Cyberdog. Silver radiator bracelet by Alex Streeter.

giger bar spine shell chairs

Step inside, and your jaw will drop — it’s like entering another universe! H.R. Giger designed the bar in a way that preserves the 400 year old Gothic architecture. He heightens the cavernous effect with dramatic skeletal arches that sweep over the ceiling. 

Beneath these bony vaults are high-backed shell-like chairs. They were originally designed as a Harkonnen throne for the Dune film that never got made. (Keep reading to see another variant of the seats inside the museum).

spine roof arches giger bar

I love how Giger turned the Medieval cathedral-like space into a bio-mechanical vision of the future. What an incredible feeling to curl up in one of these spinal chairs at the circular windows, and feel like you’ve been swallowed up by an intergalactic beast.

giger bar tables windows interior

Tip: the Giger bar is extremely popular with tourists, so try to avoid lunch time and other peak hours. You may have to wait a while to get a seat at your preferred table. Above are photos from their website to give you a sense of the space and custom furniture; it was difficult to capture with all the visitors around.

h.r. giger bar seats restaurant cafe

The Gruyeres Giger bar is actually the fourth one ever built. Only one other location remains open: the H.R. Giger Bar in Chur, Switzerland (his place of birth), established 1992. The Chur interior has a similar backbone design, but it’s not as impressive as the bar beside the museum, which is the most famous one.

hr giger bar gruyeres interior skeleton

There was also a Giger Bar inside Peter Gatien’s legendary Limelight club in NYC, the site of many decadent Gothic and Club Kid parties. Sadly, when it closed in the 1990s, the bar did as well.

The earliest HR Giger bar was built in the late 1980s, in Japan! It was located in Shirokanedai, the Minato district of Tokyo. However, Giger grew dissatisfied with the Japanese builders and strict codes (for example, they couldn’t realize his idea of having private booths that doubled as individual elevators, moving up and down the bar). He ended his involvement with the Tokyo Giger bar, and it closed soon after.

bar hr giger menu alien coffee drinks

As you can see from the menu board, Bar HR Giger serves drinks and small snacks, including themed items. You can sip a Giger mojito, or dare to order the mysterious “Dark Shadow.” My Gothic preference is the HR Giger Absinthe, whcih I tried in Osaka, Japan.

The most visually interesting dish is the Alien Coffee, which comes on a wooden tray with little meringues, and honey herb liqueur.

cybergoth gothic fashion blogger

Ready to head inside Chateau St. Germain, and take a tour of the Giger Museum? Let’s do it.

chateau st germain gruyeres

Just beware… xenomorphs lurk in the ceiling corners, waiting to attack you!

So, who is this twisted genius behind these creations? Hans-Rudolf (HR) Giger was born in 1940 in Chur, an Alpine city in the eastern part of Switzerland east. He moved to Zurich to study architecture and industrial design, and became known for illustrations and paintings that fuse humans and machine.

hr giger facehugger alien art

H.R. Giger is best known as the concept artist behind Ridley Scott’s “Alien” movie, which came out in 1979 and revolutionized science fiction horror films.

Above is his visualization of the “face hugger,” the portion of the Alien’s life cycle where it attaches to your face, and implants larvae through your mouth. When the babies mature, they burst through the human host’s chest in a bloody explosion — and continue to mature and stalk more prey.

hr giger necronomicon satan devil baphomet

H. R. Giger was making terrifying imagery well before he joined the Alien movie. In 1977, he published a compendium of his art in a tome called the Necronomicon (much like HP Lovecraft’s collection of horror stories). During pre-production, director Ridley Scott got hold of the book, and immediately hired Giger to create the visuals for Alien.

The Gruyeres museum contains Spell IV, the gigantic work that graces the cover of Giger’s Necronomicon. It’s a painting of Baphomet the Sabbatic Goat, with Satanic pentagrams and serpents in his signature color palate.

alien movie ridley scott art design

Alien’s impact earned the Swiss artist an Academy Award in 1980, for Best Achievement in Visual Effects. The Oscar statue is on display if you look closely, beneath one of the ancient staircases in the museum.

Ridley Scott liked Giger’s 1976 painting “Necronom IV,” which shows a being with an elongated skull, steel-like ribcage and pointed teeth. He asked Giger to create the alien based on the design…

Xenomorph alien set props horror

… and so, Giger gave birth to Xenomorph XX121! (The name refers to the alien species, and translates to “strange form” in Greek).

The museum has several xenomorphs of various sizes, ready to pounce on you. The largest one stands tall inside this glass display case (but if you recall the Prometheus birth scene, that wouldn’t even hold a newborn alien for long…)

If you’ve seen the Alien series, you’ll know to watch out for the segmented blade-tipped tails, burning acidic blood — and double-jawed set of teeth that extend out to pierce your flesh!

li ii giger painting woman

As you walk through the museum and take in the wall-to-ceiling art, you’ll realize that Giger has an entire pantheon of dark creatures. Above is Li II, inspired by his lover at the time, actress Li Tobler. She tore up the original Li painting because she thought it made her look ugly!

giger rare art prints museum

The HR Giger Museum is larger than you’d expect from the outside. Since it’s located in a 17th century castle, there are unexpected stairwells, rooms and hallways to navigate.

I enjoyed seeing Giger’s earliest works, from the 1960s: biomechanical otherworldly forms in  acrylic and India ink on paper on wood. He truly was ahead of his time.

hr giger alien xenomorph sculpture

These busts made me think of the Alien movie tagline: “In space no one can hear you scream.”

adult erotica art hr giger

One section of the museum is adults only, and hidden behind a black curtain. Inside, the room is illuminated in red light and lined with his raciest works. Many of these sketches and sculptures have graphic imagery and Satanic overtones.

weird alien statues giger

These cyborg fantasies were particularly shocking to conservatives of his time. Looking at his works today, it’s amazing to realize how much Giger has inspired everything from cyberpunk to tech design.

Harkonnen Capo Chair hr giger Jodorowsky's dune

One of the largest rooms contains black Harkonnen Capo chairs around a table with biomechanical legs. This was one of Giger’s designs for Alejandro Jodorowsky, who was set to direct a movie adaptation of Dune, Frank Herbert’s influential sci-fi novel (and one of my personal favorites). Unfortunately, the 1976 film never got past pre-production and eventually was passed on to director David Lynch, who did not use Giger’s conceptualizations.

hr giger prints book

Where did Giger’s demonic imagination come from? Partly from night terrors. The Swiss artist kept a sketchbook next to his bed, and would jot down these visions.

hr giger satanism occult pentagram

Giger (pictured above) was known to incorporate Satanic and occult imagery into his work. He even released a Baphomet Tarot card deck. 

alien movie cosplay ripley

I channeled Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) and got into a close encounter with a Xenomorph… maybe too close. On the left, Giger’s concept art for Species, the 1995 movie starring Natasha Henstridge.

hr giger artwork sculptures surrealist

Giger had always worked with various media, but started focusing on sculptures in the mid-1990s. He’s even designed album covers and computer games over the years, always with haunting hybrids of human and machinery.

species film sci-fi design

It was a treat to see Giger’s lesser-known works, including mirrors and light fixtures… and even giant wristwatches.

hr giger self portrait

On the top level, there were these two portraits of the artist. HR Giger worked up to the end of his life in 2014, when he died from injuries after a fall on the stairs.

switzerland weird strange bizarre art

The top floor of the museum houses Giger’s personal art collection. There are works by Salvador Dali, mixed in with creepy totems picked up during his travels.

The H.R. Giger Museum Gallery also exhibits rotating works by contemporary artists, who share his love of fantasy and surrealism.

gruyeres switzerland cheateau view

Don’t forget to look out the top floor window, for this gorgeous view of Gruyeres. No wonder Giger stayed in Switzerland and built his museum here, even though he could have lived anywhere.

xenomorph head alien

As you leave, check out the Giger gift shop. It sells books, prints, cups, absinthe… or how about a giant alien head?

visiting giger museum tickets admission

Mind blown after stepping into the dystopian world of Giger. It’s amazing to have so many of his seminal works in one beautiful village.

hr giger bar chur switzerland

In the words of Alien director Ridley Scott: “At its essence, Giger’s art digs down into our psyches and touches our very deepest primal instincts and fears. His art stands in a category of its own.”

hr giger bar tokyo japan

I hope you’ll have the chance to make the journey to Gruyeres, and take photos with his deadly star beasts!

giger museum floor carvings aliens

For visiting info, here’s the website for the H.R. Giger Bar. Don’t forget to allow a lot of time in Gruyeres, as there may be a lineup. You can always hang out outside, and take photos with the alien-sculpted floor!

museum hr giger exterior entrance

And here is more info on the Museum HR Giger website, including opening hours, admission rates, tickets and more.

surrealist surreal giger art

I leave you with a line by HP Lovecraft, from his horror story “Pickman’s Model,” as I feel it captures Giger’s power.

He’s an artist who “knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear — the exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper color contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness.”

japanese giger bar alien

Are you also a fan of HR Giger’s oeuvre? Would you want to visit his Swiss bar and museum? Coming up, I’ll show you more from Gruyeres, including the chateau and cheese.

If you enjoyed this in-depth post, I hope you’ll take a minute to share it on Facebook and social media. I appreciate it, and am excited to bring more travel stories like this to you!

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