Travel

There Are Hundreds Of Gnomes Hiding Around This Millennia-Old European City

And they’re rooted in fighting fascism.

Życzliwek Podróżnik, the Traveler
Życzliwek Podróżnik, the Traveler | Wrocław Official/Flickr
Życzliwek Podróżnik, the Traveler | Wrocław Official/Flickr

Founded in the 10th century, Wrocław, Poland is home to Europe’s largest market square and rows of colorful buildings recreated post-World War I. Cathedral Island -- the oldest neighborhood in this artsy, bustling city of 643,000 -- houses some of the oldest and most stunning buildings in the city, including the red-bricked St. Martin's Chapel. More than 100 bridges span the Odra River, earning the city the nickname “The Venice of Poland.” It's the very definition of old-school European appeal.

But look closer. Amid the stunning architecture and centuries of history you’ll find yourself surrounded by… dwarves. Hundreds of them. Some are making withdrawal from tiny ATMs. Others are hailing cabs, or riding itty bitty bikes. They’re hiding in plain sight, serving as symbols of the city’s progressive present while harkening back to Poland's hard-fought victory over Stalinism. 

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Orchestra of Dwarfs at the National Forum of Music
Orchestra of Dwarfs at the National Forum of Music | Wrocław Official/Flickr

These easy-to-miss residents -- also referred to as gnomes -- stand between three and seven inches tall. Their diminutive nature makes them easy to overlook, though once you see them, you’ll learn they’re quite the little exhibitionists. You’ll find them sleeping, working on laptops, singing, snapping photos, and riding pigeons. There are hippie gnomes, biker gnomes, and painter gnomes -- there's even a full miniature orchestra, frozen mid note in a park. The official count sits at 163 statues, though some claim more than are 350 scattered around the historic city.  

Despite their whimsy, these statues are loaded with meaning, evoking Poland’s struggles against oppression. And in an era where the world is rethinking its monuments, the tiny denizens of Wrocław stand tall and proud. 

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Wroclaw gnomes
Wroclaw gnomes are seen all over Poland | Alzay/Shutterstock

Wrocław was founded in the 10th century, but its dwarf-based tradition began in the 1980s with a grassroots group called the Orange Alternative. As a form of protest against authoritarianism and censorship, the group leaned into absurdist art as a contrast to the brutalist, propaganda-based messaging of the government.

Along with distributing literature, the OA specialized in street art: Specifically, when Stalinists painted over anti-government graffiti, the Orange Alternative would stencil images atop the paint spots, opting for clowns, elves, and dwarves to highlight the inherent ridiculousness of the oppression. Eventually, these fairytale images became symbols of the movement, with the dwarf in particular holding unexpected staying power. 

The Orange Alternative disbanded in 1989, the same year Polish Communism crumbled. As tribute to the underground movement, artist Olaf Breezski erected the city’s first and largest gnome, known as Papa Kransal (“Papa Dwarf”) in the city center. But one dwarf just wasn’t enough: In 2004 the city hired artist Tomasz Moczek to create a new generation of fantasy-driven street artwork. And today, they’re everywhere. 

Moczek, who had just graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in 2003, acknowledges the ideological origins symbolic in his work, but puts his gnomes at a distance from their anti-Communist forebears. 

“I tried to make sure that my sculptures were not associated with that movement, with politics,” Moczek clarifies. “I wanted them to be universally recognized and not divisive, I wanted them to unite people…”

The artist says he sympathizes with the current movement to tear down problematic monuments, saying “It’s hard to blame people for destroying what they don't like.” However, as the only artist tasked with expanding the city’s dwarf population, he sees his creations as occupying a different emotional space: They're helping reshape the character of a millennia-old city where, until recently, saw expression tamped down. Like the city they’ve come to symbolize, the dwarves’ meaning has evolved past Stalinism. 

“I wanted them to be small, to blend in with their surroundings, to tell stories, to make people smile, to be universal and apolitical,” says Moczek. “Before World War II, (Wrocław) was a German city. Poles settled (here), but for decades they were unable to create their own culture and symbolism here. It wasn’t until (after that) my dwarves became a tourist symbol.” 

bulldozer dwarf
In case you were wondering what a dwarf on a bulldozer looked like | Wrocław Official/Flickr
Laura Studarus is a Los Angeles-based travel writer and photographer. Sometimes she can go several hours without a cup of tea. Follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter.