Thomas Hetze’s eyes shine as he stands in “his factory”. Originally from Frankenberg, Thomas used to work here at the former publicly owned dye works in Limbach-Oberfrohna, Saxony, as a textile dyer operating a textile finishing machine. For him, this place is full of memories. The company was shut down in 1997 and the huge site comprising factory and administrative buildings has stood empty for almost 20 years. Nature has long since begun to reclaim it. Shrubs and trees grow rampantly over the site, ferns sprout through window joints; in some sections of the buildings, the roof has been split open.

At the end of August/beginning of September, this year’s ibug-art is taking place in the fascinatingly morbid surroundings of the old dye works. In German, ibug is an abbreviation of “Industriebrachenumgestaltung”, meaning brownfield site regeneration. According to the festival flyer, the aim is “to create a space for art, for people to meet, to learn, share, create and not least to experience a truly special and unique expression of life.” Started in 2005 by street artist Tasso, who hails from Meerane near Zwickau, ibug is now an established international street art festival.

120 artists from 17 countries have contributed to ibug this year. For two weeks, they cleared up and laid bare the space, then sprayed, painted, glued and installed their works. The history of the building and the remains the previous owners left behind – old files, empty bottles of cleaning fluid, bills of delivery, trucks, dangling electric cables and old distributor boxes – have all become part of the art installations. In the middle of provincial Saxony, an artwork has been created with international resonance. A festival of modern art with performances, readings, parties, film showings and an art market.

Starting during the creative stage, there was an intensive dialogue with the people of Limbach-Oberfrohna, which continues throughout the festival weekends. On a bright sunny day, a group of visitors including young art tourists, lots of locals and those who used to work here and bring their memories with them, like Thomas Hetze, are going on a tour of discovery. They stand staring in amazement at the three metre high mural by Mexican artist Vera Primavera, at a textile installation by the Onkel brothers from Glauchau and numerous other works, large and small.

“It’s the older visitors who used to work at the factory in particular who really take a close interest in ibug. That impresses me time and again. Often it’s the first time that they will have experienced street art as an artistic form as opposed to just scribbles that deface buildings,” explains Mandy Fischer from Meerane. This is the tenth time she has taken part. Dorothee Liebscher nods in agreement. The 29-year-old is a guide who shows visitors around the site. She arrived during the creative stage, spoke with the individual artists and is able to pass on the information she gleaned to the visitors. Like all those helping out, the art student is a volunteer. Alongside the founding principle of ibug – turning brownfield sites into temporary art spaces – it is this feeling of community that motivates artists and helpers alike. “It’s truly unique and something special.”

During the conversation, Thomas Hetze remains in the factory building, fascinated by what he sees. “It’s crazy what they’ve done to the place,” he murmurs quietly. In his hand he holds an envelope containing the last letter he received from his former employer, which he found recently when clearing out. Then he continues the journey of artistic discovery through his own history.

All pictures ©Patrick Richter