A Janks Archive travel log from Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia by Jessica Langley

Janks Archive is an ongoing investigation and collection of insult humor from cultures around the world. Insults are an ancient oral tradition embedded within the collective consciousness of a culture or region with inherent ties to human social evolution. How people insult one another and what is perceived to be “bad” or “unattractive” differs from place to place. While the intention appears, at first, to be cruel and negative, janks are in fact an integral aspect of human interaction, used as much to establish dominance as to strengthen camaraderie.

The collaborative project by artists Jessica Langley, Jerstin Crosby, and Ben Kinsley travels around to different countries and regions searching for unique forms of content. In 2013, Jerstin traveled to Finland to stage collection events and a gallery exhibit at Kallio Kunsthalle Taidehalli but met with challenges – mainly that Finns are notoriously shy and stoic, and were not all that willing to be on camera.


Janks Archive installation at Kallio Kunsthalle Taidehalli in Helsinki, 2013.

We were given an opportunity to return to Finland for a two month stay at the Platform residency in Vassa. The residency was seeking proposals which explore the high/low within a local culture, perfect for Janks collecting. We also learned that Vaasa is 50/50 Finnish speaking and Swedish speaking, with the majority of the Swedish-speaking Finn minority located in this region, so we thought that we might find a particularly varied sort of humor here. We wanted to return to Finland for a more in depth look into the nature of Finnish insult humor and to have a jump off point to explore Baltic Region janks as well.

Aurora Borealis (Finland)

Aurora Borealis (Finland)

Dec 1 – 10 –  Ben arrives in Vaasa, Finland

He spends this initial period doing recon. – where to buy a sim card and groceries, where nearest ping pong club meets, etc. He picks up keys to the studio and locates the public saunas.

He scopes out best possible locations for Janks Archive collection events option, which are as follows:

Platform studio (in Kasern, an old army barracks)

Sauna (perhaps not feasible)

Ferry between Vaasa and Umeå (39 Euros ea RT)

Irish Pub (O’Malleys, Sauna rental 12-20/150 Euros/3 hours)

Cafe at Ritz?

“Parliament” (The old men who meet at cafe in Mall everyday)

Rewell Center (Mall)


Dec 11 – Jess arrives by train late at night

Ben and Arvid, one of the members of Platform, pick me up at the train station and take us to the Soap Factory building where they house the residents.

Dec 12 –  I arrive sick, though first thing in the morning I attend a ping pong tournament with Ben. He wins the first round, and then loses immediately in second round. One of his competitors, when learning where Ben was visiting from asked him, “Are you a friend of whores?” Ben thinks this might be a good omen for upcoming Janks collections. We later learn this man was a sailor.

Dec 13 – I am still recovering from jet lag and being sick, and feeling pretty worried. Still, Ben and I plan out tomorrow’s route. I get to sleep all day and do not leave the residency quarters.

We are staying in an old factory building called the Soap Factory (where they once made sauna soaps) in a neighborhood called Palosaari on the North end of Vaasa. The daylight right now only lasts a few hours, so when we sleep in, we truly miss the entire day. It is very difficult to wake up before the daylight appears (around 10:00). The sun seems to immediately begin to set around 14:00.

Dec 14 – (Monday) Ben gives me a tour of the city, shows me the studio, and various points of interest. I notice how the reflectors our Finnish friends wear in the US are worn by every single person here (and are very useful in the darkness). We visit the tourist info office inside the mall and set up a meeting to see if it might be possible for Janks Archive to do a collection event at the Rewell Center (the indoor mall).


The “Visit Vaasa” kioski turned Janks Archive headquarters.

Dec 15 – We have a meeting with Magnus, from “Visit Vaasa” with the idea to collect janks at Rewell, but instead he recommends “The Kiosk” which functions as the tourist info booth in the market square during the summer months. However, the office has moved inside Rewell Center for the winter, and they often rent it out to various people during this time. While our initial idea was to do the project inside the very warm Rewell Center, the kiosk offers a different kind of opportunity. It is centrally located, and would offer people the option to be interviewed in private (as opposed to in front of many passersby), which Magnus thinks might be a more effective method with Finns. We immediately begin taking measurements of the kiosk and start planning an installation. He recommends we begin collecting Saturday, before the holidays, as this is the busiest time of year in Market Square. This leaves us exactly 3 days to prepare. Magnus still needs to confirm with the Max, the person in charge, so we begin to price out all materials and design banners, waiting for his final confirmation before committing.

The banners are going to be made out of lightweight black fabric which can withstand being outside in the cold, wet, and snowy Finnish weather. We will cut the letters out of reflective fabric, in reference to the reflectors we see everyone wearing. We wanted the signs to be visible in low light (which is all the light we have at this time). We decide to make three banners, featuring three janks: one in English collected in Pittsburgh, PA during the Pittsburgh Biennial; one in Swedish told to us earlier that day by an employee at EuroKangas; and one in Finnish that Ben heard by a member of Platform on his second day here.  

Banner Translations: (Finnish) Sinulla ei taida olla kaikki Muumit laaksossa /You don’t have all the Moomins in the Valley

(Swedish) Han har nog inte allting hemma/ She doesn’t have everything at home

*Both are commonly used to say someone is a bit empty-headed.

JANKS ARCHIVE PUBLIC LECTURE: We give a lecture in the studio and collected 7 Janks in Finnish, Swedish, and Romanian. Ben’s theory that there is a particular way Finnish people insult each other is proving to be true. There are numerous variations on a theme: You don’t have all the Moomins in the Valley, You don’t have all the Indians in the canoe, etc. We look forward to the Kiosk collection to see if we can find even more!

Dec 16 –  We receive confirmation that we can use Kiosk, and we get it for FREE, thanks to Max at Visit Vaasa. (We rejoice!) We buy materials for banners and begin working immediately – there is no time to lose!

Once we collect all the materials, we head back to the studio to work. We trace and cut out all the letters from reflective fabric. We also begin work on our sandwich board.

Dec 17 – We continue working on banners, cutting and glueing letters, and painting the sign.


Ben and Jessica creating banners for the Vassa kiosk collection event.

Dec 18  – We complete banners then bring all materials to Kiosk 


The highlight of the day is when we are interviewed by Vasabladet, the local Swedish newspaper.

One man has several janks which break with the common theme of telling someone they are stupid. These translate (from Finnish) to: Your hair is like the forest, though not at thick, but just as full of life. Your eyes are like the stars, though not as bright, but just as far apart. Your shoulders are like barn doors, though not as wide, but just as rotten.

Collecting janks inside the kioski.

Collecting janks inside the kioski.

JANK OF THE DAY:  (translated to English from Finnish) Your hair is like a forest, not as thick but as full of life”.

Dec 20 – DAY 2 OF JANKS ARCHIVE – VAASA COLLECTION  – It continues to get colder. We are around 0 Celsius now. Many people ignore us, but some stop to inquire what we are doing, or pause long enough for us to explain what we’re doing. The highlight of the day is when an older woman from Amnesty International agreed to participate only if we donate 1 Euro to her bucket.

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JANK OF THE DAY: (translated to English from Finnish) You crazy man from Huittinen! You eat more than you earn.

Dec 21 – DAY 3 OF JANKS ARCHIVE – VAASA COLLECTION – Two young women tell us an idiom commonly told to them by their respective grandmothers (they are not related). They are both from the countryside within Ostrobothia, the specific region we are in, and they speak a particular dialect.  We learn that many of the older generation have these kinds of insulting jokes, but when we try to approach older people at the kiosk, we are repeatedly ignored. We think this is not exclusively about a language barrier.

JANK OF THE DAY:  “Har du tomtar på loftet?” is Swedish for “Do you have gnomes in your attic?”

Dec 22 – DAY 4 OF JANKS ARCHIVE – VAASA COLLECTION – We are pretty worn out and don’t expect many people to stop, but we are visited by a group of teenagers who are quite enthusiastic and a couple who teach at the Swedish school and teach in the Department of Peace. At first they are highly skeptical of our project, but when we explain why we’re collecting, the woman begins to express interest and sees an immediate benefit to her Peace students. We hope she returns, but she does not.

JANK OF THE DAY: (translated to English from Finnish): “Your face looks like the ass of a bird of prey”

Total number of Janks collected so far in Vaasa = 43

Dec 23 –  Christmas begins – we spend next few days on the archipelago, Replot, with family. Sauna, ice dip, repeat.

Dec 27 – We leave Replot for New Year’s in Helsinki – we visit a few galleries that were open (though almost everything was closed for the holidays), see Helsinki Design District, visit Kiasma and Taidehalli. Go to Suomenlinna – a Unesco World Heritage site

Jan 2 – We return to Vaasa and prepare for collections and exhibitions in Riga, Latvia and Kaunas, Lithuania

Jan 3 – We begin edit of Kiosk collection to add to “Eternal Insult” video installation. We will screen this in Riga, Jan 8 at KKC and Kaunas, Jan 10 at Post Gallery

Jan 6 – After a very brisk 30 minute walk, we travel by train from Vaasa to Helsinki, catch a ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia, then take a bus from Tallinn to Riga. Lastly, we step into a cab blasting polka music to reach our final destination. We will spend 2.5 days in Riga hosted by DJ and musician Edgars Zilde

Jan 7  – We have a day and a half to be tourists, so we visit the small Medieval town of Cesis where our friend, who is a visual anthropologist has an exhibition about Latvians living in Norway and Norwegians living in Latvia. It is extremely cold today (-20 C). We take a short hike to the River Gauja.

Jan 8 – The beginning of the day we visit NOASS, a floating art gallery in Riga then we visit kim? contemporary art gallery. It is too cold (-25 C) to be outside for much longer, so we head home and prepare for our event at KKC later that night.


We learned from a friend in Cleveland that to say a basic insult in Latvian (Go Fuck Off), translates to “Go Pick Mushrooms.” So, we are interested to learn if there are more nature themed insults and if any of these are considered humorous or clever (basically, if they fit into the structure of our project).

Janks Archive at Kaņepes Kultūras centra, Riga, Latvia

Janks Archive at Kaņepes Kultūras centra, Riga, Latvia

People begin to arrive around 30 minutes before the event begins. We are screening the Eternal Insult video installation in their cinema and hoping to talk to people all night. Everyone pours into the space where we have our camera and microphone ready. Unbeknownst to us, everyone is expecting an introduction to our project. So, we clumsily announce what we’re doing then begin trying to convince people to sit in front of the camera. Thankfully, there were some people who were not shy who break the ice early on, and we begin. We talk to people from all over the place, including many Latvians, but also some men from Spain, a woman from Egypt, an American, a man from Southern India, and some Germans. I think we have collected around 35 different “janks.”

Our friend Edgars had a great suggestion for us, as well. We implement a new strategy to help us with transcribing and translation in the future. He suggests that we have everyone write down their joke, then we write the translation and hang the posts on the wall of the space. Over the course of the evening, we see the entire collection as it grows.


Having participants write down their jank really helps with translation later.

JANK OF THE DAY: A woman from Egypt tells us one insult she heard from her grandmother. Delivered in Arabic the jank is roughly translated to: Your mother is like a cockroach who sees her children on the wall and thinks they are beautiful pearls.

Jan 9 – Edgars drives us around Riga and gives a little tour of the city, so that we can see some of the beautiful Russian and Art Nouveau architecture as well as some of the Soviet era buildings. We board a bus to Kaunas, Lithuania, and our contact meets us at the bus station. We drop off equipment at POST Gallery, and set up our installation. We are hosted by curator and performance artist Vaida Tamoševičiūtė.

Jan 10 – We rest for most of the morning and make our way to the gallery to finish preparing around 2pm.


The event begins at 5pm, and, as expected, people arrive promptly at 5pm. We are prepared to introduce ourselves and the project, and Vaida translates for everyone present. She and her friend, Aura, are extremely helpful throughout the event.

Janks Archive collection in Kaunas.  (photo courtesy of POST gallery)

Janks Archive collection in Kaunas. (photo courtesy of POST gallery)

There is a steady stream of willing participants and our conversations move from discussing the meanings behind many American janks from the video installation, to soviet era insults, to the differences in language in general. For example, in Lithuanian, there are many terms for different parts of the boot, whereas in English, we only really describe it either as the upper, sole or heel. One joke was almost untranslatable because we don’t have a term for the upper part of the boot over the shin.

Highlight of the day: A soviet era insult translates to: if you were born a waffle, you can never be a cake.

Jan 11 – We take a bus from Kaunas back to Riga and stay overnight. I think we must be homesick because we opt for (veggie) burgers for dinner.

Jan 12 – We take an early bus from Riga to Tallinn, Estonia and we tour this gorgeous Medieval city for a day.

Jan 13 – We take an early ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki, then a train back to a very snowy Vaasa.

Jan 14-22 –  We spend our days editing the videos, and tracking down translations for all the different languages, which include; 3 Italian dialects, Portuguese, Catalan, Arabic, Lativian, Lithuanian, Finnish, Swedish, Romanian, and Telegu. We plan for our screening event on Jan. 23rd.


Eternal Insult installation

Jan 23 – We have a scheduled screening of “The Eternal Insult” with all the new Finnish/Swedish/Latvian/Lithuanian janks added and final collection event at our studio for Saturday, January 23 from 2-6pm. We use this opportunity for one final Vaasa collection event as well. Luckily, one man comes to our event, tells us 3 different Finnish insults, and enlightens us to the Finnish term for “janks”!

Heittää herjaa (to throw slander)

JANK OF THE DAY: Your face looks like an Elephant’s cunt. Apparently a common (and quite rude) way to say someone looks very pissed off.

Jan 24 – We have been planning to stage another text intervention, and this time we carry our sandwich board into the forest. We spend a few hours in the cold and snowy woods, shooting in 3 different locations. We are hoping this image can be used for future promotion and exhibitions. Hot tea and karjalan pirakka follows.

Jan 25 – Jan 31 – With just one week left and we spend the remaining time tying up all loose ends for the work we’ve done for the past two months. This mainly entails updating the various web outlets, retouching photos, adding subtitles, and correcting translations.

Jan 30 – We met with some people on our last night in Helsinki at Kafe Mockba (Kafe Moscow), a “stagnation monument” of the Soviet era, owned by brothers, Aki and Mika Kaurismäki, famous Finnish directors. Here we talk at length about Finnish politics, including the rather dark news of a new resurgence in a nationalistic, anti-refugee hate group called the “Soldiers of Odin”. We also learn about another Finnish insult which is lingonberry-themed: You are spinning like a lingonberry in a vagina, meaning that you are confused, lost, or stumbling. This is in reference to the Kalevala, the national epic poem of Finland, in which a virgin, Marjatta, is immaculately impregnated by a lingonberry. This, of course, is a gem, but we hear one more highly visual Finnish Jank: Your nose is dripping like a groom’s penis.

Mariatta, child of beauty,

Lived a shepherd-maid for ages,

As a virgin with her mother.

Wretched are the lives of shepherds,

Lives of maidens still more wretched,

Guarding flocks upon the mountains;

Serpents creep in bog and stubble,

On the greensward dart the lizards;

But it was no serpent singing,

Nor a sacred lizard calling,

It was but the mountain-berry

Calling to the lonely maiden:

“Come, O virgin, come and pluck me,

Come and take me to thy bosom,

Take me, tinsel-breasted virgin,

Take me, maiden, copper-belted,

Ere the slimy snail devours me,

Ere the black-worm feeds upon me.

Hundreds pass my way unmindful,

Thousands come within my hearing,

Berry-maidens swarm about me,

Children come in countless numbers,

None of these has come to gather,

Come to pluck this ruddy berry.”

Jan 31 – We return to NYC.

For more janks visit www.JanksArchive.org