Started by squatters. Now the Dalai Lama comes here.


When the Soviet Union lowered the Iron Curtain and Lithuania gained its independence in 1990, it wasn't long before artists and rebels took up a residence in an abandoned house by the River Vilnia.

They congregated in the courtyard outside their front door, played tennis out the windows and collaborated with the artists next door. They eventually opened gallery and living space there; a way to get their visions seen outside of the mainstream galleries, where it was too hard to get into.

People ended up like this set-up better and over time Uzupis became a mecca for the kind of people who NEED to create -- paintings, sculptures and other works of art, ideas, community, change and revolution.

Which is what they did. In the 1990s, they created their own official district, with a constitution that includes a dog's right to be a dog, to be yourself and to remember your name -- a challenge to the Soviet system that stripped you of yours if the Brown Shirts arrested you for speaking out.

It's an official district and still home to a thriving art community, who have their own Parliament. Rasa (pictured here) and the others meet at the Uzupis bar, where they talk ideas over beer. Uzupis has its own holidays, a Tibetan square, and a post office. Tourists can get their passports stamped and send letters.

The Uzupis constitution is translated into dozens of langages.

Walk the streets of Vilnius today and tourists dot the streets, snapping photos. They photograph the angel statue, the squatters' house now renovated, and the murals. Behind the walls, artists like Rasa, who wandered over the bridge as a college student and whose heart never came back, is a fabric artist.

The core community of Uzupis is small; 30 or so people. They built the Tibetan Square despite opposition from the Chinese government representatives, Rasa says. A few years ago, the Dalai Lama came.

What tourists are really photographing, must be, is the victory of an idea for a group of like-minded people to create a true community for themselves that exists outside any structure someone else made for them ... that would never quite fit.

Rasa spent the afternoon taking me all over and letting us in. Look for more stories from her soon!