Graffiti and Street Art as a Means of Social Communication

by Ina Valentinova

In the beginning of the 1990s, following the change of the political regime in Bulgaria, the young, in search of a new subcultural identity, began re-creating phenomena such as street art, graffiti, hip-hop, punk and skate in a local context. They noticed these countercultures of common descent as phenomena in foreign films, books, publications and music from the West. The first “scratched” walls appeared in places where exactly such marginal groups gathered. Thus, teens started, in addition to skating and listening to new music, expressing themselves in a way which firmly stated their stand in the world where we live.            

The dispute over who first started the graffiti movement is unproductive, as we can trace the human’s need to express themselves leaving a pictogram in a public environment as far back as the prehistoric times. (The earliest wall paintings discovered in our lands are dated between 3,000 and 1,200 BC and are located in the Magura Cave, Vidin province.) The internal reasons that led to the creation of these paintings were as close to the motives that drive the contemporary graffiti artists, who work intuitively and without expectations for anything in return. Through this visuality, they implement social communication.            

We can also link today’s origination of the graffiti culture to the hard to find amateur sprays with variable internal pressure, which makes the painting contour uneven when spraying. At that time, there were no specialised paints for making street art. That is why we study creativity through the meaning of the work of art and the variety of styles of the different artists, and not seek the original.  

In 1989, Simon Varsano wrote in black shoe spray the political slogan “Todor Beria Zhivkov” and as a result, on the night of March 10th of the same year he was shot with several bullets in the leg by the militsiya for this.[1] Graffiti with the symbol of anarchy and the hippie movement appeared at different locations in the capital city in the years immediately before 1989 and after that, especially in the centre on the walls of the Notary’s Office next to the Patriarch Evtimiy monument, also known as “Popa” (“The Priest”), or in residential areas such as Zone B-5.  Then we also noticed individual contemporary artists, who penetrated the urban environment in the hooligan spirit of these graffiti, such as the artists from Group XXL, who wrote “Kosyo, Houben, Tushev” in central locations in Sofia in the 1990s.[2] A graffito as a means of communication is also attractive to other artists from the next generation. The emblematic writing “There is always someone cutting something somewhere with a flex-cutter“, which appeared anonymously for years on end on walls in Sofia, turned out to be authored by Vikenti Komitski, who revealed this in 2009 at his first solo exhibition at Vaska Emanouilova gallery”. [3] 

For these authors, graffiti are a format in which they can send a message in the public space, whereas others believe the graffiti art is a distinct art and purposefully work towards its development as such. Some of the first names* that started experimenting with graffiti in Bulgaria[4] were MAD in Sofia, UGS crew in Plovdiv, NASIMO and SCUM from LBC crew in Targovishte, ESTEО and DILOM in Burgas, etc.            

Some artists in Bulgaria have been drawing street art and graffiti for more than twenty years now and have a staggeringly large number of drawings and tags in the public space. The existence of the term bombing is not accidental, from the English “bomb” – this is an illegal piece of graffiti which happens very fast, sometimes within several seconds or minutes and at night, so as the artists would not be noticed, and is not very complicated as a drawing. Bombing is not some basic means of expression as the precision in working with spray and the making of accurate contour and quickly drawn colourful spots at the background require well-rehearsed skills. A bomb “explodes” at a striking speed and takes immediate control of the environment: “The most important thing in bombing is the feeling and the adrenaline. I pick a place and I start. It’s basic, you’ve got no limitations. It is a fast instrument and a direct medium – you see the result immediately,“ says ХРОМЕ. The artist deems such an artistic product an intuitive method of creation. He is one of the most active artists, who writes his alias in Cyrillic and uses dozens of different fonts. A large number of his typography images are site-specific, some of them borrow elements from the socialist legacy and the recent past, focusing on an unconventional perspective and scale. He is also one of the first artists who started photo documenting what happened in the streets in 2000 and years later published a small print run of the art book.

XPOME

XPOME, 2012.

Graffiti

Details

  • Photographer: Ina Ivanova
  • Material: spraypaint on metal

  • Property of: Ina Ivanova
  • Description: personal archive of the author of the article
  • References: https://terminal3.bg/xpome/

Sofia 9х13, whose name originated namely from the size of the photographs he collected. ХРОМЕ conserved graffiti which have long been covered by others in time and tells in turn that one of the goals of this is to have an educational effect on young writers (from the English writers – those who write, not scratch), so that they would take the environment into consideration. As a whole, it is difficult to discuss any continuity between the artists, more likely there are types of initiations. This is a world with a hidden hierarchy and unwritten rules, but nevertheless the scene in Bulgaria is so chaotic that some graffiti only exist from today for tomorrow and are crossed (from the English “cross” – go from one side to another, draw a line across something) or destroyed by citizens or government institutions. Artists such as PORN (PXRN) share the idea behind the choice of this very alias.

PXRN

Pasting by PXRN, 2004.

Graffiti

Details

  • Material: paper pasting on wall

  • Property of: PXRN

PXRN

Graffiti by PXRN, 2006.

Graffiti

Details

  • Material: spraypaint

  • Property of: PXRN

“In the beginning of 2000 this was the most adequate way to describe reality in the totally messed-up, dirty, chaotic, and at the same time beautiful post-Communist Bulgarian scenery.” A similar impression gave a tag by FARS (“Lighthouse”), whose name came from one of the architectural sights in his home city, the lighthouse at Varna Marine Station, but if we find the tag in a specific situation in the urban environment, it describes a reaction to our everyday life.

FARS

Graffiti by FARS, 2013.

Graffiti

Details

  • Photographer: Ina Ivanova
  • Material: spraypaint

  • Property of: Ina Ivanova
  • Description: personal archive of the author of the article

various artists

View from Marine station Varna, 2012.

Graffiti

Details

  • Photographer: Ina Ivanova

“I select untended parts of the urban infrastructure, things that deserve some paint on them. The municipalities do not take care of their external, let alone their internal structures, they couldn’t care less, and the cans contain strong glue which seals and is water-resistant,” artist KLOK shared his personal cause. His passion for contemporary art in its various forms and his work in graphic techniques such as lithography and drypoint is revealed in his attitude to the narrative, which often mixes political and folklore motifs and details when he paints on walls.

Other artists such as NASIMO share that they also comply “with the surrounding buildings, the general mood present in the air, and with the dominant colours”. Nowadays, he paints legal graffiti walls and makes exhibitions of paintings and thus has the time and focus necessary to work in detail and continuously develop in term of his technique.

NASIMO

Work in progress by NASIMO, 2013.

Graffiti

Details

  • Photographer: Ina Ivanova
  • Material: spraypaint on wall

  • Property of: Ina Ivanova
  • Description: personal archive of the author of the article
  • References: www.nasimo.org
       

In this way, he is able to seek emotionality in the matter and the body for a much longer period of time, and link it to the spiritual development of the human, “my work is often connected with the universal human values and the soul as the part of us which everyone has and carries in this body.” NASIMO also works in the field of self-publishing and created the publications Napalm Graffix in 2007 and A Graffiti of Cats in 2015. Another interesting self-published work is the book Ferret, Polecat or Feral Acts: My Stuff and the Graffiti Scene in Bulgaria from 2001 to 2016 by POR (“Ferret”).  

NASIMO

Graffiti by NASIMO, 2013.

Graffiti

Details

  • Photographer: Ina Ivanova
  • Material: paper pasting on wall

  • Property of: Ina Ivanova
  • Description: personal archive
 

Today, some graffiti artists such as NASIMO, BOZKO, PORN, etc. can have their exhibitions organised in galleries as well, but they just as easily recreate their ideas in the street too, “the only limitation in a canvas is the size,” says NASIMO. In their canvases and sculptures, as in PORN’s case, we see a heavily figurative world, slightly dark, heavily critical of the political systems and seeking the utopian.            

Not all artists work only individually; some of them set up crews (from the English crew – a team, association). “Working in a team leads to numerous and more complicated problems than one can cause. Ideas are enriched and develop,” shared RAGS – one of the most colourful contemporary crews. RAGS do both legal and illegal walls. This happens to many of the authors; when they become professional artists, they need more time to superimpose various ideas in their wall paintings: “There are two types of street spray painting. The illegal, fast painting, which needs to be well-planned in advance, and the legal one, in which you have enough time and a preliminarily developed design. Most often, in our case, when we do something we haven’t foreseen the final result.” RAGS’s mural are distinguished by their saturated and bright painting tonalities, forming a multitude of intertwined motifs – figurative, abstract, and natural.

Another popular crew is DESTRUCTIVE CREATION with their motto “You could have done it yourself”, which obviously aims at activating the artistic environment and the accidental audience in the streets. The artists became world-famous with their provocation painting the Soviet Army monument in Sofia, where the soldiers were converted into popular art images, and the Soviet symbolism was replaced with characters from the consumerist culture. The writing under the monument read “Keeping abreast of the times”. After that, the group continued to carry out such interventions on monuments, which were discussed at length. The opinions on the topic are controversial, the collective was also one of the reasons there was any dialogue on the topic of street art in Bulgaria. Their projects nowadays include the transformation and repair of objects from the urban environment such as benches, pipes, bus stations, noticeboards, etc. similar acts are performed by the crew TRANSFORMATORI, who reconsider and comply with the architectural sights and also develop them. Such collectives nowadays carry out mainly legal acts. Nevertheless, graffiti culture is obviously part of their style. On the question of legal and illegal paintings, most artists state that graffiti are illegal paintings that exist only in the street, whereas those which are legal comprise contemporary murals. Others claim that creating graffiti is an art process which can be expressed on both legal and illegal walls. Thus, when the artists work on legal walls, they have much more time to create something using developed details, while the illegal “pieces” are intuitive and the most important aspects in them are the feeling and territoriality. “Legal walls”, however, involve aesthetic endeavours which bring them closer to the word mural – muralism. Most active writers practise both.            

One of the most productive crews features significant female participation - MOUSE. She is a solo artist, but is part of FAMOU (a crew including Aleksi Ivanov) and of SUNSHINERS (with Nikkawhy).

MOUSE

Street art by MOUSE, 2018.

Graffiti

Details

  • Material: spraypaint and paint

  • Property of: MOUSE

These are crews with exceptionally recognisable colourful characters (from the English word characters – used in the graffiti world to explain figurative characters) and some of the few working by intuition, but they consider the project in advance and always conform it to the environment, including already present objects. Their characters seem magical, comic, somewhat frightening and extremely unusual, and can be seen peeping behind facades and electrical switchboards all around the country, mostly in Varna, Veliko Tarnovo and Sofia. Artists such as MOUSE, Aleksi Ivanov and Nikolay Bozhinov created an exceptionally interesting phenomenon in the graffiti and street art circles.  They brought out in the streets their idea about how a present-day gallery functions. At the beginning of graffiti culture, the term graffiti gallery was connected with neglected and abandoned buildings and structures, which were completely scratched and painted on the inside, and often such locations were used by the artists to study new styles of painting and typography and to exchange ideas. “Unlike the gallery in its broad sense, in the illegal ones there is no gallerist or a curator, you don’t choose the audience, you don’t own your work, you don’t know how long it will exist or its fate,” said Alexi. These two crews, however, are so active that the abandoned buildings became full and their paintings started to make the urban environment more unconventional, look for a way to share and make them public and spread in the main streets of the big cities. Thus they created a parallel magical world, in which their characters communicated with one another, and also with the passers-by. An example of a graffiti became the Kapana quarter in Plovdiv, where active local artists such as STERN and Yordan Terziyski operate, and works by NASIMO, Aleksi, MOUSE and 140ideas can be seen.           

MOUSE

Work in progress by MOUSE, 2018.

Painting

Details

  • Material: paint

  • Property of: MOUSE
  

Aleksi Ivanov and Ina Valentinova

Street art by ALeksi Ivanov and Ina Valentinova, 2016.

Street Art

Details

  • Photographer: Ina Ivanova
  • Material: spraypaint and paint on wall

  • Property of: Ina Ivanova
    

Aleksi, Ina, Tochka and Lazo

Street art by Aleksi, Ina, Tochka and Lazo, 2018.

Street Art

Details

  • Photographer: Ina Ivanova
  • Material: spraypaint and paint on wall

Aleksi Ivanov is an artist who integrates objects from the urban environment in his work and his characters interact with large objects, this is also how he first started his own project for painting the street transformer enclosures. The transformer enclosures were first noticed by other writers and were recognised as art objects, and later municipal projects for mass recreation of these otherwise ungainly facilities were organised.            

Other contemporary artists also create visually interesting characters by using devices from the graffiti culture such as stencils and stickers to make prominent pop-art worlds such as the cosmic colour of Kokimoto and Yasen Zgurovski.            

While the artists themselves demonstrate a positive and emancipated attitude to those who perceive them -  it is no accident they work in the street – the very audience then has a completely polarized attitude. There is almost no one who is critical of the ugly, kitsch graphic design of the advertisements and posters flooding the streets and causing a terrifying visual noise, but as long as graffiti are mentioned, everybody is disturbed. Here comes the question whether there is a lack of basic aesthetic perceptions and cultural awareness of such contemporary subculture movements. Or why there are no situations in our country in which graffiti writers are appreciated even in their illicit acts, such as for instance the phrase common in Western Europe “they caught us and let us finish”. Some associations in Bulgaria work towards solving this problem and showing the public that graffiti can be something beautiful, setting up festivals and renovating blind walls, facades, schools, etc. there are festivals organised for commercial and advertising purposes, but also ones that try to train the wide public into potential connoisseurs. There are various approaches to introducing the visual culture in a gallery or in the street. Festivals are one of the methods to encompass a wider audience which will realise the overall context: why graffiti are an art, and not only vandalism, although in fact they are both. Wall writings from the largest graffiti fest in Bulgaria in terms of scale, organised by the Amorpha Youth Foundation, can still be seen at the breakwater in Varna. Amorpha have always aimed at working with professional and very young writers and in general with people of different ages and levels in terms of art perception, and also at organising joint events such as graffiti demonstrations, lectures, discussions, workshops and the traditional spray painting on walls, facades and large-scale works, which for some artists are the first chance to prove themselves in such a format. Their goal is not only to change the general perception of the public of the graffiti culture, but also to familiarise various professional guilds with this topic. Their Archigraph project includes architects and graffiti artists with the purpose to create a vision of a preliminarily considered urban plan and graffiti, which are designed simultaneously with regard to the architectural vision of the building and are integrated in it. Professional graffiti artists have sufficient skills to work not only illegal walls, but also work with greater visibility and a larger audience at a certain stage of their work. Amorpha were also the first crew that started to relate graffiti and street art projects to specific causes, be they ecological, cultural, etc. there also other festivals which attempt at offering solutions to urban environment problems, such as the Urban Creatures editions and the We All Write festival, organised by the 140ideas crew, Goloka Fest, etc.            

A wonderful format that summarises the entire graffiti scene in Bulgaria is the first graffiti and street art magazine on the Balkans – the Balcans Magazine, which covers artists from all over the world, presents dozens of new walls in every edition and records interviews with key writers from the graffiti and street art world.

              

Although a large part of the accidental audience in the street do not differentiate between a teen scratch and the work of a professional painter, graffiti or street artist, we can trace the work of a number of writers, organisations and festivals that try to express themselves in a lasting manner through the ease of this artistic language, and also include it as a preliminarily considered vision of part of the contemporary urban architecture. In the living and developed parts of the big cities in the country we can see various styles and ideas of different artists, who share their personal attitude to the environment and direct our focus to specific objects and social problems in the public space.            

[1] Nikolov, Toni., The Varsano affair or the resistance against the paralysing fear, Kultura web portal, 15.03.2018

[2] Ruenov, Ruen., Kosyo, Houben, Tushev, the Kultura newspaper, 17 December 2010

[3] Kuyumdzhieva, Svetlana., The man with the Sawzall, the Kultura newspaper, 20 March 2009

[4] Almost all artists in the article will be referred to by their aliases, and not by their real names.

Ina Valentinova and Valko Chobanov

Street art by Ina Valentinova and Valko Chobanov, 2015.

Street Art

Details

  • Material: paint on wall

  • Property of: Ina Ivanova

Kremena Tsankova

Work in progress by Kremena Tsankova, 2013.

Graffiti

Details

  • Photographer: Ina Ivanova
  • Material: paint

  • Property of: Ina Ivanova
  • Description: personal archive of the author of the article

BILKO

Graffiti by BILKO, 2013.

Graffiti

Details

  • Photographer: Ina Ivanova
  • Material: spraypaint on wall

NOKA

Graffiti by NOKA, 2017.

Graffiti

Details

  • Photographer: Ina Ivanova
  • Material: spraypaint on wall

Nitro and Okis

Graffiti by NITRO and OKIS, 2011.

Graffiti

Details

  • Material: spraypaint on wall

  • Property of: Nitro