Urban Art in Russia, Part 2: Soviet hip-hop and Russian street art community (1980s—2008)

We continue serie of articles about Urban art in Russia. In 4 articles we try to describe story from Avant-garde, Moscow actionism to graffiti/street Art and socially engaged Urban Art with analyse today situation of expropriation by commercial and governmental structures.

This is the second part about infiltration of hip hop in the USSR of 1980s, formation and development of the graffiti and street art community.

 

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The American version of the graffiti came to the USSR in the 1980s, at the same time as the fashion for break dance, where the dancers were largely the guides of hip hop culture and adopted dance techniques and scene decoration choices for their performances.

 

 

The 1980s became the peak of interest in hip hop culture; it was during that period that the first wave of break dance festivals occurred, mostly in the cities of the Baltic States [1], where hip hop had evolved more actively because of the proximity to Europe. In the mid-1980s a community of b-boys actively formed in then-Soviet Moscow that later became a place of meetings and contests.

 

Max Navigator 1990s

Max Navigator 1990s

The first domestic graffiti-writers, which largely came out of hip hop culture, are considered Krys (from “krysa” – rat in Russian) from Riga, Basket from Moscow and Max Navigator from Kaliningrad. Riga had a rich cultural life at the time, including that related to counterculture phenomena; in Kaliningrad Polish television was broadcasted, where it was possible to see representatives of Western hip hop; and to Moscow information came through a few intellectuals and nonconformists going abroad.

From the 1980s to mid-1990s graffiti in Russia was sporadic and only towards the end of the 1990s it had more of a mass character. It was related to access to information, which was coming avalanche-like with the popularization of the Internet, as well as to using graffiti in the entertainment market and for commercial purposes (advertising on TV and in magazines).

 

 

A major role in the popularization of graffiti in the 1990s Russian break-dance team Da Boogie Crew played. When going abroad to attend festivals, their dancers often brought various hip hop magazines and videos. Later they became columnists in youth magazines and TV and radio presenters. Festivals held on a regular basis since 1999 till 2010 [2] also had important influence on the development of graffiti in Russia – they became a meeting place for participants of vast graffiti community.

 

  • Code

 

In the early 2000s the first experiments to find new forms of graffiti could be seen. A font as a fundamental element was either missing or submerged in such graffitist. Pioneers in this regard were Make, Kirill KTO (“kto” – “who” in Russian), Code and Fet One. For the most part, in their first experiments the artists focused on the storyline and on building a concise recognizable image that could be associated with them. Although it was fundamentally different from traditional graffiti, many of these works still functioned based on the same pattern of subcultural games with taking into little account of the context and without communication with the public.

In their experiments some of the artists came to absolutely atypical instruments. For instance, in 2006 being in permanent search for meaning and new ways of expression, street artist Pasha 183 [3] opened a new art form such as Underground Light Art (U.L.A), which was projecting still images in underground mines and tunnels. In this multi-year project the artist combined his two passions – art and exploration of underground spaces.

Other artists also tried to move away from the standard canons of graffiti and shifted to more performative, spatially-compositional, and contextual urban art. For example, in the mid-2000s several good Moscow crews working in a more figurative and experimental format such as Zukclub, Sicksystems, Influx, Style Konstruktor, 310 squad, Nëk, and No Future Forever became active. In addition to spray, stickers, posters and stencils were used by them most actively.

 

  • Scissor, Zuk Club, Misha MOST

 

At that time another very interesting technique was the practice of hacking urban advertising. This technique was used by art group Search & Upgrade whose members changed dozens of advertising boards in St. Petersburg.

 

 

The situation with the development of local subcultural media greatly contributed to the processes of search and activation. The first of such media were published in 2002 and 2003 [4] and mainly contained relevant works of graffiti masters. However, magazines that appeared a couple of years later became more significant in terms of understanding graffiti culture. For example, the Code Red magazine, the first issue dated by 2005, came out to a whole new level of visual and notional content. The first attempts to draw the reader's eye to more figurative forms of street art, as well as to rallying participants of graffiti community, could be traced in it.

In 2005 I took another attempt to form some sort of an alternative view on the street creativity, when I launched website Visualartifacts.ru [5] and began publishing Objects [6], which was meant not only to reflect current trends in street art, but also to set high standard for its development. During the 4 years the main personalities and projects from Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as from the regions and post-Soviet countries were shown. Preference was given to the new experimental practices, and font compositions were practically not covered.

 

310 Squad, part of exhibition in M'ARS art-center

The period from 2005 to 2008 is marked by the greatest interest in street art, both from media and art institutions. During that period there were several group exhibitions [7], the culmination being the exhibition “Graffiti-Winzavod” held in 2006 in the premises of then half-abandoned Winzavod ("winery" in Russian), which subsequently became a center of contemporary art. The exhibition presented the most complete range of street art forms such as works of all the most active artists of the time: from graffiti bombing to monumental murals. In addition to works specially made for the exhibition, there was also an extensive programme of photo and video documentation on street activity.

Magazines, exhibitions, and media interest altogether proclaimed street art successful trend in art. Nevertheless, already in 2008 some stagnation started. Many artists slowed down substantially, and interest from art institutions subsided greatly. While working on the third book of Objects, I noticed the scarce number of street works and mainly trivial content of the works. Conceptual component of street activity that seemed important to me at the time was virtually absent. After collecting literally piece by piece the most interesting examples of street works, I closed the project Objects by opening an exhibition at the contemporary art center “M’ARS”, where the project archive and specially created works on the most active street artists at the time were presented. Titled "Russian street art is dead” [8], the show became the final point in the tumultuous era of mid-2000s Russian street art and at the same time initiated a general discussion around the topic of street art.

 

Video by Misha MOST / 2008

 

[1] The Baltic states are the three countries in northern Europe on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. They were part of the USSR from 1940 to 1991. These are the cities where the first hip hop festivals were held – Vilnius, Vitebsk, Tchernogolovka, Riga, Tallinn, Palanga.
[2] First graffiti festivals: “Nescafe: Pure energy” (1999-2003), “Snickers Urbania” (2001-2010).
[3] Pavel 183 (August 1983–1 April 2013) was a Russian street artist. The works of Pavel 183 range from murals spray-painted on public structures to combinations of audio and video, at times accompanied by a political message.
[4] First graffiti magazines: “Spray It” (2002), “U’litsa” (2003), “Go Vegas” (2003) and DIY fan-zine “Outline” (1999)
[5] Visualartifacts.ru existed most actively in 2005 and 2006, after that was transformed into a magazine. Currently not operating.
[6] “Objects” books (2005-2009) — three books about Russian street-art, published and founded by Igor Ponosov, edited by Andrey Tseluiko.
[7] First group shows: “Spray Art” (2001), “Original Fake” (2005), “Confederates” (2005).
[8] Russian Street Art is dead — exhibition-manifesto by Igor Ponosov about situation of middle of 00-th
 
Translation by Fania Balabanova.
Read Part 1 — Attempts of art to come out into public space (1920-1990s)
Read Part 3 — Rebirth of the Russian street art as politically and socially engaged art (2011-2012)