The Charm of Illegal Art: The History of Russian Graffiti

PHOTO by Donat Sorokin / TASS
The timeline of the history of Russian graffiti from New-York heritage to patriotic discourses

Graffiti took off in USSR along with breakdancing, which arrived in the country with hip-hop movies brought from the US.

Since the New York period, the common image of the graffiti artist has been followed and copied again and again: disregard for private and state property, an all-or-nothing mindset, occasional aggression, the charm of illegal art, and dedication to be a part of a subculture and to gain authority within it.

Today the status of graffiti in Russia still remains a gray area. With the exception of patriotic art, graffiti is frowned on by the state. Strelka Magazine offers a translation of an original article by SMOG magazine with a detailed look at the timeline of Russian graffiti.

1980s

During the Perestroika period, the developing Soviet subcultures were largely isolated from Western influences: obtaining photographs, magazines, and video materials was difficult, and communication with professionals was limited. Back then, new information mainly seeped into the country along with VHS movies like Beat Street and Stylewars brought from abroad by friends and relatives.

These movies formed an image of hip-hop as a combination of rap, breakdance and graffiti. American street culture (as described by Adam Gopnik and illustrated by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant in their celebrated book Subway Art) became the basis for the Soviet school of graffiti and probably defined the lifestyles of young dancers and artists for years to come.

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Breakdancers were the first to become graffiti artists, often by creating visual backdrops for their performances. Eye-catching and drawn in a distinctive style, graffiti sometimes overshadowed the performances, competing for viewers’ attention. B-boy Vadim Krys from Latvia is considered to be the first graffiti writer in the Soviet Union. Back then, getting aerosol paint was no easy task; Riga had a production plant where spray cans were produced, which put Vadim in the best possible position a Soviet graffiti writer could hope for.

Vadim actively spread his new hobby in cities and towns he travelled through. Koenig City Breakers member Maks Navigator is considered to be another founding father of the Russian graffiti school: the Baltic wave of hip hop had a strong impact on Kaliningrad and quickly spread throughout the city.

“In the USSR, graffiti first gained popularity almost at the same time as in Western Europe, but its development was delayed significantly. Today, few beginning artists are even aware of the Soviet period of Russian graffiti."

Aske

1990s

The 90s are often called the second wave era: during this period young people from Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities travelled abroad and learned of a new, barely legal mode of artistic expression and began forming small artistic communities. At that time, the extreme sports festival Nescafe – Pure Energy became the first and most important gathering place for graffiti writers.

One of the most popular writers of the era, Anton Make, got into graffiti in the mid-90s and became one of the first to take a spray can to the Moscow subway. Make also published the black-and-white underground magazine Outline (1999). Later, Make would go on to found the Partisaning movement with Igor Ponosov and Kirill Kto, developing from a graffiti writer into an urban activist and researcher of social interactions.

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“Anton Make is a showcase example, as the fame of the most active writers of the late 90s spread beyond the graffiti community. They went on to become full-time artists, designers, festival organisers, and entrepreneurs. Graffiti was their incentive for active self-development: Dima Oskes later cofounded the Faces&Laces festival, and Artem Ren created the Russian spray paint brand Rush.”

Aske

The 2000s (first half)

By this time, street gangs had already embraced graffiti as a self-assertion tool, and street drawings lost the political meaning they had during the mid-90s. Leading artists started to set the trends which would last through the next decade: unique artists with distinctive local styles began to pop up, and the base of the Russian graffiti community was mostly formed. The release of the French documentary Dirty Handz (1999) and its sequel (2001) on bombing (a technique of quickly covering large surface areas – trains, subway cars or city streets – with drawings) were important milestones for the development of Russian graffiti and made public transportation tagging popular in the country.

In 2001, the first issue of the Russian graffiti magazine Spray It saw the light of day, and a year later the Moscow team ZACHEM!, consisting of Sta, Poze, Misha Most, Kirill Kto, and other artists, released the first Russian-produced video on the bombing, making the technique insanely popular. Even today, bombing remains the most popular graffiti format amongst Russian youth, mostly thanks to its accessibility and the daredevil image formed around bombers.

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In 2003, the Realisation graffiti jam was organised by the Moscow distributors of Montana spray paint as part of an ad campaign. The organisers invited famous European writers, such as Can2, Smash, Atom, and a founder of the Rudieone paint brand. The festival allowed Moscow artists to get acquainted with European styles and techniques, encouraged those who preferred style writing, a more complicated form of graffiti art, and developed original styles and lettering.

“At that time, the major cities had their own growing graffiti communities centred around artists with experience. In Moscow, these communities mainly focused on the bombing, while in St. Petersburg numerous writers favoured style writing over different periods of time. Nizhny Novgorod and Yekaterinburg became significant points on the map of the Russian graffiti world, with the appearance of local street artists and street art festivals. In smaller cities graffiti communities usually hinged on a few enthusiastic artists."

Aske

The 2000s (second half)

By this time, many older enthusiasts stopped being an active part of the Russian graffiti community, and the image of graffiti art was now being molded by younger artists who often copied what they saw on the Internet. Maintaining an image as a writer (behaviour, appearance, social connections) gained priority over drawing itself.

“Graffiti has ceased to be a chaotic (or organised) protest against its intrinsically antithetic values. Instead, graffiti now aims to contribute to these values (as an architectural decoration, ad material, a way to achieve popularity and promote writing styles),”

Graffiti Discourse Notes by the Stena Project.

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During this time, street art achieved significant development: certain writers adjusted their styles, stopped simply tagging, and transitioned to creating more complex works aimed at launching a dialogue with a broader audience. Pasha 183 is one example of such a transition. At the same time, bombing managed to maintain its prevalence.

Once a group of Moscow writers used the emergency brake to stop an entire commuter train and tagged it top to bottom within a short amount of time. This whole-train incident, recorded by a journalist who happened to be inside, made a lot of noise in the media. After the incident, all suburban trains received additional security measures, making future bombings more difficult.

“Graffiti is a perfect mode of communication that addresses everyone at the same time. It is a daring expression of never-ending mutiny. It is simultaneously anonymous and widespread. All those who try it once get hooked and do it again, not because they are artists, but because they spit on capitalistic ideals,”

Graffiti Discourse Notes by the Stena Project

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In 2010, the first Russian spray paint brands entered the market, including Rush, Arton and Trane. Their appearance followed a huge demand for spray cans generated by a growing community of tens of thousands of graffiti writers across the country.

“The stylistic influence of European graffiti schools during different periods of time was mainly tied to releases of various video materials, magazine issues, and books. Swedish writers made a huge impact on Russian bombing by developing a simple and easy-to-copy style set. A number of German styles spread in Russia thanks to their quality and originality. At the same time, during the mid-2000s there were writers who developed original local styles, like Stas Scheme, Alexey Luka, and others.”

Aske

2010s

The 2010s have seen graffiti’s wide diffusion through the Internet, the creation of local streetwear (including clothes designed specifically for writers), and the almost total disappearance of original styles among younger writers.

TAD, a graffiti crew from St. Petersburg, set the goal of becoming the best Russian graffiti team. They gained the support of a Spanish spray paint manufacturer and remained a top team for quite some time. Petr Petro from Zhukovsky and Ilya Slak, the founders of the Aesthetics crew, also deserve mention as active and original writers of this period.

The Russian graffiti community took a hit with the 2014 financial crisis: paint prices went up, and subculture activity slowed down. Nonetheless, it was at that time that the most advanced writers got into galleries and started participating in exhibitions, taking the step from graffiti to modern art, design, etc. The wave of street art popularity spawned dozens of advertising and patriotic drawings across major Russian cities, which the media often mislabeled as graffiti.

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"I Love Moscow"

“Youth often perceive graffiti as a way to ‘adapt’ public space and make it feel more comfortable, and to become a part of a larger subculture. A city is a large sandbox, and graffiti is one of the ways of existing within that sandbox. I disagree that urbanisation followed graffiti, and would argue that it was the other way around.”

Aske

Today in Russia, graffiti artists face the same challenges as everywhere else: works have to become larger and be created more often, styles require refining, and respect within the community has to be earned.

A decrease in the amount of graffiti-related literature was mainly caused by the wide reach of social networks: as writers post their works to Facebook, Instagram and Behance, the Internet replaces city streets as the place of choice to go to see graffiti. The Internet has also mostly erased differences in local styles: today a writer from Nizhnevartovsk might use exactly the same style as a writer from New Jersey or Berlin.

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Graffiti has little impact on modern art, and its existence is independent. There are certain artists who started their careers in the graffiti world, and a number of collectors and curators who split time between graffiti and street art. This branch of modern art is relatively small and is still developing – in other countries, at least.

Text: Alena Anyukhina and Dmitri Aske

Translation: Philipp Kachalin