It's not exactly Banksy, but Sofia's new generation of socially conscious graffii are refreshing to behold
It is not London or Berlin, nor even Athens – even when talking about such an eloquent expression of subculture as street art. Explore Sofia's streets and you will discover that even in the outer suburbs the images are more notable for their size and colours than for their ideas. As an expression of art – as well as of everything else – during the 20 years that have elapsed since the fall of Communism, Bulgarian street artists preferred visually attractive paintings to those that might be provocative.
This has changed in 2009. A series of stencils began to appear on Sofia's walls. They had nothing to do with the graffiti sponsored in the past few years by the Sofia City Council and some businesses to decorate the metal fencing around the crumbling 1,300 Years of Bulgaria monument in front of the National Palace of Culture, the nearby subway or other public buildings badly in need of repair. Nor do they have anything in common with the simple or complex tags, or signatures, which normally deface the freshly painted walls of the few renovated houses in central Sofia or the battered prefabricated blocks of flats in 1970s housing projects such as Lyulin or Druzhba.
Twenty years after the fall of Communism Sofia has acquired political graffiti.
OK, they don't measure up to Banksy. But children dumping a bag sporting the nationals colours into a dustbin is, for Bulgarians, shocking. The same goes for the nude man with an (yes!) erection that appeared on BTC headquarters, dubbed by Sofianites the Telephone Palace. In fact, one of the recurrent topics of this new "artist" is the dustbin.
Obviously, these are not the first political graffiti to adorn the city streets. Over the past 20 years, those in the habit of staring at writing on walls saw all sorts of things. There were the instructive messages such as "Don't eat meat", "Fuck the burger, fuck the pizza, the best is banitsa!" or "Read the Bible and Winnie-the-Pooh." Add to these the stencilled portraits of Che Guevara, Yasir Arafat and other angry young men and women that appeared in Sofia's streets in 2006 and you would get the picture of a generation of streetwise kids not very familiar with Communism but definitely disenchanted with what came after it.
The summer 2009 graffiti yield is different, though. Unlike most Bulgarian artists, for whom any reference to current events is infra dig (believe it or not, this is true: they are only interested in universal issues), graffiti writers created pictures that addressed important issues more directly than any journalists, politicians or artists. Things such as the economic crisis. Or political power. Or "capitalist" values. In one of them, a policeman with a shield and a helmet is dragging a bleeding man by the hair, in another, a woman is foraging in a dustbin. A third mentions "the 1944 – … crisis." 1944 was the year of the Communist coup in Bulgaria.
Who is behind the rebellious graffiti?
Well, this is as difficult as trying to discover who Banksy is. It's even harder. There is some speculation about Banksy's identity and one or two alleged photos of the artist on the Internet. But nobody knows anything about the author of the political graffiti in Sofia. "Out" and anonymous graffiti writers, salesmen in the specialised supply shops, bloggers and forum participants – none of them has any idea who the "new star" is, although they have certainly noticed his (or her) work.
One of the theories circulating in an Internet forum is that the new stencils were made by an anarchist or a nationalist. This is possible. Both anarchists and extreme nationalists, who would be regarded as rather radical even by Ataka, don't enjoy much scope for public expression, which is why they often try to draw attention to their ideas by writing them on walls. These ideas usually consist of old anarchist slogans such as "Elections don't change anything; if they did, they'd be banned" and "Anarchy is the mother of order!" Another thing to support this hypothesis is that some of the pictures display an encircled letter A, the anarchists' symbol.
We can be pretty sure that the artist is under 25 years old. Most of the graffiti display vehement opposition to Capitalism in general. The one on the wall of the Law Courts, for example, where one woman is cleaning another's shoes and the inscription reads "Kill Capitalism=Or It Kills Me" [sic]. Only someone whose knowledge of Communism comes from their grandmother's nostalgic tales could think up such a thing.
The unknown artist not only manages to convey his messages to tens of thousands of passers-by in central Sofia, but his works have a longevity that his Western colleagues can only envy. What is more, this Bulgarian artist paints in the area surrounded by the Levski, Dondukov, Vitosha and Patriarch Evtimiy boulevards, where most of the important institutions in the capital city are located.
To some extent, the anonymity of the political commentator can be explained by the hostile attitude that exists towards street art. Graffiti artists know what happens to anybody caught red-handed (that is, with paint on their hands): they'll be fined, beaten or spend long hours in the local police station. Sometimes they are made to cover their work with a new coat of paint or plaster. Some graffiti artists claim that policemen are particularly strict in enforcing the law when they spot one of them with a spray can in hand. The category of hostile elements includes both City Council officers and common citizens for whom writing on walls is definitely and exclusively an act of vandalism. For these reasons, most graffiti writers prefer to work at night and in teams, or crews, as they call themselves, of three: two paint while one keeps watch.
For the time being, graffitti are the most indicative form of street art, a phenomenon that came to Bulgaria as late as the mid- 1990s. The reasons lie partially in the lack of a tradition of rebellion similar to that that shook Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Poland in the early 1980s. Hence the first wall inscriptions were a sort of self-expression, such as the names of favourite skate board companies, hip-hop bands and so on, rather than a manifestation of dissent or a stated social or political position. The economic crisis and hyperinflation of 1996-1997, caused by Zhan Videnov's Socialist government, put an end to graffiti apathy. Aphorisms quickly appeared on abandoned buildings, cars, railway carriages, stations, power substations and industrial zones. The old "witticisms" of the "Tsetso was here" and "FC Levski is the best" type gave way to "I love my country but I hate my state," "Enough politicians, let's be Bulgarians," "Everything is chaos, only crime is organised" and "When you give power to a worm, it becomes a snake."
When passions calmed down and the Bulgarian economy started on its 10-year upward course, graffiti artists calmed down too. At the end of the 1990s, Sofia and the larger cities saw the first "bombs," or hastily daubed graffiti. Specialised shops selling colour marker pens, spray paint cans and caps, masks and graffiti magazines appeared.
Despite these glory days, the Bulgarian stage is not very large. There are about 30 active artists and only one of them, Erka, is a girl. The only graffiti magazine, graffart.eu, is published only online. Most writers are graduates of art and graphic design schools, take part in local and international competitions and festivals and sporadically organise guest appearances of foreign artists. The most successful of them is the pioneer in this art, Nasimo, or Naste. He has had two solo exhibitions in Sofia and Vancouver and published an album, received commissions from offices, shops and collectors and had some of his works on the covers of worldfamous graffiti and street art editions.
It was only in 2009, however, that an artist who made everybody look and reflect on his work emerged here. The appearance of this anonymous artist can so far be regarded as one of the positive effects of the crisis.