10 years ago Bulgaria lost its only true graffiti rebel, and never even noticed
Splendid saints, bosomy beauties in "traditional" costumes, saccharine angels: in the past decade, large scale wall paintings on concrete apartment blocks, business and public buildings in Sofia have flourished. The unveiling of the largest ones, particularly when Boyko Borisov's Sofia Municipality is involved, attracts media attention and results in an avalanche of posts, photos and shares.
Graffiti art beautify Sofia, GERB and its accolades think. Few consider that these "beautifying" projects send another, subconscious message to the rank-and-file residents of this town: "No need to pay attention to or, God forbid, get upset about the sorry state of the pavements, the overflowing rubbish bins, the air pollution. Look instead how beautiful, avant-garde and patriotic this curvaceous girl is!"
For obvious reasons (Communism), aerosol graffiti of the type that has flourished in New York and London since the 1960s, came to Bulgaria belatedly. Some claim it first appeared in Communist Sofia as an underground rebellion against the established aesthetic and social norms in the mid-1980s. As the chaotic 1990s rumbled across Bulgaria, bringing unemployment, economic and political crises and deep social change that nurtured a disaffected and angry youth, graffiti claimed more public space. They were mostly in the form of vulgar, unfit-to-print type, or sometimes sarcastic, but sadly untranslatable, statements.
Bulgarians discovered graffiti as an art form as late as the 2000s, when open borders, travel and the Internet familiarised them with classic and current names such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Banksy. Ironically, in Bulgaria Banksy became a synonym for rebellious art at the time when his UK fans were accusing him of selling out.
We can argue whether Banksy has sold out or not, but this is exactly what happened to the nascent Bulgarian art graffiti scene. In a couple of years the new generation of local graffiti artists developed an appetite for sponsored work for companies and local governments eager to present themselves as hip and current, dedicated to transforming Bulgaria's drab post-totalitarian townscape into a fun background that looks great in selfies.
Few noticed another irony: by the 2020s, graffiti has become a substitute for the public murals, mosaics and reliefs of medieval warriors, masculine workers, and, yes, buxom beauties, that were so ubiquitous in Communist Bulgaria. The art technique is different, but the message is the same: you live in the best of all possible worlds. The only difference is that the artists who laboured over their mosaics and murals in the 1960s-1980s were not hailed as harbingers of avant-garde art.
Against this background it is bittersweet that the art of Bulgaria's only true graffiti artist of the 2000s, Bloke, is slowly slipping into oblivion.
In early 2009, eagle-eyed Sofianites spotted disturbing, often painful stencils beginning to appear here and there in central Sofia. The 2008 financial and economic crisis was slowly rolling towards Bulgaria and resentment against the then Socialist-led government was growing stronger. The killing of a student in December 2008 had galvanised university students, and the police had brutally crushed a January 2009 protest following orders by the then mayor of Sofia, Boyko Borisov.
Into this environment, images of policemen brutalising protestors, of power-hungry or power-blind naked women, of corrupt politicians and copulating pigs (this one was captioned: "Swinery is procreating. Stop it before it stops you"), of children rummaging in a rubbish bin began to appear on walls in Sofia. The artist, someone called Bloke, created many of these as part of a series, called Crisis 2009.
Bloke's art showed an idealist deeply disturbed by the way Bulgaria was going; a way of political, economic and moral corruption, and a dead-end for anyone who refused to comply.
Over time more people started to notice Bloke's art. Some of the media took an interest, too, and labeled the elusive artist the Bulgarian Banksy. Vagabond also featured Bloke, as the cover story of its October 2009 issue. Despite this interest, the artist's true identity remained hidden, Banksy-style.
Then, after a couple of years, Sofianites notices there were no more new Bloke stencils.
Bin For Soul Waste
People wondered for a while what had happened, and then forgot about it. The stencils, sharing the fate of all graffiti art that is not business or government sanctioned, began to disappear. Some, particularly those on buildings such as Sofia University and the Palace of Justice, were cleaned off. Others were slowly covered by the inevitable accumulation of run-of- the-mill graffiti tags, large advertising posters for chalga concerts and political campaigns, death notices and bills posted by human hair buyers, or cheap removalist services or "guaranteed" work abroad. The art of rebel Bloke was covered up by advertisements for all the evils the artist had recognised in Bulgarian society.
Some years after Bloke's disappearance, the artist's identity was revealed. Bloke was Georgi Mladenov, born in 1984. He was a budding artist who took part in the January 2009 protest. He was found on 12 January 2011, covered in knife wounds, just beside Sofia University. A suicide, according to the investigators.
Let The Dead Bury The Dead
Bloke's art is now hard to find in Sofia, but posthumously he has gained some notoriety. An exhibition of his art was organised in 2015 and there is a dedicated Facebook page. His graffiti is enjoying a second life on the Internet. One of his works – two children throwing a bag painted as the national flag into a rubbish bin, with the words: "Do I dare to change?" is particularly popular. It appears often in articles about some of the many crises that have happened in Bulgaria since Georgi Mladenov's untimely death. Including the current one.
Chalga Robs Power, from the Crisis 2009 series
Eleven years ago, Vagabond put this graffiti of a traffic cop on its cover
"The Embrace" by popular graffiti artist Nasimo was painted as a part of Sofia Municipality's initiative to create an art quarter in Central Sofia. Nasimo often works on public and corporate projects
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners