When the wall has a story to tell

How street art can make a change in our post-soviet style Sofia

Written and photos by Anna Kerezsi, edited by Andrea Vushkova

When people think of Bulgaria, especially its capital, they often imagine a gray, dull, and barren landscape. To be honest, they are not that far from the truth with a small exception: these concrete buildings, enormous white and gray surfaces are perfect canvases for some hidden artists! I’m sure you’ve already seen some of their graffiti, murals, or carvings (also known as sgraffito) which all tell you their stories if you look closer and pay attention to the details. 

Before I reveal the identity of these artists, take a look at this chart to understand the difference between graffiti and street art.

The unwritten rules of graffiti and street art
I am not a member of any graffiti or street art communities, but I was sure there are some rules their members go by. I did some research and found out that all such communities around the world must indeed follow the graffiti “law”. Here are the most common unwritten rules:
- You cannot write or draw over someone else’s work. Respect each other.
- Don’t write or draw on buildings under protection and religious sanctuaries.
- What you write or draw is your advertisement. Choose the spot wisely.
- Be unique, develop your own style and structure.
- Respect the hierarchy. The artist with the ‘crown’ or ‘angel halo’ earned being at the top. Impress the ‘kings’ to earn it yourself. 

These communities also have their own language. If you want to know what a ‘battle’ or a ‘bite’ means, or what color ‘icy grape’ or ‘jungle green’ is, check out The Words: A Graffiti Glossary, written by various graffiti artists.

The appearance of street art in Sofia

Have you heard about “sgraffito''? It is a decorative process in which paints or plasters are applied on top of a preliminary layer, and then the superficial layer is precisely scraped back, making the bottom color appear. If you have already gotten lost in the center of Sofia at least once, I am sure you can recall some of these decorations around.  I will help you with some examples:
- Theater 199, visible from Rakovsky street;
Finance Department of Sofia Municipality, visible from Moskovska street;
- The side facade of a residential building, visible from Alabin street.

The Registry of Monuments “Sofia" has a huge database of registered artistic decorations. It is an honor to be a part of it as a street artist.

An iconic advertisement 

Nowadays when giant advertisements are everywhere - and we are already fed up with them or even unconsciously ignoring them - it sounds a bit strange to consider them as art. It’s even stranger to find them painted on a wall. Yet still, one of the most popular murals in Sofia is a painted advertisement of a Chupa Chups lollipop. It’s quite divisive: some people hate it because of the lack of artistic meaning and its deteriorating condition, and others adore it because this particular logo was designed by Salvador Dalí. It’s undoubtedly a striking piece of art in the city center, in a private parking lot on "Knyaginya Maria Luiza" boulevard. This is how it looked back in 2006 and how it looks nowadays:

Under Chupa Chups, there is a fresh work of a Bulgarian artist called Bozko. I know the story of this painting but I won’t take the spotlight from Sofia Graffiti Tour’s team which starts its presentation at this exact point. It is the only such tour that can give you a deeper understanding of this art form’s history and hidden meanings. It is usually held during the weekends at 3 pm and no reservation is required. I highly recommend joining it at least once while you are in Sofia.

The most famous artists in Bulgaria

Some of the articles in the following list are in the Bulgarian language, so I suggest you use a browser with a translation extension. But more importantly, examine the pictures, they tell you the real stories.

Bozko is really good at choosing the right spot for his art. You cannot unsee his choice of colors - especially the bright yellow - between gray walls. His characters are complex, you can read their feelings from their facial expressions and body position. If you look at them longer, you’ll find interesting details which are referring to historical or cultural events, and also the current problems of society. 
Bozhidar Simeonov - Bozko: Art is a philosophy, not a decoration
- Bozhidar Simeonov-Bozko
- Saint George

Talking about details, if you really like searching for little objects, you have to find Nasimo’s paintings and spend some time in front of them. It is amazing how the painting changes its meaning in your eyes when you finally see every possible detail. Some of them are combined with texts in Bulgarian or in English. His imagery of (historical or imagined) humans is spectacular, especially the faces of women and their traditional clothes.
- Nasimo, a leading Bulgarian graffiti artist

Arsek & Erase
Arsek & Erase are the masters of illustration and surrealism. They paint creatures with googly eyes in extremely bright colors, and suddenly you find yourself in a crazy fairy tale. The spray paint can appears as a recurring motif, and all kinds of animals and UFOs form a psychedelic scene. Their most iconic work - I am sure you have already seen it - is at Serdika, the lady in a blue cap, holding a red tulip. If you want to know more about this painting, check out this article.

JahOne ‘...mixing realism and fantasy - mainly characters of people, animals, and magical creatures by knitting up images and symbols of the Bulgarian culture.’ /JahOne/ When I walk around Sofia, and see a painting where turquoise and purple are dominating, I am sure this is JahOne’s work. I personally love this color combination, especially when the third one is orange, and he has a great method to use these colors as the game of light and shadow.  

Aleksi Ivanov
Aleksi Ivanov, have you seen those colorful animals with shiny, big, round eyes? And those tubby little people with Pacman-shaped eyes? He is the first graffiti artist whose aim is to involve children in the world of murals. He doesn’t just paint on walls, you can find a tiny fox on an electricity cabin, a spraying child on an abandoned shop, or a crocodile on the edge of the canal. My recent find is a tram passing by on Konstantin Velichkov street, fully covered with his tiny animals and people on it. I was really missing an artist around who uses black as a contour of every object, it is a great tool to attract the eye.

Other groups and projects worth mentioning you might have already seen around the city:

- “Sofia Dream Tree” by MaryAnn Loo
Urban Creatures
- 140 ideas
- Bulgarian shevitsa mural at a kindergarten by Maria Matovska
Graff Express Festival - Underpass between Sofia Central Railway and Bus Station
- Mechtatelnitsa (literally a pun meaning “dream workshop”)
- Metro Station “Bulgaria” - Mitko Stafidov

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