The challenges of Armenian Street Art

Unlike Armenia, street art has been legalized in most countries of the world. Some street art producers even regard it as a commercial activity and street art festivals are hosted in a range of cities.

During the excavations in 2012 on the territory of Artashat, archaeologists discovered ancient graffiti inscriptions dating back to III-IV centuries. In ancient times, people would make cave paintings or inscriptions on rocks to hunt magic. However, the function of graffiti has changed nowadays and today along with street art, it brings a new air of creativity to our lives.  Very often, though, graffiti images are used to express underlying political and social messages to rebel against authority and graffiti artists act beyond governmental sanctions. 
Let us consider “Hakaharvats” group members. The group name is translated as “counterblast” from Armenian. They have occasionally been arrested and taken to police stations for the social-political messages comprised in their graffiti images. It was back in 2012, when the group made a statement in Facebook that they would direct their efforts at raising people’s awareness of their dignity and rights, freedom of speech, possibility of regime changes and peace promotion. Despite the repressions, the group members never went back on their word. Artak Gevorgyan, a member of “Hakaharvats” art team, stepped into the limelight after his campaign involving a Panzer made of paper. After his paper Panzer hit the iron-wrought gates of the National Security Service, the officers detained him on charges of disrupting order in a public place, hooliganism and property damage. It was only in July of 2016 that Artak was found not guilty. The group’s graffiti images with underlying political messages have occasionally been removed from public locations.

Avoiding vandalism

At the same time, Yerevan Municipality often places orders for producing graffiti images in public places. Art historian Sahak Poghosyan does not think that every image on the wall and procured by Yerevan Municipality represents a piece of street art.   “These images have nothing to do with street art, as street art does not get private funding. The only art-group in Armenia that seems to have been engaged in street art is “Art Laboratory”. The artworks created by the laboratory have occasionally been removed by the police, which implies that they posed a real challenge for the government.” The historian says that these were the best pieces of street art.  Sahak Poghosyan also believes that street artwork should be executed outside traditional art venues and should not spoil the city landscape. “For instance, if a street artist produces his image on a building designed by Tamanyan in the Republic Square, I call it sheer vandalism. Or if the image is produced on any part of the opera house, which makes it impossible to restore the building, that’s again an act of vandalism. These buildings have been designed by architects and other artists should request their permission before producing their work. However, street art images can be placed in subways, streets, or on pavements.”

Yerevan buildings have recently started boasting graffiti images of outstanding Armenian people, namely writers and actors. Sahak Poghosyan regards this trend with disdain. “Art laboratory” was created in 2007 by a group of artists (Hovhannes Margaryan, Arthur Petrosyan, Garik Yengibaryan, Edgar Amroyan, Hovnan Qartashyan, Narine Zolyan, Samvel Vanoyan, Harutyun Zulumyan, Karen Ohanyan, Ara Petrosyan). The laboratory continually used street and public art as tools to question the nature of political authority and to criticize the regime in the country. Theirs is an art of resistance defying indifference and injustice. Their workplace is public location. Through their images, the laboratory members have addressed such burning issues as the tragic events of March 1, election bribes, suicide cases in the army, the destruction of Soviet monuments. In 2012, the members of “Art Laboratory” staged a campaign outside the president’s residence on the occasion of his 58th birthday anniversary, leaving near his residence a birthday cake iced with the words “Resign!” Their graffiti image of a soldier, who committed suicide in the army, was immediately removed by police officers, as it highlighted the issue of increasing suicides in the army. 
On another occasion, the group members were detained for producing political prisoner Shant Harutyunyan’s image on the walls of the National Assembly. Then they even faced an administrative penalty.   The group members believe their mission consists in responding to political issues through art. In 2016, “Yeghvard” Youth Ecological NGO painted murals on the stairs of different institutions in Ashtarak, Charentsavan, Ejmiatsin, Akhuryan, and Vardenik. Their “Step by step to the colourful future” project was initiated and implemented within the grant competition financed by the state administration and Youth Foundation of Armenia.

“No protest” street art

Mariam Mughdusyan, programme expert and artist, in her interview with “Aravot” notes the speed at which street art is developing in the country and the increasing number of groups dealing in it. When referring to “Hakaharvats” images, Mariam Mughsusyan says “All of them comprise an element of protest. One of the highlights of street art is that it should not only be pleasing to eye but also express a certain ideology. Street art is gaining in diversity; it is free from perceived confines of the formal art world.  We should not expect to find elements of museum art in it. Nor should we expect it to follow academic rules.  It is the artist who decides on the subject of the image and selects the appropriate techniques. Academic education is not a requirement for artists; hence street artists often make use of stencils to reproduce an image. If we follow the development pattern of street art in Armenia, we can see that it ether has an aesthetic value or attracts attention to a cause”.

In response to our question, how a project featuring street art could have been funded by the governmental grant, Mariam Mughdusyan notes that “Yeghvard” Youth Ecological NGO having been issued the grant came up with an initiative of leading their youth to a more colourful future. They chose the stairs for their purpose. “We were free in our choice of images and mostly complied with the wishes of young people.  Freedom does not necessarily imply being in the opposition or protesting against the ruling government. If the government had imposed certain topics on us, I would not approve of the project. But this was simply a piloting project and I am quite sure that our young people will take to diverse topics in the future, as street art entails provocation. We might even have groups of art lovers producing nightly images elsewhere.” Most people in rural areas in Armenia are not familiar with street art and might fall victims to misconception.  “Throughout the project, we considered the target audience, analyzed the needs of the residents of these communities, as we knew they might not welcome our ideas.  Anyway, the wheels have been set into motion and we have equipped our young people with all the necessary tools to engage in street art.” 

Street Art: Good for your Pocket

Unlike Armenia, street art has been legalized in most countries of the world. Some street art producers even regard it as a commercial activity and street art festivals are hosted in a range of cities. Huffington Post once wrote that what was once a clandestine act of art vandalism is now, more often, a celebrated form of public art, popping up in major metropolises across the globe. Bristol, for instance, is considered to be one of the best cities where one can see street art. Since 2008, Upfest, Europe’s largest, free, street art and graffiti festival has been attracting over 300 artists painting live on 2500 sqft on surfaces. Upfest is the largest street festival in Europe. The festival is free to join and creates employment opportunities for children form vulnerable families. It attracts to Bristol not only many artists but also tourists, who can enjoy such entertainment opportunities, as parties or dinners hosted on the boat, concerts, master classes addressing the arts, etc.  Upfest contributes to the boost in tourism industry. Banksy, an anonymous England-based graffiti artist is believed to have started his career in Bristol. The underground spray pray artist grew into a serious graffiti artist, whose works of political and social commentary have been featured on streets, walls, and bridges of cities throughout the world.

Back in 2015, Banksy constructed Dismaland, a temporary art project, in the seaside resort town of Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, England. Dismaland was a “sinister twist on Disneyland”. Though the project received critical reception from the media and was taglined as “depressing”, it proved to be profitable, as it “rained profit” on the resort.  The   park was open 36 days and received 15000 visitors. The BBC reported that the organisers had made 450 000 GBP and that the economy in that period grew by 20 mln. Street art is a success in other European cities, as well. There are small towns whose residents always look forward to street art festivals.  Limbach-Oberfrohna, a city located in the vicinity of Dresden, is famous for its free IBUg street art festival. Every summer, the city attracts thousands of artists who produce their art on the walls of abandoned buildings. Street art traditions date back to Gdansk, Berlin, Lisbon, Paris, Prague and elsewhere.  These are not only the products of high culture but also values that pique the interest of tourists and make the city    authorities feel proud. The experience shows that street art can not please the eye but also be good for pocket.

The article was drawn up in cooperation with the EU-Eastern Partnership Culture and Creativity 

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