‘Everyone around is snoring, but Yekaterinburg has awakened’ When the Urals’ largest city declared itself Russia’s street art capital, everyone laughed. Then it became the truth.
In the last few years, street art has become one of Yekaterinburg’s main attractions. The city’s streets have become a gallery of social commentary and protest art — and local utility companies don’t seem to mind, painting over it much less frequently than in other cities. Strange as it may sound, the current boom is due in large part to local officials, who encouraged and financed an entire street art festival in Yekaterinburg — although not without making some enemies. As the city’s street artists told Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev, at some point they decided, with no real basis, to declare the city Russia’s “street art capital.” And before long, it was.
On April 25, the day before the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office suspended the activities of Alexey Navalny’s political network and the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) (pending a court decision on declaring both organizations “extremist”), a drawing appeared on a concrete wall in Yekaterinburg. The drawing depicts a Sesame Street character holding a multicolored block with the letters F, B, and K on it. Next to him are two riot officers in black and grey.
“When I was little, I had some cards with letters and pictures on them. That’s probably where I got the idea to use the letter N, with security officials making their rounds nearby,” the artist, who goes by the pseudonym a11clear, told Meduza. “I didn’t want to wear the idea out. I remembered Sesame Street, where they would teach the alphabet, and Zeliboba, the most memorable character. At the same time, the news came out about the plan to declare the Anti-Corruption Foundation an extremist organization, which would ask mean a ban on using its symbols — so instead of the one letter on the block, I used three different ones.”
Yekaterinburg has a lot of graffiti that touches on social and political topics: the city loves expressing its opinion — not just at rallies, but literally on the walls. But street art’s rapid popularization in the city began just a few years ago, when some crafty graffiti artists decided to declare Yekaterinburg the street art capital of Russia.
The city as a gallery
“I’ve been studying the city and its street art for a long time, but I still manage to find new things. The walls are covered in layers of paint, and oftentimes they’ve been painted over millions of times,” said Alexander Yang, host of the podcast “Rosstritartnadzor” and creator of the Telegram channel Street Art Hunter.
Meduza’s correspondent walked for miles with Yang through the Yekaterinburg streets. Every now and then, Yang would stop to talk about a piece of graffiti: “This is Timofey Radya,” “Vova Abikh did this one,” “This one’s by Slava Ptrk,” “Pokras,” “This one’s Ovsyan,” or “This was the work of Roma Ink.”
The tour began at the staircase opposite the Church on the Blood, where the artist Slava Ptrk painted Patriarch Kirill swimming in gold in 2020. The piece was later painted over, which is unusual for Yekaterinburg. The steps of the same staircase, for example, still contain one of Slava’s earlier works: two hands making the sign of the cross, with one doing the two-fingered version and the other doing the three-fingered version.
In Yekaterinburg, many pieces of art stay on the walls for years; the utility companies and local authorities don’t touch them, according to Yang. While this is unusual, local artists have suggested a number of possible explanations.
Alexander Yang offered the most paradoxical: “It might be because there’s no cleanliness in the city… The authorities and the utility companies don’t take care of the city, they don’t give a damn.” But he also has another explanation: Yekaterinburg residents’ love for their city and for street art more broadly.
According to several street artists Meduza spoke with, the explosion of street art in Yekaterinburg was spurred largely by the Stenograffia street art festival, which first took place in 2010. However, the local authorities supported street art earlier, too, including at the festival Long Stories of Yekaterinburg, which ran from 2003 to 2010.
“If Long Stories sparked the city’s interest in street art, Stenograffia added to the momentum and popularized it for good. Thanks to Stenograffia, artists can paint during the day without any problems — people think there’s a festival going on, and everything’s fine,” said artist Vladimir Abikh, part of the since-dissolved art group Zliye, which previously took part in the festival.
“[The team behind] Stenograffia worked deliberately on Yekaterinburg’s status as the ‘street art capital’ in order to make it come true,” said Abikh. All of the street artists Meduza spoke to admit that when they first declared it, this wasn’t the case.
“This thing [street art] arose spontaneously, but okay — let’s all start saying that Yekaterinburg is the capital of street art in Russia, let’s instill this idea to the point that the city administration puts it into print,” explained artist Andrey Kolokolov, one of the founders of Stenograffia.
“It was fake news, but it worked, people started talking about it,” said Konstantin Rakhmanov, another one of the festival’s founders. “Some people had their doubts, of course: ‘What Yekaterinburg? What capital?’ Like we were crazy. But we insisted: ‘No, no, it’s all true.’ And now nobody’s arguing.”
Artist Timofey Radya, who Abikh calls “one of the fathers of Russian conceptual street art,” made no secret of his skepticism toward Stenograffia when speaking to Meduza, but admitted that for participants, the festival was “important to the movement’s meaning.”
“I don’t really follow Stenograffia. It’s just that it immediately became all about decorating the city. To me, it looks more like a desire to jump on a bandwagon and become a part of something — like street art, for example,” he said.
Radya is adamantly opposed to the phrase “street art capital.” “It’s a completely artificial construct created by the media. I find it repulsive, because the word ‘capital’ is already something in the center, something connected to the state, to the power vertical. Hell, what street art capital? Have you lost your fucking mind or something? Why don’t we also choose a prince of street art, a tsar? It’s no good,” he said.
Battle of the festivals
Over time, Stenograffia’s legality started to bother a number of artists — they worried about whether it was right to limited oneself to “sanctioned” art, and to make it with public funds. That’s how the Carte Blanche festival was born.
“We thought we ought to cheer up the environment and return the street artists to the street — there are festivals where everyone draws legally, but they’ve lost the romance of street art, which is that you don’t ask anyone’s permission, you just decide for yourself and go for it,” said Vladimir Abikh, who currently lives in St. Petersburg but often returns to his hometown to run Carte Blanche along with Slava Ptrk.
“If you want to paint legally, you can come to Stenograffia and they’ll help you. For many residents, the proper street art comes from Stenografia, and all the rest is trash, but Carte Blanche has become an alternative,” said Yekaterinburg journalist Alexey Shakhov, another one of the festival’s organizers.
“They [Carte Blanche participants] didn’t paint anything provocative, they painted patterns. But the process itself was a performance, a statement — and look how much street art Yekaterinburg has now,” Alexander Yang remembers. “In 2018, at Carte Blanche, artists would paint things on Vayner Street at 3 p.m. on a weekday. The only more conspicuous places would have been the city administration building or on a statue of Lenin. And no one said anything to them: local residents don’t scold the artists when they paint — sometimes they even help them. They might bring tea out.”
Vladimir Abikh’s works are displayed in museums all over the world, including in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, but the street is still his “favorite media.”
“I do have of my pieces on the street, most of them without permission. My mind’s already stuck in that pattern: when I get an idea, I adapt it to work on the street. It might sound corny, but I think it’s because of the freedom,” he said. “I remember one time at a party when I heard curators talking about artists — who they would accept in an exhibit, who they wouldn’t accept. God, it was dark. It turns out artists are supposed to befriend certain people. But on the street, I go out and paint something — and it immediately has a wide audience.”
At the first Carte Blanche in 2018, the artist Ilya Mozgi created a kind of festival manifesto, writing on a wall, “This message is illegal, just like the rest of the art at the Carte Blanche festival.” In 2019, Stenografia wrote back on the same wall: “This message is legal, just like the rest of the art at Stenografia.” Before long, other artists got to the piece — they framed it with a picture of a condom (the wall was ultimately painted over several times).
At the peak of the festival rivalry, during Stenografia 2019, St. Petersburg artist-calligrapher Pokras Lampas painted his “Suprematist Cross” on Pervaya Pyatiletka square. Some members of the Orthodox community were outraged. “To trample on the cross, even as graffiti, is very upsetting for believers. On such an important issue, they should have at least conducted a survey of area residents, and the minority should have complied with the majority’s opinion,” Oxana Ivanova, director of Yekaterinburg’s Museum of 20th Century Sanctity, Profession of Faith, and Asceticism in the 20th Century Urals.
“We spent probably a month dealing with this thing,” said Andrey Kolokolov. “We got the story straight, spoke with Orthodox believers, with the diocese — but they didn’t have any problem with what we were doing, it was the fundamentalists who had a problem.”
He recalled how the festival’s organizers spent a long time deciding how to proceed — should they leave the piece as it was, a kind of manifesto calling out the repression artists face? Or should they try to compromise, listen to a relatively small group of citizens’ opinion, and change the piece?
They ultimately chose the second option: Pokras himself redid the piece, removing the outline of the cross. “The western media saw this as an example of civilized regulation. But over here, it was, ‘well, you guys had a good festival for a while there, it’s quite a shame…” said Kolokolov.
Alexey Shakhov insisted that there’s no longer any hostility between the festivals, “except maybe between a few specific people.” The organizers of Stenografia agreed.
In 2020, there was a third festival, Marginal Night, which gave street artists a chance to present their work. But its organizers stressed to Meduza that this was a “multigenre” festival — not just for artists, but for writers and musicians as well.
“We don’t have curators, we don’t have censors, we give any artist the chance to express themselves, to present any work they want. We want to redraw the city map, show new ruins, establish new paths,” said Maria Kuchevasova, part of the art group Peredvizhnitsi and one of the festival’s organizers.
Any piece of street art depends on how the viewer will see it, so all pieces are protest pieces. The street is a political statement for any artist — otherwise he’d just sit at home,” said artist Alex Devyatayev, another one of the festival’s organizers.
A future version of Russia
While many local residents believe Yekaterinburg has accepted street art and is loyal to it, Timofey Radya disagrees. “If by ‘accepted’ you mean the police patrol unit accepts it then sure, you can say the city accepted it. As far as even legal projects, the city doesn’t accept anything. In order to do anything, you really have to try,” he said.
But unlike Slava Ptrk, who lives in Moscow, and Vladimir Abikh, who lives in St. Petersburg, Timofey Radya still lives in his hometown and still takes to the streets — both to paint and to attend protest rallies (for which he’s received court sentences).
“Imagine you’re lying there, you crack one eye open, and you already see something around you, you start to realize something. Everyone around is snoring, but Yekaterinburg has awakened. This started even before the square [protests],” said Radya.
When asked why he didn’t leave the city like many of his friends, Radya shrugs. “By and large, it’s pretty interesting here. The workshop is here, and so are all my loved ones. Why leave? I’m not under the illusion that life would be better somewhere else. My opportunities are unlimited, just like everyone’s. Do what you want — we live in a pretty open world, even in Russia in 2021.”
In Moscow, for example, he doesn’t like the “sterile environment,” which feels hostile to him as an artist. “When I go into the Garden Ring, it feels like I’m in an operating room: there’s granite everywhere, stainless steel, LED lights. It’s fucking awful! I can feel the tradeoff on a sensory level.”
The artist a11clear lived for three years in Moscow before returning: “Here there’s a rebellious environment, they’ve got Roizman, there was a Yekaterinburg rock club. It’s an awesome place, you can do whatever you want. They don’t paint over graffiti, and it feels even more free than in Moscow. I love Yekaterinburg — how could anyone not love it? For me, it’s like a wonderful future version of Russia.”
Artist Ilya Mozgi doesn’t want to leave Yekaterinburg either, although his friend Slava Ptrsk has tried to convince him many times to move to Moscow. “You come to Yekaterinburg and feel its energy. There are people here who are interested in it [street art] and see its importance, they have a point of view that unites them.
Andrey Kolokolov told Meduza about a “certain Ural radiation” that affects Yekaterinburg residents. “Yekaterinburg has always had a lot of boiling passionaries, people who emit energy and light. They pollinate each other. For example, they tried to kick [director Nikolai] Kolyad out of his theater, so he barricaded himself and drank vodka, and meanwhile [politician Yevgeny] Roizman flew in, crawled in through the window, and said, ‘I’ll support you, don’t worry, we’ll come up with something.” Eventually the situation, which was fueled by the media and local celebrities, was resolved, and a new square was found for the theater.”
The effect is cumulative: the connections grow until they reach a new level — the rush of city life, according to Kolokolov. “It’s the same with art. And the city is compact — it’s the smallest group of a million people in the country, and it’s tight. It takes fewer body movements to accomplish something, everything’s within reach.”
‘If we lived in London, the whole world would know us’
Yekaterinburg’s street artists talk a lot about Banksy, who they see as the world’s authority on street art.
“Banksy is the master of street art. His strength is that he does accessible social commentary — sharp, ironic, but at the same time not too trite. His caricatures don’t feel hackneyed,” said Vladimir Abikh. “Banksy works beautifully with space, with the city, with context, with the environment. A good street artist picks up on little details, irregularities, objects on the street, cracks, and creates entire pieces of art around them. You might say that’s the point of street art.”
“Banksy is the fucking best!” said Timofey Radya. “I completely understand why everyone criticizes him. But in his position, his role, he doesn’t have anyone to turn to for advice about what he’s supposed to do. It’s a little strange that there’s only one name on that level. It would be cool if there were a few more to balance him out. But it might be thanks to the global media machine. If me and the other guys you spoke to all lived in London and did the same thing, the whole world would probably know us.”
It’s Abikh’s fascination with Banksy that led him to return to the streets along with a11clear and Andrey Ovsyankin, better known as Ovsyan (usually written as Ovs9n).
Ovsyan’s style differs greatly from that of Yekaterinburg’s other artists — he loves working with different materials, not just paint. When the protesters against the church’s construction in the Drama Theater square won, Ovsyan hung a piece of art in the shape of a huge air freshener with the words “City freshener. To fight the smell of stone and concrete.”
Ovsyan brought Meduza’s correspondent to one of his most famous pieces: a group of birds drawn on the doors of Stalin’s former home on Chelyuskintsev Street. The birds are drawn on each of the door’s square panels, and they’re covered by wire grids forming a cage that passersby can walk through. The sign above the door reads “Release,” one of the most popular slogans at the protests in support of Alexey Navalny in the winter of 2021, but Ovsyan made the piece long before.
“I was walking past these doors when I thought it would be great to put someone in the window panels, but who? Birds. And where could they be? In cages. You can let them free. I always wanted viewers to be able to do something — open, close. It’s great when the location itself tells you what to do, although I also have pieces that aren’t tied to their location,” Ovsyankin explained.
The city’s residents have made their own adjustments to the piece: someone wrote in names for the birds, one of which was “ovsyanka” (“oatmeal” in Russian, and a clear allusion to Ovsyan himself). “So now my name is connected to something other than just oatmeal,” said the artist. According to him, city residents have already learned how to differentiate his works from other street artists’. “Right now, I love to bolt things, attach things, make things. When people see something bolted, they often think it’s mine.”
Yekaterinburg artist Yegor Gorye collaborated with art group Zliye in the late 2010s, and their work has been an inspiration for him. “I wanted revolt, aggression, and force. They began their path in Kamensk-Uralsky, we began in one city, and I photographed their work there,” said Gorye.
Gorye admitted he’s still “searching for his style.” “I don’t follow specific artists intentionally. I might get inspired by an artist, do some unpremeditated copying — I worry about that, and I try to get inspired by films and music instead. About a year ago, I started a project — I want to do a hundred art pieces in different styles, different ideas, and finish within five or six years. I want to figure out which ideas I resort to most often, which ideas and styles I use,” he said.
Yegor is modest about his own work. It’s only at the end of the interview that he remembers his largest piece — a mural inside the White Tower in Uralmash called “Urban Legend.” “I illustrated the rivalry between the Uralmashevsky and the Tsentrovy [gangs] in the style of the Mayan and Aztec codices, a reference to the Thieves’ Codes. The Aztecs conducted blood sacrifices, and thieves did this,” said Yegor.
The artist a11clear became famous as a result of his second piece — his first, by his own admission, was unsuccessful — which depicts a riot police officer beating a birch tree (the piece was dedicated to the confrontation in the square).
“I wanted to speak out. What bothered me the most was that they had already fenced off the area and started cleaning the tile. People were standing all around, protesting, and they had already decided themselves what to do,” said a11clear. “Back then, I didn’t know they make special paint for graffiti, so at first I got frustrated by the drips, the paint works differently on paper. But then Radya and [blogger Ilya] Varlamov both posted riot police, and I realized it doesn’t matter if the work isn’t perfect, it’s the message that matters.”
The majority of a11clear’s most famous pieces have political overtones: a dog eating the constitution, Fyodor the robot with a disability. But not all of his pieces have connections to specific events. “After the riot officer, I started catching myself thinking how I’d like to do something that’s not connected to a date,” he said. “Of course, it’s easier to come up with metaphors, to free up thoughts about politics. For example, I think the popularization of science is important, I want to attract that audience, but so far there’s only silence on their part. I want to do something about the 1980s — my favorite era.”
In his art, a11clear tries not to use text: “Of course, drawings with text work better, but I want to get away from language and only use shapes, although it doesn’t always turn out that way. In a way, this is a deviation from the mainstream — many of Yekaterinburg’s artists, including Timofey Radya, love working with text.
“Yekaterinburg has a lot of art with text, largely because of Timofey, who started the trend,” said Vladimir Abikh. “There’s also a lot of text in Russian culture in general. If you ask any of us to name five writers, they’ll do it no problem, but ask for painters and we’ll be at a loss. Plus the influence of conceptualism, plus the fact that Russian icons have a lot of text.”
Artist Ilya Mozgi prefers to work with text as well — the city’s courtyards are full of his pieces featuring aphorisms. “On a technical level, it means everything simpler, saves time. You can get some sleep, then go to work,” said Ilya. “I’ve quit doing what I used to do, with bright graffiti and drawings. I wouldn’t say I’m making protest art, my pieces are more romanticized, they’re about me personally, about my fears. I want to release a zine called ’Notes from an office employee.’ I worked in an office for eight years, and this had an effect on my art, on what I bring to the street.”
‘It will rise again’
“One of my good acquaintances noticed once that certain symbols of freedom and lack thereof appear in my work more often than others: grids, chains, locks, and keys. I’ve never thought about it, but after she asked about it, I started noticing it myself,” said Andrey Ovsyankin. “It turns out that the very act of painting on the street, where they taught us you’re not allowed to paint, is itself an act of freedom. For one, you’re freeing your idea, it’s no longer yours, it belongs to the street and everyone who wants to accept it. And second, you’re freeing yourself from norms and rules.”
“Of course, you can always do art in the traditional formats, like chamber art, but it seems to me that that’s less effective. We have a city, we have paint, what else do we need?” said Timofey Radya. At the same time, Radya doesn’t consider himself an artist per se; he refers to his work as “the creation of an artistic language and a spiritual practice.”
In Radya’s opinion, the “most interesting, cool, and pure” works of street art are the ones that are done anonymously. He compared going out to make art to going to a protest: “Some people are scared, some people still haven't woken up, and some people are already starting to act. It’s a direct confrontation with reality as it is. The street is a catalyst for political processes, if we’re talking about street rallies, and artistic practices, if we’re talking about people creating artistic languages. I know firsthand.”
“I’d been thinking about using it in a piece of street art for many years. I tried it out in a lot of different places in different cities, but there was always something missing. Then, in January, I felt a strong internal need to do something. As soon as I felt it, I had the thought that it was finally time to use these words, because the right context had finally appeared. The idea was to make the piece the day before the rally,” said Radya.
Radya is hardly optimistic about the future of street art in Yekaterinburg and in Russia more generally, but he’s not ready to give up. “It’s most likely lying down in its grave in slow motion, gradually reclining back. How could it be otherwise? The wave has passed, and sooner or later there will be another one. It’s completely natural. To make waves, you have to rock the boat.”
Vladimir Abikh also mentioned his piece “It Will Rise Again,” which references “Dick Captured by the FSB,” a famous work by the art group Voina. In Abikh’s version, the phallus was drawn on a broken bridge and faces downward. “But it might still get back up. ‘It will rise again’ is a good slogan for my future presidential campaign,” said Abikh.
Translation by Sam Breazeale