Понеделник, 28 Декември 2015 20:12

Graffiti: From Subculture to Cultural Policies and Industries

Tsvetelina Hristova

Abstract: In the course of the last decades graffiti and street art have become more and more incorporated in advertising, urban planning, and cultural policies – both in Bulgaria and worldwide. The article traces the changing role of graffiti in Sofia and Stara Zagora, drawing on interviews with local graffiti writers, and places the development of Bulgarian graffiti in the context of a global trend of incorporating transgressive graffiti subculture into the cultural mainstream.

Keywords: graffiti, Bulgarian graffiti, Bulgarian street art, Bulgarian urban art


Graffiti as part of urban cultural imagery

In the riverbed of Perlovska River graffiti writers[1] and artists are painting on its concrete-lined banks, painted over in grey so as to erase the graffiti from last year’s festival. Some dozens of metres of the riverbed are laid with sand, deck chairs are laid out, and smiling girls are giving out Danone’s new beverage for free in a nearby tropical bar with a thatched roof. The graffiti design of the package reads: DFD (Danone for Drinking). Under the bridge a DJ is playing electronic music and the huge amplifier speakers create a party-like atmosphere. The police officer sent by the local police station to guard the event is fighting the scorching heat by drinking DFD under a tent at the top of the bridge. An iron staircase, recently fixed by the municipality, leads down to the riverbed. The whole area has been treated against rodents and insects and the wild-grown vegetation has been removed. This is the second edition of the Urban Creatures Festival, organized by Urban Art Foundation and Poduyane District, which took place on 14th and 15th July 2012.


Fig. 1. Urban Creatures Festival, 14-15 July, 2012, Perlovska River, Sofia.

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Fig. 2. Bozko, Urban Creatures Festival, 14-15 July 2012, Perlovska River, Sofia. 

The main perimeter of the festival is reserved for the artists invited by the organizers – well-known names in urban art, and in the fine and plastic arts milieus, as well as for those selected by the organizers based on the sketches they submitted. These participants have their paints and sprays provided. Further down, where the riverbed is overgrown with shrubs, aspiring graffiti writers, who are not among the selected, are given the chance to show what they can do. They, however, should bring their own materials. When I ask one of the boys from this section whether he sees any professional future in graffiti writing and whether he can make a living out of it, he replies: “If you want to know how to make money out of graffiti, ask Naster“.[2]

Naster has already had a few solo exhibitions as a graffiti artist around the country and abroad, and has been invited to paint for various municipalities, festivals, and private clients. Though not the only one, he is probably the most renowned street artist in Sofia. Only in 2012 there were at least a dozen graffiti festivals in Sofia and other Bulgarian cities. Apart from that, numerous urban lifestyle initiatives invite graffiti artists to take part in their events – during the Sofia Breathes Festival[3] a few youngsters sprayed a banner on Pirotska Street. The Bulgarian campaign for Absolut vodka – Absolut Blank – featured the work of graffiti artists from Studio Four Plus; many companies use graffiti art in advertisement.

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Fig. 3. An Advertisement for Avo-Bell language schools, Dondukov Blvd., Sofia, photo: Tsvetelina Hristova

The term “graffiti” is generally used to designate all types of signs or graphic symbols placed on buildings – from the graffiti in Pompeii, preserved after the eruption of Vesuvius in 1st c. AD, to contemporary political graffiti; from writings in public toilets to hip-hop graffiti. As part of urban subculture, however, they emerge from hip-hop graffiti and the various practices that accompany them – street and urban art. Therefore, my paper focuses mainly on them. Although there are other subcultural groups that also tend to write on walls and public buildings – football fans, for instance – they do not demonstrate the same distinctive and recognizable style and variety of techniques (in urban graffiti those are, among others: stencils; stickers and posters – big or small paper-printed graffiti that are later on spread around the city; tags – signatures, etc.). Moreover, other groups do not specialize in graffiti writing – the ones who spend a substantial amount of their time and resources on graffiti writing, are as a rule related to the hip-hop culture. Broadly speaking, graffiti are associated with urban and street subculture and with the practices of youth groups hanging around and appropriating urban space. Thus, graffiti are often related to skaters and bikers. Globally, they emerge as part of the hip-hop subculture and spread along with it (Neelon). Electronic media play their role in the distribution of both graffiti and hip-hop, and their world-wide distribution follows a specific pattern entailing the same elements – music, break dancing, clothing style, graffiti writing techniques, as well as a specific international slang, comprising predominantly English vocabulary. Even though they are regarded as part of youth subclture, graffiti as a practice is not limited to teenagers. Nowadays, most of the distinguished and renowned writers in Bulgaria and worldwide are in their 30s or 40s.

My observations of the contemporary graffiti stage in Bulgaria are based on interviews with four of the most famous Bulgarian writers who work and live in Sofia, a former writer from Stara Zagora, the organizers of the Urban Creatures Festival (the chair of the Urban Art Foundation and an official from the Culture Department of Poduyane Municipality), as well as a few beginner writers. The interviews were conducted between July and October 2012 as part of the New Cultural Industries Project of the MA program in Cultural Anthropology at Sofia University. When choosing my respondents and later on when analyzing their interviews I focused on the interactions between writers, institutions, and businesses. This, however, meant that a big part of the writers, especially teenage writers, had to be excluded from the analysis. Even though, unlike famous writers, they are not that visible as agents of change, initiating new trends in contemporary urban culture, teenage writers put the same amount of effort and resources into creating graffiti, and play an essential part in the maintaining, functioning and developing of the graffiti subculture. A more in-depth analysis of Bulgaria’s graffiti subculture should definitely consider their impact in the process.

Here I will analyze the processes of change in the practice of graffiti writing and its transformation into an urban practice that is less underground and less transgressive. I will further study the actors taking part in this process and establish parallels with graffiti development in the West. I will analyze the relationship between graffiti writers and institutions separately from their relationship with the business, although they often intertwine.

The beginnings and development of the international graffiti stage

Graffiti emerged as an urban practice in the United States in the late 1960s. They gained popularity thanks to an article about writer Taki 183, published in the New York Times in the summer of 1971.[4] Taki 83 was the nick of a youngster of Greek origin, who, due to the fact that he worked as a courier, managed to put his tag all around New York. Soon there were dozens who decided to follow his example, and came up with their own nick names and left their tags on public and private buildings. This was the prototype of graffiti tags – a signature with the nick of the writer. Since the early 1980s onwards graffiti have become part of the hip-hop subculture. Together with DJ-ing, rapping and break dancing, graffiti became one of the four pillars of this subculture (Neelon)[5] and were mainly associated with the youth culture of Afro-American communities. The emergence of street art in the 1990s was part of graffiti culture’s impact. Unlike traditional hip-hop graffiti, which were predominantly tags, street art deployed a wider variety of techniques.[6] Graffiti have been more and more integrated in pop-culture and advertising ever since.[7]

Graffiti that appear illegally on public and private buildings, trains and other public places immediately come in conflict with the local and national policies of urban planning and development. Even today such activities are criminalized in many countries, with sanctions depending on the national legislation. In the 1980s many local authorities in the United States initiated various anti-graffiti campaigns. One of the most innovative solutions, which considerably affected the development of graffiti and street art, was the practice of involving graffiti writers in the fight against illegal graffiti.[8] It can be dated back to the 1980s when Philadelphia’s local authorities took a radically new approach to illegal graffiti and started up a programme that involved painting frescoes of famous people and local role models on the walls of public buildings.[9] An important aspect of such joint projects was that they aimed in the first place at promoting a specific kind of aesthetics and associating the local power structures with youth cultures as a form of self-advertising, as well as at creating sanctioned graffiti walls. This allocation of space for graffiti prevented future illegal graffiti writing and engaged the youngsters in the idea that they can have their say in the aesthetic development of the city. Furthermore, it promoted a publicly acceptable mode of graffiti writing – writing on walls sanctioned by the municipality, making drawings rather than simply leaving their tags. It was through this new aspect of graffiti writing – as a publicly acceptable precaution against illegal tags – that graffiti found their new role and place in urban space.

The increasing popularity of graffiti intensified their connections to business and advertising. First of all, graffiti sprays are a new market niche, created for and by writers themselves. It is not uncommon that writers take part in the development of new aerosols used for graffiti. Of course, the chemical industry produced aerosols long before the emergence of graffiti but nowadays there are companies like the German Montana, the American Krylon, and the Spanish Kobra, which manufacture series of sprays designed specifically for graffiti writing as they give better coating and  dry quicker.

Another example of collaboration is advertising and graphic design. The first companies to recognize the advertising potential of graffiti were those producing street and urban wear.[10] The style of clothing these companies launch to the market builds on the same subculture that graffiti come from. Therefore as early as 2000 companies such as Boxfresh started to deploy the technique of illegal graffiti to promote their new production among potential clients. The campaign that engaged Solo One, famous for his stickers, used the slogan “We are you”, the slogan itself being borrowed from the Zapatistas.[11] The merging of illegal graffiti and advertising led to Guerilla marketing, which uses street art, paintings on buildings, and unconventional installations as advertising strategies. Since these campaigns were unregulated, they were often banned – IMB’s campaign “Love, Peace, Linux” in 2001 is one such example.[12] The involvement of graffiti writers in advertising campaigns has become part of the marketing strategy of influential street wear brands. It is also one of the methods these companies use to expand their business to new markets. Writers like Keith Haring introduced the graffiti style in advertising and graphic design today borrows a big part of its techniques from street art, which makes it a potential career for graffiti writers. Writers themselves play an important part in the transmission of graffiti subculture from one country to another. They follow the work of other writers and when they travel abroad to create illegals, they get in touch with each other. They connect via mutual friends, graffiti internet forums, or meet in local spray shops. Surprisingly, although they are active Internet users, writers prefer communicating face to face and getting in touch through a friend of a friend. The concept of “graffiti society” is justified as they know and follow each other’s work and stay in contact so when a writer from abroad decides to come to a new place to “scribble”, he can always rely on support from local writers.

The Bulgarian graffiti stage

Having already had more than 30 years of history in the United States and Western Europe, hip-hop graffiti entered Bulgaria in the mid-1990s, mainly through MTV and VHSs. Initially, there were only a few writers who produced exclusively illegals, they learned from magazines ordered from abroad and if they wanted to get in touch with the masters, they had to prove their skills and be recommended. In these early years the Bulgarian graffiti stage was concentrated in a few cities – Sofia, Targovishte, Veliko Tarnovo, Varna, Bourgas and Plovdiv. Most likely, even before the emergence of the local graffiti stage, there had been graffiti in the country made by foreign writers who came to the Bulgarian seaside. As Vihren points out,[13] Bulgarian coastal towns are full of foreign graffiti. The first graffiti in the capital, in Sofia’s underground, was also made by foreigners – by graffiti writers from Greece with the help of a Bulgarian. Later on, when the number of Bulgarian writers grew and local graffiti developed, there were even more examples of collaborations with foreigners. Graffiti are in a way the perfect embodiment of the idea of cultural flows and the local variation is founded on a combination between imagery and techniques inspired by notable examples and an originally developed local style.[14]

What has played role in the development of local graffiti is not so much the writings left by foreigners in Bulgarian cities, but the influence of various media images found in magazines, TV, videos, and the Internet.

Bulgarian graffiti developed in a situation that was radically different from the one in the West.  At that time, graffiti were already popular not only as a transgressive practice but also as street art as well as in advertising. Their spread and visibility were further increased through electronic media. Bulgarian writers actively use the Internet to find pictures of famous graffiti, to get in touch with writers from abroad, and to promote their own work to the global graffiti scene. The first website, with contact details, belonged to a crew from Targovishte. Through the website the crew could receive orders for legal graffiti from night clubs, shops, and offices. Meanwhile the crew also made illegals, for which they sometimes got arrested, but due to the lack of special anti-graffiti legislation in Bulgaria, the risk was not as big as in the West. Here, graffiti writing qualifies as a minor offense. In a way, Bulgaria is a graffiti heaven, not only due to the absence of strict anti-graffiti policies enforced by the local authorities but also because it takes years for graffiti writing to be removed. While in other countries the reaction is immediate and when a train is painted over, it is taken out of service and only put in use again after being completely cleaned, in Bulgaria, due to financial reasons, only registration plates are cleaned. “The foreigners that come to paint here, and return a few years later, are at a loss what to make of it when they see their work is still there”,[15] laughs Vihren. Local and foreign writers’ graffiti remain intact for years. One of the oldest examples, the one by the Dutch Nash, can still be seen at the rear of the Sofia Theatre. Nevertheless, the lack of regulation of graffiti writing leads to the absurdity that even if writers paint at places permitted for graffiti by the municipality, they can still get in trouble with the police as there is no official municipal regulation specifying the permitted spots.

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Fig. 4: SEQ "Illustration" \*Arabic 4: Nash’s graffiti at the rear of the Sofia Theatre. Photo: Tsvetelina Hristova.

Graffiti and local cultural policies

Initially, legal graffiti were mostly made in private homes and restaurants but soon municipalities  started launching joint projects as well. The first example of this kind was the graffiti trolleybus stop at the National Palace of Culture (NPC). It was part of the 2003 election campaign of Mayor Stefan Sofiyanski.[16] Sofiyanski’s PRs got in touch with the crew from Targovishte via their website – at that time the only website of Bulgarian graffiti writers with contact details. The idea was that this joint project would win over young voters in Sofia. Since graffiti are interpreted as a universal sign of youth culture, they are often used as a means to appeal to young people, be they voters or consumers. It is most often the writers who take the initiative for interaction and communication with local authorities as they see joint projects as an opportunity to get out of illegality the way Western writers have done it. Contacts with foreign writers are of crucial importance here too. Thanks to them, local writers increase their self-esteem and start perceiving themselves as “the face of Bulgarian graffiti”. Thus, taking as an example foreign collaborations, they try to interact with the local authorities. As a result since 2002-2003 there have been a number of various graffiti competitions and festivals throughout the country. Sprite Graffiti Festival dates back to 2003 and until 2012 it was traditionally held on the fences enclosing the crumbling 1300 Years Bulgaria Monument in front of NPC. Approximately at the same time, the town of Targovishte began holding a similar type of contest. The annual event was supported by the municipality and funded by international companies. After Bulgaria’s accession to the EU such festivals can be financed through various European programmes. On the whole, however, it is the writers who search sponsorship from spray manufacturers and companies connected to the graffiti subculture. Later on, the collaboration between institutions and writers includes other actors as well. For instance, the Urban Creatures Festival takes place thanks to the mediation of G. G. works in sports and event management and actively promotes famous local writers. As a member of the Public Council of the Municipality of Poduyane he has played an important role in initiating and organizing the festival. It was again G. and other festival participants who founded the Urban Art Foundation[17] with the idea that the institutionalization of their activities would give them more independence and credibility and would help when applying for funding. Their future plans include organizing international festivals and opening an open-air graffiti gallery in the underpass between Madrid Blvd. and Poduyane Train Station, which, due to bureaucratic obstacles is put on hold for the moment.[18]

Local municipalities invite writers to paint the walls of public buildings and this is one of the methods for promoting street art as the more artistic and socially acceptable alternative to graffiti. The Municipality of Stara Zagora in partnership with the Different Outlook association designated the façade of the town library and the underpass in front of it for graffiti writing. The writers were selected in advance and had to present their ideas before being allowed to paint. The District of Poduyane authorities, which are consistent in their attempts to incorporate graffiti in the cultural image of the area, have a similar idea. The allocated spots for graffiti are, however, not supposed to be used for new writings over the ones approved by the municipality, and are thus used as a prevention against tags and other scribbles. The graffiti on the wall of the AVO BELL School on Dondukov Blvd. fulfill a similar function, according to their employees. The preventive role of graffiti extends even to programmes for juvenile delinquents. One such example is the “Bazite” project, developed by the District of Poduyane and Tsvetan Tsanov Foundation.[19] It envisions the establishment of centres for creative activities, professional orientation and support, and art therapy for aggression-prone youngsters.[20] The objectives of the Urban Creature Festival, the way they are presented in the project submitted to the District of Poduyane’s Culture Department, discuss the regulating and preventive role of graffiti in the municipality’s policies – “they would stimulate artistic activities and creative use of urban space rather than vandalism, and would provide young people with an opportunity for creative expression“.[21]

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Fig. 5: A poster of the Urban Creatures Festival 2012 featuring the names of the guests – famous writers and artists, the organizers and the sponsors.

After consultations with graffiti writers Sofia Municipality designated a few areas in the city where graffiti writing is allowed. As mentioned earlier, however, there is no official graffiti regulation; therefore, arrangements are made only verbally. The designated places are: the Perlovska riverbed along Slivnitsa Blvd. next to BILLA; the underpass at Gotse Delchev Blvd.; the former paid parking lot by the McDonald's, opposite the Central Department Store (with a big Chupa-Chups advertisement painted on the wall), and, until recently, the fences enclosing the 1300 Years Bulgaria Monument opposite NPC. As far as graffiti are concerned, Sofia is not divided into specific districts. Yet, the most preferable places are construction sites and run-down underpasses where the likelihood to get arrested or sanctioned by the police is relatively low. Similarly to practices abroad, the local authorities rely on the cooperation of the writers themselves to prevent unwanted graffiti, even if they do not always realize their intentions for collaboration. A few years ago Vihren was contacted by Sofia Urban Mobility Center’s management to help with a piece of advice on how to cope with graffiti writing on public vehicles. He suggested that writers should be allowed to paint on some of the buses. The management approved the idea and said that some old buses, which were to go out of operation anyway, could be used for the purpose. The buses, however, are still in use and none of them has been painted.

Another aspect of a local-level interaction between writers and institutions is the desire of municipalities to identify themselves with Western urban culture, where street art plays an important role in creating the image of the city as a beautiful, vibrant, and colourful place for living, providing space for self-expression. A relevant example in this regard is Sofia’s application for European Capital of Culture. Many of this year’s street art and graffiti events were supported as part of this initiative. The writers taking part in these projects acknowledge their own role in improving urban space and are of the opinion that street art changes the “oriental mentality” of the people. Sofia’s writers pointed out that the main social function of street art lies in changing the mentality and developing the aesthetic taste of the citizens because beautiful graffiti make passers-by feel good.[22]

Graffiti as cultural industry

It is hard to set a definite boundary between the relationship of writers with institutions and with businesses. Sprite Graffiti Fest, as well as other festivals, held throughout the country, are examples of events organized through the tripartite collaboration between writers, local municipalities, and international companies. One of the ways in which writers interact with companies is through their role of consumers of products related to graffiti. On many occasions it is the writers who initiate contact with the companies. For some of them, working as importers and distributors of graffiti sprays is one of the work options that can be combined with their hobby. The companies themselves consider the writers their first choice as distributors of their products. One such example in Bulgaria is Stara Zagora. Before the opening of the shop “Na tamno[23] (where one can buy products related to subcultures, including graffiti sprays), the local writers convinced an elderly lady (a granny, as they say), the owner of a hardware shop, to start importing a specific brand of spray.[24] One of the interviewees has been a long-time spray importer. First he began with Montana sprays, while now he is about to open a new shop, where he will sell Kobra sprays. His partner is an importer from Greece, a graffiti writer himself.

The incorporation of graffiti in advertising dates back to the heyday of Bulgarian graffiti in 2002-2003. Guerilla marketing campaigns were not unheard of in Bulgaria at the time, and after the country’s entry on the international graffiti market and graffiti map, the process accelerated. In 2003 Galin Stoev’s theatre play “Oxyden” was promoted through wall and pavement stencils. In the recent years the stencils of y-maria.com/eu, advertising driving courses, have become a common sight throughout Sofia.

In 2006 M-tel launched their new mobile service LOOP, which targeted users under 26 and the advertising campaign deployed the stylistic of graffiti and youth urban culture. Unlike Danone’s DFD campaign, however, M-tel did not hire local graffiti writers but used the services of a foreign advertising agency, which created the graphic image of the logo and the campaign. Danone, on the other hand, even if employing local writers, did not want to be associated with their names and included the creation of a fictional DFD crew as part of their campaign. Local writers see such collaborations as an opportunity to make profit from their art, but are sceptical of them at the same time, as companies do not usually let the writers have a say in the conceptualization of the campaigns. Writers draw a parallel between the way graffiti are incorporated in international companies and here. The personal style and the nick of the writer are actively used by companies abroad. On many occasions local writers are drawn to advertising campaigns and their popularity is used as a strategy for the company’s expansion into the new market. When they entered Bulgaria, big companies like Adidas and Pyromaniac followed the same model. For its 2012 collection Pyromaniac invited the writers from Studio Four Plus who created the visual concept for the patterns on the clothes.[25] There is an explicit difference between local and international businesses – big companies, which manufacture urban and street wear, recognize graffiti as an element of youth subculture, in which it is not only the graphic design but also the writer’s concept and personality that matter.


Fig. 6: the DFD crew at the Urban Creatures Festival, 14-15 July, Perlovska river, Sofia.

Writers in Bulgaria are often commissioned as painters but their individual style and the themes of their works are rarely taken into account. Apart from making graffiti, they are hired to make paintings on buildings or in private homes and night clubs, some of which are far from graffiti – a hunting scene in a private home, for instance.[26] Many Bulgarian writers have a degree in fine and visual arts, so along with graffiti they also create other types of graphic images – illustrations, graphic design, fine and plastic art. Graffiti is just one of the art techniques they use. Studio Four Plus, for instance, specializes in graphic design. It was founded in 2008 in Stara Zagora by the crew Four Plus. Although they started as graffiti writers back then, nowadays they are commissioned for campaigns of international companies as graffiti writers but they also take part in visual projects that have nothing to do with graffiti.

In recent years graffiti have come to be considered an art form. Various galleries – “1908”, “Raiko Aleksiev”, “UBA”, etc. – organize graffiti exhibitions. For its Bulgarian campaign Absolut Blank traditionally invites famous artists and some of the selected participants were Four Plus and Trash Lovers. In my conversations with officials from the Culture Department of Poduyane Municipality, they often referred to the writers as “artists”, whereas the graffiti along the Perlovska riverbed were called “paintings”. Thus, graffiti play the ambivalent role of both illegal vandalism and legal art. Today graffiti writers’ evaluation of graffiti often coincides with what institutions, advertising, and companies think of graffiti. Aesthetic value is appreciated, whereas tags are considered to be a lower form of expression. Although many writers started their career with tags and illegals (and they still do them “just for the thrill of it”), quite a few of those I talked to defined tags and illegals as scribbles. Showing how skillful you are is not easy to achieve when you have half an hour at the most to draw something, while hiding in order not to get caught. The idea is to gain recognition because this means not only artistic appreciation but also an opportunity to make a living and profit off graffiti. Naster and the legendary Banksy provide inspiring examples.

One and the same writer or crew can simultaneously make legals and illegals. This means that, on the one hand, they try to reach as many potential clients as possible, maintaining websites with contact details, while, on the other hand, they try to keep their anonymity in their illegal work. The nick, which writers use in their tags and which used to be decoded only by the initiated (the tag is difficult to read anyway, if a person is not familiar with the graffiti style), has already become a brand. With it the artist makes his work available to the general public, as well as to partners and potential clients – next to the nicks of crews and writers you can find their websites with well-designed portfolios.

One of the main results of global and local graffiti development is their transformation into a product – an art product and a market (or commercial) product, which leads to a change in their evaluation and existence in the urban environment. Now they are normalized and have become part of the aesthetic vision of urban space. As products displayed in galleries, written at places designated by the local authorities, or even used in advertising, graffiti have become a sign of themselves. They no longer function in symbiosis with the subculture that created them, they have lost their transgressive essence. Hip-hop and urban subculture, however, has also changed – from a subculture of the marginalized Afro-American communities it has become a culture of expensive brand clothes and equipment; the sprays needed to make a simple graffiti cost about 100 leva. In his study on graffiti and advertising Heitor Alvelos argues that it is no longer mainstream culture appropriating signs from fringe culture – it is an omnipresent mainstream culture actively generating a physical manifestation of its own fringes, it is the mainstream wanting to be its own fringe (Alvelos 2004: 185). The relation between legals and illegals, and the connections between graffiti, institutions and businesses are rather complex and cannot be interpreted as a straightforward invasion of the mainstream into graffiti culture. Illegals and legals, through which writers gain social and financial capital, feed on each other. Banksy, who maintains an image of illegality, transgressiveness and anonymity, has been publishing albums with his work and holding exhibitions for years. Some of the Studio Four Plus members have started their own, non-commercial (for the time being) project – Trash Lovers, its concept being to paint on the garbage in Sofia. The idea is to return to non-commercial urban art. Soon after, however, the project gained popularity, they started running their own blog where they uploaded photos from their actions, and they started receiving invitations for various commercial events like an Adidas advertising campaign. The non-commercial image was deliberately pursued by the crew when they won the project for painting the Supa Star restaurant at Shishman Street – they negotiated to be paid in soup servings.[27]

Just like in Banksy’s case, the writers themselves sustain the dichotomy of their image – simultaneously subcultural and inscribed in the logic of the mainstream cultural production. In a way, it is difficult to define graffiti as strictly subcultural or strictly mainstream, as entirely commercial or entirely non-commercial, as transgressive or regulated. In Bulgaria in particular, where they become popular after having a long history of development worldwide, graffiti are not so much a local subcultural phenomenon, but rather a local variation of an international practice, existing both inside and outside the mainstream and the commercial.


Alvelos, Heitor. 2004. “The desert of imagination in the city of signs: Cultural implications of sponsored transgression and branded graffiti“, In: Ferrell, J., K. Hayward, W. Morrison and M. Presdee (eds.) Cultural Criminology Unleashed. London: SAGE, pp. 181-192.

Dimiev, Boyan. 2006. “Mediativnoto risuvane na graffiti kato metod v art-terapiyata i negovoto myasto v psihoterapevtichnata sotsialna pedagogika [Mediative Graffiti Writing as a Method in Art-therapy and its Place in Psychotherapeutic Social Pedagogy]”, Pedagogika, 3, pp. 64-74.

Droney, Damien. 2010. “The Business of „Getting up“: Street Art and Marketing in Los Angeles“. Visual Anthropology, 23( 2), pp. 98-114.

Graham, Sarah. 2004. “Graffiti in Urban Space. Incorporating Artists into the Policy Realm“, Planning Forum, 10, pp. 5-31.

Ivanova, Milena. 2009. „Balgarskite hip-hop graffiti psevdonimi v konteksta na globalnata graffiti mrezha I neynite traditsii [Bulgarian hip-hop Graffiti Nicks in the Context of the Global Graffiti Network and its Traditions]”, Balgarski folkor, 3-4, pp. 208-214.

Neelon, Caleb (Sonik) „Ten years of art crimes: The effects and educational functions of the Internet on graffiti“, (accessed 10.01.2013).

[1] Graffiti slang – writer (Engl.). Graffiti makers are called writers and according to graffiti slang they write, scribble and bomb (illegals) but never paint. Nowadays, however, this notion is changing since now there are not only graffiti writers but also graffiti artists.

[2] Interview with Petar, Sofia, 14.07.2012.

[3] An open-space event or series of events in the capital organized with the support of the municipality, during which some of the smaller streets in the city centre are closed for traffic and open for cultural entrepreneurs and handicraftsmen to exhibit and sell their products, and to advertise their work.

[4]‘Taki 183’spawns pen pals”. New York Times, 21.07.1971.

[5] The author is also a graffiti writer. The website www.graffiti.org is the first graffiti website, launched in 1994.

[6] Droney: 98.

[7] More on the history of graffiti: Eric aka Deal CIA и Spar One TFP, graffiti writers made an instructive summary of New York’s graffiti development: http://www.at149st.com/hpart1.html.

[8] Graffiti slang – illegals: illegal graffiti; legal graffiti are called legals.

[9] Later on the programme was called Mural Arts Program (Graham: 11). More about the programme, as well as a virtual walk around the city at: http://muralarts.org/.

[10] Streetwear и urbanwear – clothes and accessories influenced by the youth subcultures style, particularly by the hip-hop one. 

[11] The flirt of the company with the counter-cultural and the political left wing had its amusing and contradictory development. Soon after the start of the campaign with the image of the Mexican Zapatistas the underground group Space Hijackers, which organizes campaigns and projects for communal use of public places, initiated a counter-campaign, outraged by the fact that a multimillion-dollar company was making use of the image of an anti-capitalist movement to advertise its products. The result is that after negotiating the issue with Space Hijackers, Boxfresh decided to supply its shops with leaflets and computers with an access to the Zapatistas’ website in order to inform its clients about the ideas of the movement and to donate the profit from the campaign to the Zapatistas (http://www.spacehijackers.org/html/projects/boxfresh.html).

[12]IBM's graffiti ads runs afoul of city officials“, CNN Tech, 19.04.2001. 

[13] Interview with Vihren, Sofia, 21.07.2012.

[14] Bulgarian writers’ nicks follow the pattern imposed by English-speaking writers, sometimes even directly referring to famous writers (Ivanova 2009).

[15] Interview with Vihren, interview with Mladen, Sofia, 21.07.2012.

[16]Stolichniyat kmet otkri spirka Grafiti [Sofia’s mayor opened Graffiti bus stop]”, Btv News, 15.05.2003.

[17] http://uaf.bg/ (for the time being the website is incomplete).

[18] Interview with Grigor, Sofia, 14.07.2012.

[19] http://www.tzvetantzanov.com/contents/what_we_do.html

[20] For instance, Boyan Dimiev’s comment on the use of graffiti as a meditative art-therapy, which can counterfight aggressive and deviant behaviour (Dimiev 2006).

[21] The project and the report on the festival were shown to me by an official from the District of Poduyane’s Culture Department, 15.10.2012.

[22] Interview with Petar, Sofia, 14.07.2012.

[23] A chain of stores specializing in music and goods associated with urban subculture, including graffiti sprays (http://www.natamno.com/).

[24] Interview with Nikolai, Stara Zagora, 6.10.2012.

[25] http://www.pyromaniac-apparel.eu/assets/catalogues/Pyromaniac_SS2012.pdf

[26] An example offered by one of the famous writers from Sofia, B., 20.07.2012.

[27] Interview with Svetlio, Sofia, 19.10.2012.


About the author

Tsvetelina Hristova holds a BA in Bulgarian Philology (Sofia University) and MA in Medieval Studies (Central European University) and in Cultural Anthropology (Sofia University). She is currently a PhD student at the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Western Sydney. Her main interests focus on cultural interactions, migration, survival tactics of marginalized groups and social rights.

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