Let’s paint the city: Street Art in St. Petersburg

A quest to find a public art scene in St. Petersburg

I step outside the Hermitage. Golden frames. Deep colours. A shining old glaze lies over the city centre of the Northern Venice. A raindrop lands on my skin. It starts to rain when I step out of the bus. I am no longer in the city centre. Old buildings loom into the cloudy sky now. I look around, but I can only see one colour: Grey.

“I love colours!” says Vladimir Chernychev, a street artist who is currently based in St. Petersburg, “Colours are important.” And they are central to street art. Street art colours the world. In fact it emerged out of the need to change the look of the city, express opinions publicly and send personal and political messages. Not everybody takes kindly to street art however. Is it really art or merely vandalism? There seems to be no real answer. But the idea remains that street art is simply art in a public environment; the question lingers on the legality of it.

Photo: SAM archive
Source: SAM archive

Can street art change the world?

The Creative Association of Curators in Russia hosted the final conference of their art project “Critical Mass 2015” in September. They discussed the idea of creative practice as a social change agent: Can street art change the world? Artem Filatov represented the Russian side. He is an artist based in Nizhni Novgorod and organises local street art excursions in his hometown. Filatov and his team try to create a dialogue between artists, the government and the society. With their public excursions they aim to explain why street art is important for a city.

“They [the government] don’t have any idea what street art is!” says Filatov who sees a lack of street art in Russia, especially in St. Petersburg, “I think St. Petersburg is a poor city from a street art point of view.” Here artists prefer to stay in their community, he explains or rather work in private places, behind locked doors – away from the public eye.

Yulia Vlasovа who works at the Street Art Museum in St. Petersburg is more optimistic though, “In Russia, street art is not so popular and widespread at the moment – but I am sure this will change.” With the growing acceptance in the society for public art and the support of cultural institutions such as the Museum, street art could find new backing, explains Vlasovа.

Photo: SAM archive
Source: SAM archive

The Street Art Museum is located inside the active Sloplast plastic factory. The factory owner, Dmitry Zaitsev, and his son Andrey realised their idea of a Street Art Museum. Andrey Zaitsev, now the director of the Museum, used the huge space as an opportunity to provide a platform for artists to work legally. This industrial area outside the city centre seems to be a perfect place: Big walls and even financial support for the Museum.

“Here, the street artists mostly come from Russia and we certainly want to support them,” says Yulia Vlasova, “We choose artists whose work we like and who fit the Museum’s concept.” The Street Art Museum works together with several curators who financially support the Museum and choose the artists. “Street art is not only about politics,” Vlasova clarifies, “500,000 people live here in this district. It’s full of factories. There are no historical buildings. Everything is grey: Street art brings colour into the life of this people.” But can the dynamics of colour change the world? “It may not change politics,” explains Vlasova, “But it can change the perspective of the people on how they see the world.” Still the Street Art Museum is a private place. Artists colour a factory, not the city, and the government keeps its distance from these kinds of projects.

Photo: SAM archive
Source: SAM archive

Between art and vandalism

“I think the Street Art Museum is horrible,” says Vladimir Chernychev. “It’s not organic. It’s all artificial. Art should be on the street, not in a museum.” Just like Artem Filatov, Chernychev is from Nizhni Novgorod and has specialised in street art in urban and abandoned places, especially wooden street art, “With street art we are trying to understand and retain the spirit and histories of our city, so people don’t forget!” Filatov found his way to wooden art through graffiti and street art – always trying to maintain the connection with the society, “Street art creates a new way to message people.”

At the same time, when street art is put into the spotlight and gains attention in the public eye, a new and popular angle emerges: commercial street art. Companies, such as Nike or Coca-Cola, pay artists for their work to push their product into a trendy public environment. “I really don’t like this,” stresses Chernyshev. However, street art stays a public art without boundaries, without rules – only under the strict eye of the government. The difference between commercial art and street art has to be discovered. Then – from an artistic point – street art is open for deep interpretations.

Colours give us endless opportunities to make the world more beautiful. And yet due to legal restrictions one colour dominates in St. Petersburg: grey. I cross the bridge. Sprayed advertisements for karate and ballet lessons, for sex, and coffee shops lead my way home. Coming from Berlin to St. Petersburg, I kind of like this Soviet time feeling. The glary street lamps cast long shadows on dark buildings. However, it is 2015 already. Street art has the power to merge with our everyday life. The potential to make our world more personal and colourful. Does street art have the power to change our life if we just let it?

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