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Sofia Graffiti Tour

[Sofia, Bulgaria, Sep 16, 2018]

I slept like a log for 12 hours straight after the big hike I did yesterday in the Rila mountains. I woke up at 9:30 am, feeling like a new person!

After a leisurely morning reading the newspaper and catching up on my blog, mom and I headed out to attend the finals of the rhythmic gymnastics world cup, which Sofia was hosting. Rhythmic gymnastics is one of the sports we are really good at (together with volleyball, light athletics, soccer among others), and our team was expected to win a medal. There were two disciplines remaining in the group competition – hoops and mixed (3 balls and 2 ropes). If you’re not familiar with rhythmic gymnastics, you can read up on it here.

I had looked at buying tickets online ahead of time, but my parents were skeptical of this, so I figured we can just go there and buy tickets on the spot. When we got there about 20 minutes prior to the start of the competition, it was quite busy.

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I bought a Bulgarian flag from one of the street vendors outside, then headed for the ticket booth. We tried to cut across a road leading to the parking structure but were preempted by the police, who had cordoned off our shortcut for the arrival of the Bulgarian president. who apparently was attending.

When I finally got to the ticket booth, I was heart-broken – no tickets left! I was hoping there would be someone outside trying to scalp their tickets, but no luck with that either. The situation was hopeless, and I was mad at myself for not looking into this more seriously on Friday. I gifted my now useless flag to someone going in, and mom and I left. We met up with dad back in our neighborhood, where they had their customary mid-afternoon beer at a cafe. Dad was already there when we arrived, and we watched the gymnastics finals on his phone.

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The Bulgarian team won gold in hoops after a fatal mistake by the Russian team (our biggest competitors) left them out of the top 3 entirely. Watch the Bulgarian team’s hoops routine on Youtube – it’s absolutely gorgeous!

By the end of my beer, I had decided that I will try to rescue the day with a graffiti tour, part of the 3-day festival KvARTal. Kvartal means neighborhood in Bulgarian. The KvARTal festival was an art festival celebrating my neighborhood in Sofia. My parents live in the middle of the old Sofia city center – the neighborhood that was in the ideal center of the old city.

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Great design for the KvARTal program

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Map of the neighborhood KvARTal is celebreating. My parents live near #54 on the map

In fact, just a couple of days before, my mom had pulled out a document from the 1970s that contained information from 1936 when my great-grandparents had purchased the apartment in our building, which was built in either 1934 or 1935. Can you imagine? The apartment has been in my family for four generations. There are two apartments on each floor, and the neighbors on our floor are also 4th generation. Another family on our side has also been here in the beginning, making 1/3 of the apartments still occupied by the families of the original owners. That’s some history! And the location is absolutely superb. We are a 5-10 walk from absolutely everything the city has to offer – a dozen theaters, the opera, the Aleksandur Nevsky cathedral and the parliament, the National Palace of Culture (well, that’s technically a 15-20 minute walk), the mineral baths, museums, etc. It truly is an amazing place to live.

At any rate, KvARTal festival, now in its third year, has the goal of celebrating this neighborhood and its history and making it a center not only geographically but also artistically. I found out about this festival during last year’s visit when we saw all the activities in the neighborhood. When I decided on the dates for my trip this year, I looked up the festival and discovered it was slated for my first weekend back home. The program this year seemed much, much bigger, and it included a number of tours, including a graffiti tour offered daily at 6 pm. Sofia has been covered in graffiti since the mid 1990s, and I was curious to find out what the fuss was all about for an activity that is often considered vandalism rather than an art form worth giving a tour about. The tour was going to be in English, so I also expected to see more of an international crowd and was curious to see who’d show up and where they’d be from.

The tour began at the Statue of Sofia, the city’s namesake. Sofia is a saint in the Eastern Orthodox religion, and her statue was built in 2000.

When I got there, there were plenty of people already waiting. There were two guides and they split up our group, which was great because it made each group quite small – about a dozen people.

Our first stop was a building I had seen countless of times back in the day on my walk to my high school, yet I don’t remember ever paying attention to the mural on it – the Chupa Chips mural. Chupa Chips is a Spanish brand of confectionery, and their logo was designed by none other than famous artist Salvador Dali in the now distant 1969 . Our guide explained this was one of the first large graffiti to show up in Sofia in the mid 1990s. He explained the history of graffiti – apparently things started with a mail boy in New York in the 1950s, who started “tagging” buildings with his name and street across the city.

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Our next stop was a set of stairs that contained a couple of graffiti by a pair of female artists. One of the artists’ nickname was Mouse; can you guess which of the two is hers? It’s the one on the right. In this auto-portrait, she pays homage the movie Eyes Wide Shut by Stanley Kurbrick. The bottom left corner has an inscription of the beginning of the movie in Bulgarian.

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The next set of stairs contained a set of graffiti I have actually seen and taken a picture of. I actually posted it on Facebook but instead of the graffiti, my question was about the number of cats in the photo (Sofia has way too many stray cats and dogs, but that’s another topic altogether).

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2015 Dec. How many stray cats do you see in this photo?

Our guide explained the different styles of graffiti. He explained the concept of a tag, which a very simple symbol identifying the artist. The next style in order of complexity is called “throw up” since the artist quickly throws it up on the wall. It’s usually only two colors – one for the outline, one for the filling. Both can be seen in this photo together with a more complicated style on the left. Graffiti are clearly a thing in Sofia, as we saw a couple of foreigners come by to get their picture taken by what I gathered were a couple of Bulgarians – friends or guides, I don’t know.

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This next piece is from a famous graffiti artist called Bruce. This graffiti spells his name, but the letters are so elaborate I couldn’t really make them up. It is absolutely gorgeous in person.

Next up was the candle my parents and I had seen getting painted, as it is right around the corner from our house and directly across the street from our favorite neighborhood pastry shop. The candle was painted on the walls of the main firehouse in Sofia, and it celebrates the National Day of the Firefighter, which was just on September 14th. I had seen it already, but I had failed to notice that the top of the candle where it meets the flame is actually a bunch of firefighters together as a team.

I texted my parents to tell them I am at the candle, and I happened to catch my mom appearing at our living room window to wave at me as I was taking this video. She is conveniently wearing a bright red shirt, which makes her easier to spot. 🙂

The idea for the candle came from an artist collective called 140ideas. These guys are pretty famous in Bulgaria. They are also behind a couple of other amazing murals our guide showed us pictures of. The first one is called Balance. At the bottom of the piece is a bee, which is hard to see, but the elephant at the top cannot be missed. The idea is that every living creature has an important role to play in the environment, and the small ones are just as important (if not more) to the balance in nature as the big ones.

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The second mural is in support of the brown bear, which is endangered in Bulgaria. You are looking at the building straight on, but the perspective in the mural is from above. The tree to the right is a real tree – the artists just drew a tree trunk to make the top of the live tree a part of the mural.

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Both of these murals were commissioned and painted on school buildings. The funding for them came from a competition called Keep Walking Bulgaria sponsored by the whiskey maker Johnny Walker. The guys from 140ideas won one of five grants in the competition.

The next mural is in pop culture style, the style made famous by Andy Warhol. The artist bears my name, as I could tell by her signature in the bottom right corner.

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Right next to this graffiti was a sign not typical of graffiti artists. It’s interesting as it can be read two ways – Don’t be a slave to art, the sys(tem) cannot be broken, or Don’t be a slave to the sys(tem), art can not be broken. I think I noticed a very slight variation in the colors of the words, which seemed to lead to the second reading being the intended one, but I could be wrong. This piece illustrated how open to interpretation graffiti can be.

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This next piece was created specifically for the KvARTal fest, like the candle. The artist, Nassimo, is Bulgarian and is very well known around the world.

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Next to this piece was a classic-style graffiti, depicting a writer (that’s what graffiti artists are called) in a state of euphoria after successfully writing on trains. Trains were the very first “canvases” for graffiti artists back in the day.

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And here, we see the act of “biting” when a second artist comes around and paints on top of the work of another. The flower on the bottom was a swastika like the one on top, but a graffiti artist converted it into a flower. That was really powerful for me. It was a really simple and beautiful example of something beautiful coming out of something evil. Isn’t creating the flower much better than painting over the swastika?

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This one was done by a French artist who likes to make copies of traditional paintings, in effect making them accessible to everyone. The inspiration for this piece was a painting of a prisoner – in a way, the artist set the prisoner free. He actually uses paper for his graffiti and apparently can be seen traveling with a printer.

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The final stop was back at the Chupa Chips mural. Rather than looking at it from across the street, like we did in the beginning, we actually went to the courtyard it’s in, and two other graffiti works were before us.

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The first one depicts Saint Sofia, graffiti style. I know it’s hard to see in the photo but there is a lion on one end of the mural and an eagle on the other. They symbolize the two bridges that used to mark the two ends of town but are now considered to be in the city center – Lion’s bridge and Eagle’s bridge. The work essentially celebrates graffiti in Sofia – the city is filled with them from one end of the old city to the other, just like in the mural.

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This piece is by an artist named Bozko, who is also quite famous. This work is thought to depict the house of power in Bulgaria and the political elite (the creature). You might recognize Pinocchio’s nose on the creature, which reflects Bozko’s opinion of our politicians. The nose is piercing the house of power. In other words, the current state of affairs will lead to a self-destructing barren Bulgaria, as alluded to by the cacti. The creature is in typical Bozko style – a monster that is in contrast with the bright colors its painted with.

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As you can tell by now, there is a lot more to graffiti than one might imagine at first glance. In Sofia at least, graffiti have been given the opportunity to evolve into a beautiful and meaningful art form.

Our guides were from Sofia Graffiti Tours, a company that has been doing them since 2016. Their usual route features the first and second stops on today’s tour, but the rest takes you elsewhere in the city center. I was so excited to have caught this special edition of the tour and learned so much about what’s in my own neighborhood. The tour was absolutely free as part of the festival. And the crowd? There was a Finish girl, a Hungarian guy who was in Sofia to give a lecture at the university, and an Italian woman using her Bulgarian ex-husband as a reason to visit. I was so happy to see that foreigners are discovering my beautiful city.

The gymnastics faux pas from earlier in the day was long forgotten. Actually, the graffiti tour and KvARTal fest gave me hope that Bulgaria will not become the barren land in Bozko’s mural. There is still so much to be improved in Bulgaria, but if the arts can thrive, then there’s still hope.

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