Observing Georgian Street Artists: Young People (Attempt to) Leave their Footprint on the Urban Environment

Authors: Elene Ergeshidze and Rati ShubladzeCaucasus Research Resource CentersGeorgia

Graffiti and street art is a quite novel form of expressive culture in Georgia. Despite the fact that the first pieces of street art emerged in Georgia in the late 1980s, the scene has not grown rapidly until recent years. For the broader public, street art was usually associated with vandalism, damage and distortion of private property, and unacceptable, on the verge of legality. Despite pre-conceptions associated with street art, societal perceptions are gradually changing. Nevertheless, the street art scene still enjoys some attention from social scientists and art critics.1 Within the CHIEF project, CRRC Georgia observed young people engaged in street art. The aim of the study was to examine the practices, attitudes, and concerns of young people in the context of street art. In addition, the study investigated young artists’ positions on different grass-roots cultural practices and emerging contemporary cultural heritage. This blog presents the key findings of the study as relates the challenges young street artists face and provides a brief overview of street art development in Georgia.

The street art community provides insight into youth cultural engagement in Georgia given its diversity: being centred in the capital, artists come from and work across the city’s districts and are from a wide variety of backgrounds. Considering that painting on walls is typically illegal in Georgia, and is subject to penalties under administrative law,2 street art is usually done surreptitiously at night, in abandoned places, or during street art festivals where special permission is provided for work on a particular building.3 Street artists, especially those specialising in graffiti, typically paint under a pseudonym and seek anonymity.

Street Art in Tbilisi Georgia
Image credit: Elene Ergeshidze, 2019

Street Art in Tbilisi Georgia
Image credit: Elene Ergeshidze, 2019

In Georgia, the establishment of a number of street art festivals and supportive facilities, starting in 2016, popularized street art. The most influential festival is Fabrikaffiti festival.4 The festival takes place in the Fabrika entertainment complex. A self-described ‘space for rebellious minds to create and share’,5 Fabrika is a multifunctional space containing bars, artist studios, shops, educational institutions, a co-working space, and hostel. It is located in a Soviet-era factory building. Though valued by many of the study’s participants as an important place for socialising and community formation, some have criticised it for the co-option and commercialisation of Tbilisi’s counterculture.6 These circumstances impact young people’s attitudes toward challenges in the field.

The rising popularity of street art has attracted the interest of the private sector and local government, who have sought to recruit artists for corporate and municipal projects. Local government has undoubtedly played a role in creating more space for street art in Tbilisi. The City Hall has led numerous initiatives, including working with street artists to make the capital’s underground passageways cleaner and more welcoming.7 However, young people have mixed attitudes towards these larger interests in the scene. While some artists were happy with the increasing visibility of their work, some expressed frustration that projects City Hall or large companies have financed come with restrictions on content. They describe this as a form of censorship. The main issue young people raised in this regard is that artists need at least some freedom. In addition, from their perspective street art should not only aim to beautify walls.

Two major barriers young street artists highlighted to participating in the scene were the affordability of spray paint and a lack of places where they can paint legally. Some young people have given up creating street art due to the high cost of materials, which can become prohibitively expensive particularly when considering the need for artists to practice. Despite the fact that some respondents felt that their work should be conducted outside of sanctioned spaces, many wished they had more opportunity to paint legally. Some felt that the quality of their work suffers when painting illegally, as they must work quickly to avoid being caught. Another problem was that artists with work that deals with political or sensitive issues may be painted over quickly, often the next day: ‘As a rule, on the second day after completion, anti-government work disappears’ (quotation from the fieldwork interviews).

Street Art in Tbilisi Georgia
Image credit: Tamar Khostaria, 2019
Street Art in Tbilisi Georgia
Image credit: Elene Ergeshidze, 2019

The study findings suggest that for young people street art represents a self-created tool for expression that enables not only the remaking of the urban landscape, but also presents a means for youth identity formation. Young people interviewed under the study claimed they want to use public space as a medium to communicate with society and express their ideas. However, these goals are not always achieved.

Studies in the context of other cultural activities show that commercialization leads to less experimentation and creativity.8 This issue was partially discussed during interviews and noted during observation. It has also been raised by other Georgian street artists and art professionals.9 The process of transforming genuine cultural artefacts into consumable products, known as commodification, is a widespread phenomenon and a similar pattern is seen within the Georgian context. Large commercial and banking institutions sponsor street art festivals.10 Young people interviewed sometimes also saw municipal interest and involvement in street art as a complex and occasionally negative influence on the scene. On the one hand, this legalised form of street art provides a legitimate avenue for artists to practise their work. On the other hand, issues of censorship present a dilemma for artists.


Endnotes

[1] The topic is dicusssed in Radio Liberty’s Georgian TV programme ‘anareklebi’. Source: https://www.radiotavisupleba.ge/a/სტრიტარტი-ვინ-ხატავს-კედლებზე-საქართველოში-/29980891.html

[2] In the last amendment to legislation, the fine was doubled in Tbilisi from 500 GEL to 1000 GEL for a first offense. Fees increase up to and including 15 days incarceration. In addition, a special article was placed in the administrative law of Georgia specifically regulating the “Distortion of appearance” (in Georgian – იერსახის დამახინჯება) of Tbilisi city municipality. For more details, see: https://info.parliament.ge/file/1/BillReviewContent/178687?

[3] Tbilisi city hall has launched several project and designated public spaces for street artists. For example: http://tbilisi.gov.ge/news/5441

[4] The festival’s last edition was held in October, 2019 and was dedicated not only to graffiti, but in general to “urban street art with featured guests from Austria, Poland, Spain, USA and other countries.” Source: https://helloblog.ge/story/fabrikaffiti2019

[5] Decription from the official web-page of Fabrika. Source: https://fabrikatbilisi.com/about-us/#:~:text=Fabrika%20is%20the%20space%20for,minds%20with%20new%20exhilarating%20experiences.

[6] https://www.postpravdamagazine.com/fabrika-tbilisi-counter-culture/

[7] In 2018 Tbilisi city hall launched a special programme dedicated to the implementing street art activities across the city. Source: http://tbilisi.gov.ge/news/5014

[8] Frew & Ali-Knight, 2010, https://doi.org/10.3727/109830410X12910355180982

[9] https://www.radiotavisupleba.ge/a/სტრიტარტი-ვინ-ხატავს-კედლებზე-საქართველოში-/29980891.html

[10] Re|Bank sponsored Tbilisi Mural Fest in 2019 (source: https://rebank.ge/en/about/news/re-bank-to-sponsor-tbilisi-mural-fest/), while TBC bank was one of the general sponsors of NIKO street art festival, alongside with Tbilisi City Hall and other Georgian companies (source: https://www.marketer.ge/niko-quchis-xelovnebis-modzraoba/)

 


About the authors

Elene Ergeshidze is a Junior Researcher at CRRC-Georgia. Since 2018 she has been actively involved in planning and implementing different quantitative and qualitative research projects. Her main duties include data collection and management. In the CHIEF project, Elene is mainly involved in WP7: Engagement with Young People’s Cultural Practices. She was the main researcher for the street artists’ case study, leading data collection and analysis and contributing to report writing.

Rati Shubladze has worked for CRRC-Georgia since 2013. Rati’s main duties and responsibilities in CRRC include working on analytical papers and reports and fieldwork and data management. Besides CRRC activities, Rati also teaches research method classes at different Universities based in Tbilisi, Georgia.