The area of Kiev riverfront from the metro bridge (“Dnipro” station) to Paton Bridge is called the hall of fame in the jargon of graffiti artists. Every square centimeter of it is covered with bizarre drawings and tags of people who wanted to perpetuate their names in history forever or at least for a short time. 

Nothing can erase the tag-machine.

The artist and former graffitist Vova Lodek Vorotnov says that all these inscriptions have no sense: “If you cannot read the inscription, then it is subcultural ‘doctor’s handwriting”, where the “patient’s” nickname is encoded. It’s all about calligraphy. And it does not have any message”. Lodek says that there is a calligraphic confrontation between the various graffiti-gangs of the riverfront and the struggle between graffiti-writers and graffiti of football hooligans.

There is no point in fighting graffiti: just the expenses for fighting will far outweigh its expediency. “Once before Easter, the public utilities of Kyiv cleared the riverfront of graffiti with a sandblast,” Lodek recalls, “Even the graffiti artists themselves applauded it. But in a month everything was the same as before. The phenomenon of this riverfront is that it is pointless to fight graffiti here. It is like a litmus test there. It signals and will signal the desire of people to express something. Perhaps this strong desire of expression will find another medium over time. But graffiti as a public expression is still relevant here and now”.

However, in addition to the names of the graffiti artists, encrypted in whimsical tags, there are many abbreviations and interesting drawings at the riverfront, they are called street art. Rostik Onek helped me to understand them. I immediately asked him what the meaning of his pseudonym was and why it was so similar to Lodek. It turns out that the main reason is purely formal: the artist’s name should be such that it would be convenient to draw, bend, and distort the letters and add, for example, an exclamation mark.

Onek takes an odd-looking marker out of his pocket and says: “This is my tag-machine. I write my name with the help of it on the walls, concrete slabs, subway cars anywhere. It is very difficult to erase the inscription because of the pigment’s formula. Workers of the subway have to destroy the tags with the solvent every day, but it doesn’t matter how long they are rubbing, they can only turn the inscription into a grey stain”.

How to challenge an author to a war?

We descend through the underground passage to the riverfront. I see the inscription “The Big Spot speaks for itself”. This is not graffiti and not street art, but simply a wall inscription, or rather street poetry.

Onek believes that graffiti is not an art, not a craft, and not a hobby, but a style and a way of life. In order to become a true master, you have to improve for dozens of years, spending two or three thousand hryvnias a month on paint, spending a lot of time looking for free surfaces and drawing, at the risk of bumping into competitors, hooligans or the police. Onek has been painting for 19 years already. For the first time, he used a can of spray paint when he was 10 years old. Onek is so keen on this subculture that has graffiti-tattoos on his body: on the leg and on both arms. He literally feels every stroke, line, and colour patch of the drawing. “Look, it’s an anti-graffiti, anti-style, work with a silhouette is very dirty here,” he explains. – The person who drew it did not have the preliminary sketch and did not expect this result. If the author is so indifferent to his work, how can someone treat it well? “

Onek says that perfect graffiti should have the right shape of letters, asymmetry, good location, qualitative selection of colours, a good live line, and right shadows. If the artist makes a mistake, then he or she must correct all the flaws.

“The riverfront attracts children and fishermen,” Onek says, “There are dozens of fishermen along the promenade who are waving with long fishing rods, putting fish in plastic bags. “I sit here often,” the one says, “roach is mostly caught. It is possible to catch three kilos per day. I catch everything for myself, I do not sell”. To take a photograph of a gigantic inscription «ETC» I had to go down the stairs near the fisherman almost to the water of the Dnipro.

“ETC means Enjoy The City. This is the top team in Ukraine, which draws every day. They made this unit especially to make the message visible to the people who go boating”. Honestly, in my opinion, this inscription looks a bit awkward and ugly. “The guys who drew it had nothing to prove to anyone,” Onek replies, “They will draw tomorrow as well”. This is their way of life. And there is a sense of dedication and love in their work. You cannot wake up in the morning and say, “So, I will not paint anymore”. Dozens of litres of paint are spent on such drawing. It is very expensive”.

MX ONE is the author of the similar drawings. It is difficult to draw them physically: you should keep spray paint in the extended arm and draw a perfectly straight line. Such paintings are photographed only from a boat because they just do not fit in the frame otherwise.

Some graffiti is painted with a roller with a long handle. This is a very long and exhausting process. This primitive drawing with yellow cats needed at least 200 moves of a roller.

I noticed an ultra-right inscription “white power”. “This is not graffiti. Graffiti cannot have any political messages, it is based on them.”

The gigantic drawings, made as if the artist uses a ruler, are especially admirable. In reality, graffiti artists do it by eye. The difficulty is that thick straight lines have to be drawn with spray paint, which gives a line 3 cm wide.

We also see many unfinished drawings. Apparently, their authors were out of paint or patience. Onek sees another amateur work: “It’s a shame! I would not take a photo of bad paintings”.

The graffiti artists do not have any brand-book with established rules. “Our rules are written by a street where walls are being painted every day, and they need to be renewed,” explains Onek, “The artists show respect for each other. If you see a high-quality drawing, and you will not completely cover it with your drawing and make it only worse, then you will challenge his author to the war. Next time he will spoil your drawing. In our environment everyone understands who is guilty and who is right”.

Anonymous and ephemeral art disappears every day

Every picture on the wall does not exist in itself but in a certain context. “When you look at a computer image on the monitor, you do not see the atmosphere of the place,” says Onek, “You do not know if there is a road behind the drawing and if a police car can go there. Therefore, nobody boasts drawings on the Internet. Drawing graffiti is dangerous, it’s a crime”.

That is why graffiti artists never tell their true names and surnames. This is an anonymous art, where the authors promote not their real names, but bright pseudonyms.

The graffiti artists have a hierarchy and a code of honor. People who draw graffiti for a long time will never draw on architectural monuments, on hospitals, or draw something accidentally to impress a girl. Offenders of this street code of honor may be punished by street laws. “It’s cruelty, fights,” says Onek, “Although I’m against it. It’s better to make him pay for the next drawing. “But the beating is not the worst thing that can happen to the offender. In the end, he gets a kind of “wolf ticket” his pseudonym becomes compromised, and he has to change it because otherwise, each of his new drawings will be painted over.

Graffiti is not drawn in basements or on abandoned ruins. Work should be visible to people, so we choose riverfronts, subway stations, trains, walls of buildings. But all this art is extremely ephemeral, everything that is done today will probably be cleaned up tomorrow. Only few works can survive for many years. Several of them are at the Dnipro riverfront. “Somebody will say it’s a waste of time and money, but it has its own intrigue and its freedom,” says Onek, “When I was told that I would soon stop drawing graffiti, that it was not forever in my life, I got a tattoo “True Graffiti”…

Graffiti is a strange thing, he adds, you notice a new interesting character, see his drawings, try to get acquainted with him, find out who it is, but he has already stopped drawing. Got married. And there are a lot of such cases”.

Dirty and big

Onek says that the production of a classic drawing needs 6 cans of spray paint, each of which costs 3.5 euros. You need to have several more nozzles for a can to draw different lines. Usually, there is a set of 3 nozzles, each of which costs 15 UAH. And so, on average, one drawing costs 20 euros. At weekends a graffiti artist usually makes two drawings. “It costs a pretty penny,” says Onek, “Artists are often greedy. They are ready to sacrifice much for the painting”.

Onek says that the graffiti artists who draw near the terminal subway stations are the most avid. They can guard their place for a long time, sitting there for hours, waiting for the right moment for the drawing. If they see a competitor, they can drive him out and even report it to the police.

Some people draw with special marker pens with waterproof ink. “If somebody catches a graffiti artist in the subway and says “Wash out your inscription, and we’ll let you go”, then he simply will not be able to do this, because it is impossible,” explains Onek, “Similar situations sometimes end in violence or arrest. One of my friends went to Minsk to draw in the subway. And there are no fines or suspended sentences for petty crimes in Belarus. There exists only imprisonment for everything, at least short-term. When other prisoners heard what the graffitist had been imprisoned for, they were very surprised. “You’re so stupid: you have spent your money, your time, and now you are in prison!” they said. “You should have stolen something, sold it, taken a beer, a girlfriend, and sat on the water”. As soon as my friend got out of prison he began to draw again. Graffiti is not a disease to realize and treat it. I had a case when I was caught by the police, and we made an agreement: they will let me go if I paint a safe for them in the district department.

Graffitists from small towns are under worse conditions, they often do not have enough money for paint, besides, there are no colours they need at the shops. Sometimes it happens like this: you began to draw and suddenly you ran out of paint. You went to the shop, and there is no colour you need. The paint arrived after a while, you bought it, wanted to continue drawing, but the picture had already been wiped out by public utilities or painted over by competitors.

When we returned from the waterfront, Onek showed me his gigantic four-meter tag, which he had painted in the underground passage. “I did it in 15 seconds,” he said, “It brazenly declares my name in this place. It’s very dirty and individual. The essence is incomprehensible, but the letters are readable, the name is noticeable. This is a very good result for our city. Such inscriptions should exist: dirty and big”.

Text and photo by Oleh Shynkarenko

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