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Tag, You're It! How Moscow Has Embraced Graffiti

Moscow at sunset
Moscow at sunset
Anna Vasileva

MOSCOW — The city of Moscow is covered with graffiti, and proudly so. Members of the “Best City On Earth” project have said they will paint street art on 150 buildings by September. Meanwhile, there is graffiti at the Faces & Laces urban culture festival in Gorky Park, as well as an exhibition of a master street artist. Saint Petersburg also has a new graffiti festival — and so do the cities of Perm and Yekaterinburg.

Of course, Russian cities are still far from Berlin, where street art fills literally every centimeter of the urban core. But the graffiti trend in Russia is conspicuous nevertheless. In the past year, the trend has been embraced by city governments and private companies, and street art has started to become an industry with very respectable budgets.

Russian graffiti started to develop in the 1990s. According to Russian artist Kostya Zmogk, the first commercial interest in graffiti was in 1998, when graffiti artists made an album cover for a hip hop group. After that, graffiti artists began to receive more commissions. “First it was small shops, then it was office buildings of larger companies, and now everyone is commissioning us, even government institutions and banks,” he says.

In 2007, Zmogk founded Allovergraphics, a company specializing in connecting master graffiti artists with commercial clients. After creating the website, the company found its first client almost instantaneously — although with a small budget of only about $500. But the company started to attract numerous commissions, so much so that Zmogk and his business partner, Kostos, couldn’t handle the work themselves and started hiring friends as subcontractors, keeping 40% for the company.

“The team we developed consisted in around 20 professional artists in addition to around 100 apprentices,” Zmogk says. “They have done more than 300 projects.” Each project costs between $60 and $500 per square meter. Zmogk doesn’t disclose the company’s current revenue, but he says that he and his partner are hoping to earn between $200,000 and $300,000 next year. “Of course, there is competition,” Zmogk says. “For example, there’s the First Graffiti Agency, two talented guys from Novosibirsk. But there’s just two of them, and there are more than a hundred of us.”

Petro, a graffiti artist from the Moscow region, thinks you can make good money alone. He has been a graffiti artist from more than 13 years and was among the first to take commercial orders. At first he took all orders, but he’s now successful enough to get only involved in projects where he has full artistic control. “Many people are recognizing that graffiti is art, and that we are real artists,” he says.

Government projects

Petro’s last project was to paint an electrical substation as part of the Moscow government’s “Best City On Earth” project. The artist was satisfied: full artistic control, plus a $600 honorarium.

All of the money for the festival comes from the sponsor, a major developer. At the beginning of the year, the developer put together a project to combat vandalism. That project includes sponsoring a graffiti competition, working with the city of Moscow on the graffiti festival and opening an area where graffiti artists can legally work in a sugar factory owned by the sponsor.

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In Moscow - Photo: Andrew Kusnetsov

The graffiti artists like to talk about the fact that the budgets are enormous, but the artists only get a small percentage themselves. “Sponsors don’t work with artists directly, they go through curators,” Petro explains. “And not all curators are the same.” Some that he has worked with are excellent and don’t forget about artists when its time to divide the pie, but many public projects offer minuscule pay for artists, which means that public spaces are often covered with the work of inexperienced artists.

The government spends very little money on graffiti, but its support for it is sometimes surprising. For example, the Moscow Museum recently hosted a graffiti jam, where young artists were invited to paint an old car wash on the museum’s property. The more conservative people among the Museum’s community weren’t supportive about the jam at all. But it wasn’t an expensive undertaking: Artists were just given dinner and paint, and the exposition is temporary. The old car wash is scheduled to be demolished next year.

A new social art

“When this kind of art was illegal, it was truthful and expressed the real feelings of society,” says Egor Korobeinikov, head of the UrbanUrban.ru project. “The excessive attention that the government is paying to graffiti could also kill its strength and meaning.”

Korobeinikov feels that the government’s open-armed embrace threatens to diminish graffiti as nothing more than a pretty picture. “You can argue that graffiti is an excellent way to transform the city,” he said. “But the government needs to understand that it will not solve the problem of miserable architecture and old housing that should be torn down.”

Which is not to say that Korobeinikov thinks that all of the municipal graffiti projects are bad. In the Siberian town of Perm, for example, there is a yearly graffiti festival that experts agree is excellent.

Climbing off the walls

There aren’t really that many people who make a living from graffiti. Some drop the hobby as they age, and others want a more stable income and try to do something related. That’s what happened to Vladimir Zomba, who won a large prize in an international graffiti competition and used the money to earn a degree in animation. He is still drawing, but he is also a director in an animation studio in London.

Some artists decide to trade in walls for canvas, and start selling their graffiti on a more portable medium. Kostya Zmogk sells his work on canvas, and they already go for 2,000 euros each — a price he is sure will rise in the future.

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