Slava PTRK, streetartist
Since I am living in Moscow, Ekaterinburg has been depicted to me as an emerging free-spirited city, some cousin of Portland in the US, with its cool and edgy Contemporary Art Biennale and its street artists. Hence my desire to go discover it. Soon.
Meanwhile, I had the pleasure to meet an Ekaterinburg local, Slava Ptrk. Ptrk — a pseudonym hailing from a mash-up of Slava’s surname/street name — is pronounced as “PéTéèRKa” in Russian.
Story of Slava
Slava’s story is, I believe, not very common among street artists. Of course it begins with a child who likes to draw during his free time. Of course it begins with a teenager playing with markers and creating his signature in graffiti fonts. When feeling bold, he experiments new fonts and switches from “Ptrk” to “Yo Bro”. For his higher education, he moves from his suburban hometown to Ekaterinburg and forgets about street art, focusing on journalism, his major in Ural Federal University. Which was good timing in hindsight, because he was beginning to see the end of it, tired of the blatant display of egos on the walls.
Yet street art catched up with him once again when one of his friends started making surrealistic and ironic stencils on the walls. He then realized that street art is more than graffiti, that he can draw good pictures without any proper education. Here was the opportunity to combine his self-made drawing skills and his critical, analysing mind, well-shaped by 3 years of journalism studies.
“My street art is fed by my high education as a journalist. If you want to be a good journalist you need to be critical, to search for truth, to be objective in any question, to think about what you do and what you say. This is why ideas are more important to me than style”.
Now sharing his time between Moscow, his hometown and many travels, the Ekat’ kid draws a new line in Russian street art history, defending ideas and finding his way around engaged art.
Work of Slava
The concept of an artwork gets real when an interesting location makes sense with something Slava had in mind. This can be anything in any style, as long as there’s an idea behind it. While Russian street art is all about stylish and colorful pictures to embellish the city, Slava wishes to share a message and create a reaction, even if it is just amusement.
Make funny art or 2nd degree humor are both ways to work fast and deal with political pressure. Indeed, to make powerful and relevant work, Slava has to be the most knowledgable he can on the local context, which requires a time he often does not have when invited to events abroad.
Concerning authorities, I must say my discussion with Slava invalidated some clichés I had about the street art practice in a tense context. Surprisingly, it often comes back to being what is is at its very base: a game. A tricky one, but still… just a game.
In contrast to what one may think, Slava prefers to draw in the open. No hiding. “I prefer to work in the day time. In the night time you look like a criminal.”
In 2011, when VP was Prime Minister, Slava made an interactive portrait of Putin. When the police asked about his work, he wrote a letter saying that they were portraits of someone who looked like VP. They let him be.
When invited by friends to make a big engaged fresco in a CIS country, they rented a lift on a Sunday morning. As you know, the streets are empty at this time of the week so the only one to ask question was the lift driver. He relaxed after having been told a big fat lie: the real estate company had asked the collective to paint this fresco.
Still, this can be serious, and Slava pulls different strings to deal with the unfavorable environment.
Self-censorship. Working in the streets is a responsibility as a lot of people see the outcome. As an artist, you prefer to make a subtle statement that goes wild with criticism than to see your work destroyed in no time. That is why Slava keeps his more virulent ideas for his gallery.
Anonymous works. In addition to his street art and gallery art, Slava began to upgrade the works of other artists, in a guerilla art spirit. By hacking some poor works, he wants to add meaning. Of course, nobody knows it is him. Indeed, a signature is key in the street art world, as well as, recently, the publication on social media. By not claiming his work, Slava protects his freedom of creating.
This balance between his artistic search and the reality principle is even more complex when adding the need of a business model. Street art works ARE illegal. This is what give them strength. They are also non-commercial. So street artists have two sources of income :
indoor works that they sell in galleries. Slava has been represented by Gallery 11.12 in Winzavod, Moscow.
“I have this series of works with very small black and white characters : “Loneliness”. I did a street version and an indoor version of each one. Sometimes people buy it because they just love it, sometimes they buy as an echo of my street art practice.”
“When somebody ask me for a commercial work, I try to make one with an idea. It is part of my signature, of my identity. I often say no if I feel I will not be free in my work.”
Somehow, the assignments and constraints of commercial works are also an opportunity to find new ideas and to search for new ways of connecting the meaning and the form.
“For example, last year I made a project in Norway for the New Art Festival. I wrote a text about lies with glue and sand on the wall. Since then, it has been erased by rain and wind. In this work, the technique and the concept are strongly linked. In street art, the research is not only in the concept, but also technique-wise.”
In this context, searching also means to free oneself from traditional formats such as murals. With the trend of street art festivals, they have become some kind of standard. But art can be anywhere, whether it’s larger than life or extra small, humanizing our cities in relation to the architecture, the context, the message.
Exploring, Slava came up with two special projects beyond the traditional street art means of expression :
FUCK IT, LET'S DANCE !
Ekaterinburg tower app
"We had a big television tower in Ekaterinburg for last 30 years. In 2018 the government decided to destroy it. I want to make an app with a virtual tower. We will make a clean tower, like it was before. Then I will ask my artist friends to make some design for this tower, as an art project. The app will be upgraded every month with new designs, like a virtual gallery. My team of IT specialists is now working on it. The main idea is to make a virtual monument. It is a very important symbol of our city and now we lost it and it is missing."
Street art is about giving, sharing your art with unknowns. To choose this generous yet tenuous path - let’s not call it a job - it was obvious to me that you have to be trusting in human nature and in your art, for the latter to have an impact on the former. It was like a confession to get Slava to “confess” some optimism.
“You’re right. Maybe I believe in it. I believe in it when I am at the right time, right place. For example, I made a project with homeless people. You can say it’s kind but actually I understand it as my work. It is neither kind nor unkind, rather the right thing to do, like a mission.”
A mission that must drive you despite the lack of live feedbacks and the hostile environment. Indeed, Russian people, especially in a city like Moscow, are not keen on commenting, and the city authorities destroy illegal street art as fast as they can. Internet has brought fresh air for street artists who post their art online and share with their followers and communities.
About Russian Street art
To conclude, here are 6 things I learned about street art in Russia :
Somewhere in Moscow there is a street art “hall of fame” where artists come and add their contribution to others work. Layers and layers of street art.
Moscow is not the capital of street art. It is paradoxical because big murals are a tradition here - a modern version of propaganda or a vintage twist to pure advertising - but illegal works are destroyed quickly. So what is the point ? As Moscow is more of a capital of contemporary art, street artists such as Slava all work “in chambers”, on canvas.
Fake street artists exist. I am maybe naïve but I never thought that some people would photoshop their photo, insert street art and post it as a real street picture.
In a different approach, digital street art is rising, and Russian artists do their part as in these two cool projects : Time to go forward ! by Slava and 13 other artists - and Tag wars, by Vladimir Abikh, 10 street artists, 2 video directors and a dev.
Tag Wars : It is known that in the beginning graffiti tags were used by writers for marking their territory. The amount of tags and its prevalence are still very important for each graffiti artist.
This work is the painted white circle surrounded with graffiti that were made by writers from Saint Petersburg, Moscow and Ekaterinburg. In the middle of the circle there is huge grid used for tags in different social media. With mobile application “Where you AR” viewers can fight against each other or against artificial intelligence in the analogue of the tic-tac-toe game. Real artists’ tags are used as marks in the game. The goal of the game is to be first in making the line of three tags and to capture the space of the facade.
5. Russian street art mostly adopts the global aesthetic. Russian visual background and history are seldom used.
6. But, one can observe some aesthetic families: When in Niznhi Novgorod, expect to see works on abandoned voutes and buildings, big walls and wood objects. When in Ekaterinburg, decrypt the social and political context through street art.