When I travel to a new city, the first thing I do is check out its street art. To be frank, I have an obsession with urban art and if a city I’m touring doesn’t have it, I’d be left feeling unsatiated.
All that said, I fully realize, respect, and understand that there are people who may not have the same views about street art as me. Some may think art on public streets is pure vandalism. Others may find it too aggressive or tasteless. And perhaps a good number believe that art, whatever the definition, belongs in exhibition halls.
But no matter your opinion on guerilla art, one thing is certain: it matters. When discussing Yerevan’s burgeoning street art scene, we mustn’t just listen to the artists behind the movement. We have to give the floor to the average Joe, who, although not an artist or critic himself, is the one left to live in this city transformed by a sea of street art. It’s this average Joe who walks past graffiti and tags multiple times a day. It becomes part of his reality, sneakily slipping into his routine.
Do people condemn it or condone it? To sketch out an answer, I interviewed a number of current inhabitants of Yerevan. I reached out to representatives of three different generations. Some of them were born and raised here, others are recent repatriates. None of them have a professional background in fine arts or art history. They are our grand critics and they will tell us how they feel.
But before I introduce their thoughts, a little highlight on the status of street art in Yerevan today: it’s officially illegal. In Armenia’s most metropolitan city, street art is widely perceived as a destruction of public property, meaning that the artists who paint them might come upon legal troubles if they get caught creating the public pieces without approval.
Paradoxically, there are also government initiatives that invite various visual artists to create art pieces in public space. If you’ve ever been to Yerevan, you may have noticed the paintings on archways all over the Kentron district. This acts as “official” street art; they were commissioned by the mayor. So, boundaries defined by authority figures are flexible. There’s street art the government fights against and street art it promotes. But do Armenia’s residents agree with the government’s standards of street art? Do they also differentiate between “good” and “bad” guerilla art? Or perhaps they don’t notice it at all?
The answer to the last question is clear: People in Armenia’s capital city notice its street art and follow the movement to some extent.
“I was impressed the first few months after I got here by the art work and the messages and even with the places where they were drawn,” says Rita, a 20-something NGO professional, who moved to Yerevan from Syria.
Another respondent, Irena, emphasizes the novelty of the phenomenon: “I wouldn’t notice street art in Yerevan until a few years ago,” says the 31-year-old linguist. “Now I’ve started to see it – in underground passages, in backyards, inside gates, doorways, portals.”
I also noticed that some of the Yerevantsis I spoke to seem to believe that the city’s street art movement is evolving and establishing itself in the city. For some, it has already become an integral part of the cultural and urban landscape.
“Street art is becoming a signature for downtown Yerevan. When I close my eyes and try to imagine several places near Sayat Nova and Tumanyan, and Nalbandyan and Abovyan streets, the street art is what flashes first,” says Vahan, a middle-aged man who works at a Yerevan think tank. “Several places I remember just by the street art, such as my watch repair [shop]. I walk Tumanyan Street and just look for the flying train as a firm sign that I am in the right place. When I think about Edgar Allan Poe, his face on the archway is the first thing that comes to my mind.”
One of the most interesting and inspiring responses I’ve received were thoughts from the older generation. A married couple in their 70s both claimed to notice Yerevan’s street art, but the difference in their reactions was astounding.
The 75-year-old lady notices that the number of street art pieces in her city has increased and some of them please her. She gives particular attention to the dalans [archways], which she says are beautifully painted. She appreciates these efforts to make the city more beautiful. She calls these pictures “pleasant.” However, she’s quick to express her distaste toward swear words she sees sprawled across the nearby park. She hopes there will be more pleasant pictures, and less bad words or aggressive images.
Her 78-year-old husband, on the other hand, disapproves of it all. According to him, graffiti, tags and paintings that he spots throughout Yerevan shouldn’t be described as “art.” He finds most of the pieces tasteless. He understands the idea of street art, but the quality that he sees in Yerevan disappoints him. He suggests that it could get better if the artists were properly paid for their creations.
The feelings shared by Armenia’s people prove that there are just as many opinions on street art as there are experts. What Yerevantsis agree on is that this is a growing movement. Some accept it as an inevitable part of urban development, some see it as just a little addition of aesthetic value on otherwise gray streets, and others seek a deeper, symbolic meaning in it.
To my surprise, the civic aspect of it, street art as a form of activism, so often mentioned by guerilla movement members and other visual artists, hardly ever comes up in interviews. Even those who brought up this dimension gave priority to the visual aspect and contextual use of space.
“People express their attitude, civic disposition, disobedience, frustration, hope or public appeal through street art, so to me it’s a sign of an alert society,” Irena says. “What I like about the street art in Yerevan is that it is not overly political, but has a ‘Yerevan touch’ in it – some culture, some poetry, some colors.”
I find it to be a discovery of crucial importance. In fact, everyone who heads out in the dead of night with sprays and paint cans to transform their city with the language of art and activism should have it in mind.
So, what are the values that inhabitants of our city seek in street art?
It’s beauty — as simple as that.
Most of those I spoke to who live in Yerevan don’t value socially and politically engaged art in public space. Perhaps they prefer the political debates to take place elsewhere. Maybe they’re tired of overpoliticization that bleed into various spheres of their lives. What they need in their daily routine is more color, more energy, more inspiration, and much more beauty. They yearn for art that will make them smile and dream. Luckily, at least some of the people I talked to found these features in the streets of Armenia’s capital.
“The street art in Yerevan and throughout Armenia intrigues and excites me. I have my own personal favorites all over the city, and each time I discover a mural on a dalan that I haven’t seen before, I celebrate the creativity and aesthetic pleasures of our city. Graffiti or art? I am not a judge of these things, but I believe that the paintings on our dalans add joy, color, and happiness to what, in other cities, might just be considered alleys,” says Suzanne, a 55-year-old freelance tutor, consultant, and repatriate.
“It makes our city more lively,” adds Ani, a 26-year-old psychologist. “Sometimes it can also have a positive learning impact, can inspire, remind [someone]of something beautiful or sad.”
It’s not only pure pleasure that the people of Yerevan appreciate in its street art scene. Another inspiring and empowering dimension I was happy to discover was enhancing human connections within the community. Street art is not only perceived as a ready piece, something that might be beautiful, meaningless, inspiring, or ugly. It’s also a sign left by an anonymous artist for their community. It’s about communication and learning more about each other. An inhabitant of Yerevan gets a chance to explore the mindset of his neighbors through uncensored, dynamic street art.
“When you find Shushanik Kurghinyan on the buildings of Yerevan, you know that some sort of national feminists are around there in this city who are probably proud of the tradition they inherited and accepted from the century-long challenge of this outstanding woman leader. You can read much more about people who live in Yerevan on the walls of the buildings and archways than in any guide, report or website,” says Vahan.
“When I see a new painting on a wall, I realize that there is somebody living next to me, maybe passing me by right at that moment who has shown me a small part of his soul,” says Nina, a 22-year-old student.
It’s also about sharing intellect and rich Armenian culture, Nina adds.
“I am particularly happy to see paintings of different writers in our streets,” she says. “Hemingway, Poe, Tumanyan, Charents… Those who painted these writers have probably read something about them or maybe even read their books and wanted to share that with me and thousands others like me.”
Street art as an intellectual game? It’s an interesting concept that could be explored by the various urban artists of Yerevan.
A few months ago, I wrote an introductory piece on street art in Yerevan and focused on the artists’ understanding of the movement, as well as their ideas and values. The questions I asked them were the same ones I asked the various Armenian residents I spoke to for this piece. I’m astonished by the difference in answers of the “artists” and the “average Joes.” But I’m inspired at how opinionated the average Armenian pedestrian is — believing that street art can contribute to a happier, more empathetic, and creative community.
Of course, this won’t happen overnight. The new, rebellious generation of street artists will have to learn how to listen to the voice of their audience, how to predict their reactions and, ultimately, how to meet their needs. It may be controversial, but it’s out of their comfort zone, where the real art begins.
I’ll leave you with a quote from my interview with Vahan to act as an open message from the people of Yerevan to the various street artists in their city:
“Every time we create a ring, we become its lord. Every time we create a chair, a knife, a crucible, a church organ, a mousetrap or a graffiti, we share our power with others, with those who bear our creation in their hand, in their mind or in their heart.”
Writer’s note: This article only gives part of the picture. As I said earlier, there are as many opinions as there are experts. This piece assumes that everyone who lives in Yerevan and recognize its street art is, in fact, an expert. This article is not a complete analysis. It’s only an invitation to start a discussion and to invite everyone who lives in Armenia’s capital to express their thoughts.