Of all the many and varied pieces of street art that I saw as I wandered around Tbilisi, it was a simple stencilled artwork that really caught my attention. I don’t know what type of offence had been committed, or the degree of forgiveness that was being requested from the mysterious Likuna, but it was enough to force the person seeking it to paint it on the streets. Like a low-tech version of a proposal of marriage made on the big screen at a baseball game, ‘Likuna, I’m Sorry’ was stencilled on a wall in the Rustaveli area.
I just hope Likuna lived nearby so there’s a reasonable chance she saw the message. It was just one example of a booming street art scene in Georgia – at least in Tbilisi and a few other urban centres. I’d not been paying much attention to street art, and hadn’t come across anything that stopped me in my tracks. That is, until I found myself on the Nikoloz Baratashvili Bridge, either side of which are underpasses where the walls are filled with street art from a variety of artists.
Street art is a relatively new phenomenon in Georgia, most people agreeing that it only really became a ‘thing’ after 2005. It now seems embedded in the cityscape and a new generation of artists are giving expression to a world view that often seems at odds with the politics of the country. Street art isn’t yet ubiquitous, but a few selected areas of the city are hotspots for artists. Underpasses, of which Tbilisi has many, are fertile spots for unearthing street art.
Even if still limited in geographic scope, there are some magnificent pieces of street art being showcased in Tbilisi, and there are a growing number of recognisable artists who are gaining in popularity. There’s even a street art festival held at Fabrika, a former Soviet-era sewing factory that has been converted into a hipster paradise of cafes and bars, artist studios, shops, co-working spaces, hip hostel and a courtyard where trendy young things gather to socialise.
For some reason street art seems to work in harmony with Tibilisi’s faded grandeur. I’d guess that in a few years’ time it will be well-known and attract artists from other parts of the world. For now though, it seems like a very local affair. I started by exploring the area around Nikoloz Baratashvili Bridge, but my meanderings through the Rustaveli area also unearthed a multitude of different pieces. It was certainly one way of getting a better understanding of the city’s layout.
There was one piece in an underpass that reminded me of the “very surprised looking whale” that “had very little time to come to terms with its identity as a whale before it then had to come to terms with not being a whale any more“, from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The thought made me laugh as I wandered through the most artistic underpass I’ve ever visited, filled with alien creatures and more familiar earthbound critters.
Perhaps understandably for a country that endured 70 years of Russian communism, and has suffered more recent blows to the national psyche, a lot of the street art is a commentary on the current state of society and politics. Much more though seems to be of fantastical beings and creatures, the stuff of sci-fi nightmares – although these might also be social commentary. One thing’s for sure, Georgians love to protest and street art is a vibrant new outlet for those tendencies.
Tbilisi is in parts an attractive town, but like many former Soviet cities it has plenty of grey, crumbling walls. Street art is slowly turning these into things of beauty, which can only be a good thing. Yet, in Tbilisi censorship of street art exists. Some subjects are too sensitive, particularly to the religious establishment. Themes of gender and sexuality are frowned upon, while anti-government street art regularly disappears after a day or two.
I read about this in an interesting article where one of the leading lights of Georgian street art, Gagosh, was quoted saying, “I prefer to express my feelings or attitudes towards events in this form rather than to write comments on Facebook. My Facebook ‘wall’ is on the streets, not on a social network … I protest on them”. That’s a sentiment I can get behind.