According to no less an authority than CNN, in 2015 there were only ten street artists to be found in the entirety of Georgia. During an interview, the street artist Dr. Love (a young Georgian with a mass of facial hair) points out a reason for that: only four years ago street art was still illegal. In the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, who would later inflict decades of communism on his home country, these things don’t seem unrelated. I’m glad to report that in 2019 things have changed, and for the better.
Not that everyone would agree with me. In the same year as the CNN interview was broadcast, in what can only be described as a chronic overstatement, filmmaker David Lynch said, “So much great architecture is graffitied over, so many great train stations, factories, are graffitied over and it’s a horrible, horrible thing. Trees have gone away and graffiti has taken their place.” The inexplicable claim that graffiti is replacing trees aside, he seems to totally miss the joy that street art can bring to a grey cityscape.
The Guardian columnist Jonathan Jones joined in the condemnation, saying of Lynch’s outburst, “It was high time someone stood up to the vile oppression that is graffiti.” I can’t speak for others, but I’ve just never felt oppressed by paint on a wall. Compared to the actual tyranny of, say, decades of communist rule, this really is laying it on thick. I agree ‘tagging’ isn’t very pleasant to look at, but the feeling of creativity that street art brings to many cities, Tbilisi included, should be celebrated.
Street art is as much about societal dissent and political protest as it is an alternative to blank walls. This struck me forcibly as I walked from my hotel close to the Dry Bridge to the epicentre of Tbilisi street art, Fabrika. Along the way the tragedy of the last male northern white rhino adorned the side of building. A former Soviet sewing factory now transformed, Fabrika sits in the middle of a typical residential neighbourhood. Explore the streets around-about though and you’ll unearth a wealth of Tbilisi street art.
Tbilisi’s blossoming street art scene is part of a much wider boom in creative industries around the city. Whether music, fashion, art or nightlife, the cultural renaissance in the city is in full bloom. Street art is just one of the more visible elements of the forces, mostly driven by a a younger generation, behind this change. This resurgence is one of the reasons I wanted to visit. A decade or more ago, Tbilisi was regarded by many as a cultural backwater. Not so today, and the pace of change seems to be increasing.
One of the interesting things about Georgia’s street art scene is that, while still fairly male dominated, there are a growing number of well-known female artists. Several of whom were amongst the pioneers of street art in the country. I’m not sure if that has any impact on the types of street art you see, but it’s strangely reassuring in the truly macho Georgian culture.
After I’d spotted the ‘Last Male Northern White Rhino’ I wandered into the courtyard of Fabrika where several artists have been at work, and then spent a happy couple of hours walking around the surrounding streets discovering more pieces. You don’t see street art of this scale and skill in most of Tbilisi, it’s a bit of a creative ghetto, but all things must start somewhere and it definitely feels like Tbilisi’s at the start of a very creative journey.