In the past decade, Russia’s street-art movement has emerged from the shadows. You can say it’s in the midst of a renaissance. The Russian port city of St Petersburg now has a dedicated Street Art Museum. An impressive 200 sq m of wall space in a plastics factory now displays the works of artists from around the globe.
Not wishing to be outdone, Moscow has also launched its own street-art initiatives. To enliven the capital city’s drab neighbourhoods and old buildings, the government has invited local artists to paint murals. In 2014, the city held its first Artmossphere Street Art Biennale to promote this underground art form.
In fact, stroll through Moscow and you may discover almost as much about the city from its streets as you can at its museums.
The story of Moscow’s street art begins with a single building, painted white, blue and red – the colours of the national flag. The Mosselprom (below) rises 10 storeys over the main pedestrian street, Arbat. When the building was erected almost 100 years ago, it was among the tallest in Moscow.
But to discover what made the building famous, bypass the facade and head for Mosselprom’s rear wall. Here, you’ll find a mural designed in the 1920s by Russian artist Alexander Rodchenko, one of the founders of Constructivism and a renowned member of the country’s avant-garde set. The wall features advertisements for candy, tobacco, beer, soda and other goods that were stored in the building when the Moscow Rural Cooperative Administration owned it.
In many ways, the avant-garde community still influences the landscape of modern Moscow. For a time, portraits of artist Alexander Rodchenko, architect Vladimir Tatlin and painter Wassily Kandinsky (above) all appeared on fireproof walls in the city – put there by the pioneers of modern street art, a group called Zuk Club. Today, only Kandinsky’s image remains on Fonvizina Street.
But there are other murals by Zuk Club that can still be found around Moscow. Two are dedicated to composers Igor Stravinsky (34/41 Bolshaya Polyanka St, above) and Alexander Scriabin (19 Gilyarovskogo St). The group also decorated the courtyard of the modern Che Hotel just around the corner from busy Tverskaya Street, which pays homage to Russian writer Anton Chekhov.
During the past 10 years, another street artist Petro is said to have painted more than 100 works in the capital – two of which can be found on Bolshoy Sukharevsky Lane. He covered one of two arched passageways with bright swirls of colour, and the other (above) with geometric shapes that look like falling diamonds.
“In my works, one can find traces of Russian art,” says Petro. “I redefined Soviet avant-garde and Suprematism, which can be seen in my geometrical works.” A celebrity of the city’s street-art movement, he was recently invited to decorate a store window and launch a limited-edition T-shirt collection at trendy shopping mall Tsvetnoy. The centre is a great place to shop for Russian fashion brands.
The decision to promote street art in the Russian capital began three years ago, when the Moscow government asked art association Artmossphere to curate the LGZ Festival. Its name is an acronym for “luchshiy gorod zemli”, which translates to “the best city in the world”.
“We invited both established and up-and-coming Russian and international artists [to take part],” says Artmossphere co-founder Yuliya Vasilenko. “For three months, around 150 city walls were transformed into eye-catching murals.”
Among the more prominent festival works, which you can still find today, is a portrait of one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century, Maya Plisetskaya. Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra created a colourful mural (16 Bolshaya Dmitrovka) in the heart of the city to honour the late prima ballerina, who performed countless times at the nearby Bolshoi Theatre.
The surrounding Tverskoy district is known for its streets filled with upmarket boutiques. But in the labyrinth of side lanes, you will find what is arguably some of Moscow’s finest outdoor art. On Zvonarsky Lane, French artist Nelio hid the number 1789 – a nod to the French Revolution – within a geometric pattern that spans the wall of an apartment block.
Down the road, there is a mural featuring birds by Portuguese artist Antonio Correia, also known as Pantonio, who is famous for his animal imagery. And a huge hand, painted by Spanish artist Escif, high-fives travellers who dare to stumble off the beaten path.
Over on Rozhdestvenskaya Street, Australian artist Fintan Magee has also left his message, in the form of a girl (above) dropping a corked bottle containing a note into the sea.
More murals were featured at the second Artmossphere Street Art Biennale. One of its curators, Dmitri Aske, is another big name in the local scene. His artwork (above), titled The Key, enlivens Orlikov Lane. “The artist is responsible for his message, I wanted my work to be understandable for locals,” he says. “The girl in the water symbolises daily routine. She holds the key, which represents the way to solve any problem.”
Aske’s impressive frescoes can also be found at Tehnikum gastro-bistro (above), which serves contemporary Russian delicacies created by renowned Moscow chef Vladimir Mukhin.
Close to 900 years ago, Moscow was founded in what is today the Red Square – the city’s heart. After an energetic walk around the iconic Kremlin, enclosed by massive stone walls that stretch for 2.5km, locals head to nearby pedestrian thoroughfare Nikolskaya Street in search of refreshment.
Besides having the biggest range of cider in Moscow, Ciderella (11 Nikolskaya St) also houses an artwork by Zoom. With a humorous style and an elusive nature, he has been dubbed the “Russian Banksy”, after the mysterious yet globally renowned street artist.
At Ciderella, Zoom’s work (above) features Soviet actress Nonna Mordyukova, accompanied by two stormtroopers. The Star Wars characters are perhaps intended to symbolise Russia’s controversial Voluntary People’s Guard, which ceased to operate in the early 1990s. “Street art, for me, is an opportunity to make a statement,” says the artist. “I am inspired by cinema and like to mix cinematic images in my work.”
Today, around 10 of the roughly 70 original murals he has created can be found in Moscow. One of them, Ippolit: Dedicated to CCTV (3 Pavlovsky Ln), captures a scene from the Soviet film, The Irony of Fate – a comedy often watched by Russians to celebrate the New Year. Other movie figures can be found on Lyusinovskaya Street, where a mural (above) depicts the characters from Pulp Fiction taking a selfie.
But Zoom’s favourite work is dedicated to the city he adores. I Love You, Moscow (7-9 Khokhlovsky Ln, above) captures a Russian border guard with his dog. The famous bronze monument sits at Revolution Square metro station and has become a popular attraction. Students scratch the canine’s nose to pass exams, while others do the same for luck. No matter what time it is, there always seems to be someone polishing the shiny dog – a symbol, perhaps, of the city’s new artistic transformation.
Watch our video above for Moscow’s most striking art created in public locations.
– TEXT BY NATALIA MAIBORODA
PHOTOS: FRANK HERFORT
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.