Story by Hannah Martin // Photos by Valerie Sarnataro
ISTANBUL, Turkey - In a small parking lot off a quiet side street by Galata Tower, color radiates from the wall. Arabic calligraphy in silver and yellow swirls up the side of a building to spell “Allah.” Tiny characters with melancholy faces populate a tree house that looks like a Tim Burton animation. The ensuing cobbled street is covered with stenciled flies, yellow fists and sundry spray-painted tags – clustered together like a public collage.
“You put something to a clean place and afterwards they start to tag and they start to paint,” explained Pertev Emre Tastaban, 36, curator of StreetArt Istanbul, an organization that unites street artists from Istanbul and abroad. “Together, we create an image.”
In the last 10 years street art has been cropping up across Istanbul, the bulk of it concentrated in the hip Beyoglu district. While some basic tags date back to the ‘90s, most of the stylized pieces that fill the streets today are much more current.
“It’s a very new thing for Turkish people,” Tastaban said. “At the beginning of the 2000s, street art was also growing in Europe and came to Istanbul.”
Five years ago, German artist Matthias Wermke (alias: Kripoe) bombed the city with yellow fists – probably the most pervasive symbol on the streets. In 2009, StreetArt Istanbul began organizing festivals and exhibitions and teaching classes at the Bilgi University Youth Center. Just this spring an initiative called Papergirl invaded Istanbul, presenting a new strategy for guerrilla art by randomly pasting paper-collaged stickers across the city’s walls. The product of all this: a sprawling body of work that captures the ideas, politics and mood of the last decade.
Tastaban got his first real dose of street art when he went to Rio de Janeiro in 2004. He knew about what he calls “old school graffiti”– basic spray paint tags and writing in script – but had never seen highly conceptualized murals like the ones he found there.
“I started to think, ‘Why don’t we have anything in Istanbul?’” he said. “It’s all gray. Everything is full of exhaust. We’re gonna forget the colors.”
Tastaban returned to his advertising job of 10 years with a new distaste for his work. He experimented with his own interpretation of street art and learned to make stencils. A year later he quit his job and started tagging illegally under the name Pet05, stenciling the city with robotic-looking dogs expressing his dissatisfaction with urban development.
In 2009, with a wave of “second era” street artists, Tastaban established StreetArt Istanbul, bringing together artists to paint the innards of a seven-story derelict building known as “Banker Han” for a month-long installation called “Morphosis.” Last year he brought in 35 artists (10 German and 25 Turkish) to do a series of large-scale pieces as part of a StreetArt Festival. At the Bilgi University Youth Center in Maslak, he teaches classes that instruct youth in stencil making and other forms of street art.
“You need a good attitude when you are living in a place,” he said. “If you care about your house you clean your place, you make some aesthetic things for your house and it brightens the mood.”
Genco Gülan, 42, curator of the Istanbul Contemporary Art Museum or iS.CaM, said that street art isn’t entirely new and actually has deep roots in Istanbul’s political history.
“We have a strong tradition of graffiti,” he said, explaining the role of highly politicized street writing in the early ‘70s as Turkey felt the reverberations of the 1968 labor movement in France. “All the walls were covered either with extremist rightist or leftist slogans. Students were going out at night and they were painting the walls and if they see each other they were shooting each other…It was a bloody situation for Turkey.”
One common slogan was “Tek yol Devrim,” which translates to “Revolution is the only way.” The streets became a mechanism for communication.
Today’s scene is less of a bloodbath, but as with every genre of art, there are underlying political messages. The face of Festus Okey, a Nigerian immigrant killed by Turkish police in 2007, has been anonymously stenciled across the neighborhoods. Nalan Yırtmac stencils children on buildings in Sulukule Neighborhood to oppose a plan for gentrification that would leave many homeless.
Not everyone acknowledges the movement, however. MIT sociologist and art historian Pelin Tan, whose master’s at Istanbul Technical University focused on contemporary Turkish art, called Istanbul’s street portfolio “artificial urban entertainment.” She argued that it is simply not political enough to be deemed street art.
“For me, street art should appear in certain conditions through social movements,” Tan said. “Street art has a political role, it is a totally critical act towards institutions, state and urban system.”
Tan said, by her definition, Nalan Yırtmac’s work against gentrification is the only credible street art in Istanbul.
But most artists admit that their work is rooted in politics or societal critique, however haphazard their creations. Street artist Bürkan Özkan (alias: Fly Propoganda), 36, has swarmed Istanbul with his favorite icon: the fly.
A first generation street artist in Istanbul, Özkan, for the past nine years, has expressed disillusionment with contemporary consumer culture by stenciling flies on billboards and banks.
“The fly is my street hero,” Özkan said. “The fly is everywhere. He has no sexuality – you don’t decide that this is man or woman or anything else, you just call it ‘fly.’”
With the rise of stenciling, many artists utilize a similar technique of iconography to build recognition. When Tastaban teaches his classes, this is what he emphasizes: You must create a symbol that will catch on and be easily identified as it pervades the city.
But recognition isn’t everything; a critical element of street art is the discussion it provokes. For this, Tastaban critiques Kripoe, an artist who came, bombed the city with his famous punch, and left, knowing nothing of Istanbul itself. To Tastaban, Kripoe is just an international character looking for fame, creating a symbol that looks revolutionary, but ultimately has no meaning for the Turks.
If anything, the real significance of the punch is the way it illustrates an international conclusion: Istanbul streets are canvases in demand. Papergirl Istanbul, an initiative that started in Berlin in 2006, added Istanbul just this spring to a list of 20 other countries, asking artists across the world to submit stickers or posters that are dispatched on bicycles to randomly selected citizens. Recipients then paste the stickers throughout the city, arbitrarily dispersing the art.
A vibrant pop art paper collage by German artist duo Various, 29 and Gould, 33 is pasted next to the entrance at Banker Han. They came to Istanbul as part of the Papergirl project.
“Istanbul is one of the most exciting cities we have been to so far,” Gould said, explaining that the German attraction to Turkey might be linked to Gastarbeiter issue of the ‘60s that relocated many Turks to Germany. “There is a big, interested audience. The dialogue is on and enriching.”
Despite its rise to international acclaim, Tastaban emphasizes that the scene in Istanbul is still quite small – in the local community there are only around 15 regularly practicing artists.
At Banker Han, where every one of the seven floors is plastered with art, Tastaban explains the game local artists play with one another, creating a dialogue through their work.
“See, Fly did his stencil here,” he explained. “Then this guy Osmanox comes in and does the can.” A can of bug spray has been painted around Fly’s stencil. Another artist called E.A.T. then came in and painted a bright green, wall-size dragonfly.
“It’s like a play,” Tastaban said. “Many things combine to tell a story. You make illustrations that talk to people and hopefully it changes their mood from one to another.”