LindsayT wonders the streets of Istanbul looking for a story of the country's past. Instead she finds the graffiti reflects a nation struggling to define itself in the face of old and new.
Istanbul street art and Graffiti
Welcome LindsayT to the FatCap team. After taking a breather from designing corporate software and websites, she picked up a video camera and packed her bags to travel the world. While not a graffiti artist herself, she finds street art is the most influential when she's shaping opinions about the places she visits. She lives in the world you create for her.
The amount of art on any given city's street can tell a story to its visitors just as much as the lack of art can indicate that something more is missing than paint. Growing up in a city like Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, home to 2400 indoor and outdoor murals, I've come to appreciate the role street art and graffiti has on creating or representing a personality for a city. An abundance of art in a particular fashion, like the seventies retro styling of signage, street art and graffiti in Austin, Texas, can make walking the streets whimsical, inviting and with a feeling of a country home. The alleys in Melbourne, Australia covered in Deb's collaborative works picturing sexy females in different forms lets visitors know they are in an open-minded and funky town. And the overwhelming amount of tagging, political statements, and drawings all over Athens, Greece says its an almost-anything-goes type of town.
When I returned to Istanbul, Turkey for my second visit, I came with a unique opportunity to live in the city for 2 weeks as an Istanbulite would do. I wanted to sit at cafes, play backgammon, smoke nargile, drink Efes, party in Taksim, and watch boats sail pass on the Bosphorous. After already seeing the captivating patterns leftover from the Ottoman Empire permeating the country through its carpets, pottery, tiles and textiles back in 2007, I expected the real streets of Istanbul, outside of the touristic neighborhood of Sultanahmet, to inspire me creatively. Rather than continue telling my own stories of traveling, I wanted to discover the story line of Istanbul through its street art and graffiti. With a city of roughly 13 million people there should be an abundance of tales.
While roaming the streets, and aggressively hunting down the guys of Mazot Hip Hop and Graffiti shop, I found lots of colorful and creative pieces, but could not ignore this irking feeling that I may be looking for something that was not there. At the same time I came upon the very-cool Google "Style" search of "Graffiti Kings" that gave 6 artists the opportunity to display their work on a back alley wall, I was disappointed that few examples (mustafa-esque, bosphorous bridge) I found recognized the city's rich Ottoman history, and many more had been painted over. These two factors created a temporary cloud over my project. It was possible the story I was looking did not exist on the streets.
But with any story, just as much can be told by what is included than by what is omitted. Why didn't more artists include evil eye, tulips, calligraphy, intricate patterns, and rich colors synonymous with their history? Why was the graffiti wall lining the backside of Beyoglu left to rot? And why, most importantly, had some really good work been painted over? The answers to these questions, as they would unfold over many an Efes with my Turkish peers, are as complex as the attitudes the Turkish have towards themselves and their country.
The Turkish I met were simultaneously fiercely proud of their country, yet questioning why I, an American, would want to visit (for a second time, nonetheless). They were proud of their backgammon skills, their excellent salesmanship, and their million-and-one ways to cook all four legged animals (kebap, doner, iskander, kofte, etc), yet critical of any aspect of their society that seemed inferior to their Western counterparts. Joining the European Union aside, the Turkish are eager to have Westerners acknowledge them as equal. What makes them great hosts to foreigners - their awareness to the negative reputation foreigners have towards them makes them want all their guests to have the best time possible, and, so, send a good report card home - can also prevent them from embracing what makes them unique.
The graffiti artists and their detractors pursue this quest to be perceived Western (read: modern) in two different ways. The artists embrace their European counterparts, replicating the tagging techniques rather than inventing their own. Looking back on the 168 photos I took (link), more than enough for my own art project, there are only a few pictures that depict something that would indicate it was taken in Istanbul. On the other hand, there seems to be a movement to paint over this work, hoping to present an immaculate, pristine and controlled environment. This could be reflective of the deeper political struggle in Turkey between the increasingly more liberal and secular political movements, and the conservative desire to revert to the nation's Islamic roots.
Pictures and text by LindsayT