STORIES

These European Street Artists Specialize in Defiling Offensive Monuments

By David Jenison on September 17, 2017

Russia invaded the Kingdom of Bulgaria in 1944. The former Axis power soon became the People's Republic of Bulgaria, and its capital city erected the divisive Soviet Army, Liberator of the Bulgarian People monument. Fast forward to 1989. A day after the breach of the Berlin Wall, Bulgaria ousted its Communist leader and pivoted back toward the west, eventually joining NATO and the European Union. Bulgarians differ on how they view their old ally, and while some want the Soviet Army monument removed or destroyed, others insist it must stay to honor the country's heritage. Sound familiar

On July 17, 2011, the guerilla street art collective Дестръктив Криейшън (Destructive Creation) made its own statement by painting the Soviet Army soldiers as Ronald McDonald, Captain America, Santa Claus, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Joker and other western characters. The group also transformed the monument flag into the stars and stripes and tagged the base with the phrase, "Keeping up with the times." The act made international headlines, sparked a national dialogue on Soviet statues and earned its own documentary. Destructive Creation even inspired multiple copycats who painted or dressed up the same monument for other protests, inspiring the 2014 Moscow Times headline, "Russia Wants Bulgarians to Stop Vandalizing Soviet Monuments." 

This might be Destructive Creation's most famous guerilla communication, but it's certainly not the only one. Among many acts, the group painted a Joker face on a giant bronze lion at the Palace of Justice and created a Chernobyl-themed installation with 400 gas masks and the words, "30 years ago this happened… nothing." At the same time, Destructive Creation creates positive art installations, such as a pink wheelchair at the national stadium to celebrate the Paralympic Team and "all the people for whom the Olympics are every day." The group also paints and repairs public spaces—from stages to park benches—to fix and beautify them. Destructive Creation is completely anonymous, but one member spoke with PRØHBTD via email. 

Several years back, you famously painted the Soviet Army, Liberator of the Bulgarian People monument in Sofia. Were you surprised at all the attention it got? 

For each person in the group, it was different. We were planning the project for about six months, and we were discussing many options. Most people in the group did not expect what we did to cause such interest—to generate so many debates and so much discussion—let alone become world news. 

Since then, copycats transformed the same monument multiple times in reference to things like the Prague Spring and the Ukraine situation. Did you merely inspire these acts, or was Destructive Creation involved? 

The first time after us, the monument was transformed in connection with Pussy Riot’s arrest in Russia. Then it was painted in pink and then in the colors of the flag of Ukraine. At first, for the sake of little experience, we were slightly annoyed by the copying. Later on, we met some of the people—the perpetrators of the next paintings—and they were older than us, very well educated, successful and with a clear statement. We actually understood that they were great people. We also realized that, unlike us and our generation, the generation of our parents sincerely hated this monument, and our act of painting it was the realization of their dreams and fantasies.

In 2013, you also painted one of the bronze lions at the Palace of Justice to look like the Joker from Batman. When you do a high profile act like this, how afraid are you, and what precautions do you take to avoid getting caught? 

Everything is very spontaneous. Each project is seen only as the final result. Actually, behind each action, there are several unsuccessful attempts, failed starts, quarrels and controversies. Such an act is done by a team, and when it is risky, everyone in the team must be convinced deep inside that it is right. This is the most difficult part. Precautions depend on the project. Good attitude is important—we are not ashamed of what we do. On the contrary, we believe in it. It often happens that police stop us and ask for an explanation of what we are doing. We talk calmly and politely with them. We explain the initiative and the cause and then they wish us a pleasant evening and success.

Out of all the political statements you made, which was the most difficult to make happen?

The transformation of the Alyosha monument in Plovdiv into a super hero villain. The monument is 15-meters high, it is lit and it's on the top of a steep and high hill in the center of the city. We were trying to make it in three days, three hours per day. Back then there were no drones, equipment or anything which would help us. Eventually we managed to stretch the 10-meter red cloak of the Soviet soldier and closed his face with a black cloth. We made it during the biggest event—The Night of Museums in Plovdiv—when people from all over the country are in the city.

And which political statement was your favorite in terms of creativity? 

The transformation of partisan figures in a park in Sofia, like Martenitsa—a symbol of health related to our culture. The idea was simple—huge amounts of money were spent on Soviet monuments and yet no one knows why they are there. They are simply not related to us—it is an attempt to impose fake heroes as ours. At the same time, each year we celebrate Martenitsa where we exchange red and white yarn that costs 20 stotinki, and we've been doing that for more than 1,300 years. We believe memory is not a matter of propaganda.

Your motto translates, "You should have done it yourself." What do you mean by that? 

In our country we can summarize the attitudes as, on one hand, nothing happens, and on the other, when someone does something new, everybody immediately points out the disadvantages of it. Perfectionism is not a national feature, unlike passivity and lack of initiative. This criticism, however, frightens and hinders the attempts of the "young" who are making their first steps in realizing their ideas. With this, we want to respond to criticism before they come, and to give an answer to others who are criticized as they try to realize their dreams.

What issues concern you most right now? 

We are not talking about our future projects, but when we did the monument with the superheroes, we saw something negative. This has become another topic that distracts from looking into ourselves. If we look at ourselves, we will notice things we do not like, and we will want to change them. These are things we can change and that depend on us most of all. But that means effort. That's why topics such as the mafia, the world conspiracy, the wars, the global and political issues are such topical issues. They are not subdued. We want to keep our criticism of the politicians, the system, but we do not want to take the "people's" side. We do not like things in the "people" and the way they see the world. In the society itself, we have topics that need to be raised.

Bulgaria seems to be tough on people who smoke or grow cannabis. Would you like to see cannabis legalized, and if yes, is that an important issue for you?

This is a two-sided issue. On one hand, we do not tolerate smoking cannabis in the team. On the other hand, the actions against young people who smoke cannabis would make you think they are dangerous criminals. Both things are not okay, and if cannabis is legalized, probably everything will come to its place. Smoking and growing cannabis cannot be a crime—it's ridiculous—but that's not our cause for now. In our country, there is no access for the disabled, the minimum pension is 80 euro, and most of our society are racists. For many young people, the important things are having a nice phone and a fancy car, but living in poor conditions, our education is at a very low level. Having these issues, the legalization of the cannabis seems like a whimsy not on the right place.

David Jenison (david@prohbtd.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.

 

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