Aske, before we talk about CODE RED and its story. I want you to talk about your personal relationship with graffiti. How long have you been involved? What inspired you to start?
I’ve been drawing since my childhood. Once, when I was in a summer camp drawing the kids who saw my pictures called it graffiti. Back home I decided to find out more about graffiti on the Internet (I was really lucky that my dad introduced me to the Web back in 1995). I was very impressed with what I discovered and made my first letter-based sketches in 2000, and in 2001 I made my first piece on the street.
Thinking about it now, I feel very lucky that I made friends with all the guys from those early days of Russian graffiti and I still remember the great atmosphere of that time.
From the very start, I was more interested in the creative side of graf rather than in vandalism. I was constantly trying to develop my style looking for some new ways to express myself. That’s why at some point I began exploring graphic design and tried to base my work on my graffiti experience and background.
Ok. Now let’s move onto the story of CODE RED Magazine. How did the magazine get its start and how has it changed over the years from a magazine to a clothing brand?
Today, CODE RED is a daily blog about graffiti, street art, and other forms of creativity, as well as an independent Russian street-wear brand. It all began in 2003 when a friend of ours named Yuri Kadantsev self-made a small zine called Ulitsa (meaning ‘a street’ in Russian) as his graduation project. It was one of the first zines dedicated to the Russian graf scene. Two years later, in 2005, he decided to make a real graffiti magazine. He contacted me and offered to publish my works; eventually I helped him with the layout and came up with the new name for the mag: this is how CODE RED started. Sadly, Yuri died in a car accident in 2010.
Since 2005 we have published six issues. CODE RED was the first Russian coloured high-quality mag dedicated to graffiti and street art covering mainly the Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian scene. It was bilingual (Russian-English) and contained hand-picked images, exclusive interviews with both Russian and foreign graffiti writers, artists, and photographers, as well as photo materials from different graffiti jams and festivals. It actually has had a great influence on all local graf mags that were started later.
In 2007, our team produced the first series of can bags and backpacks to support the mag financially. Our products became really popular with the [writing] community, allowing CODE RED to grow and evolve into an independent streetwear brand. Since 2010 we have been producing limited editions of pants, shorts, hoodies, t-shirts, headwear, and other accessories. Over the last year the brand has overgrown the graffiti community and has become quite popular with the young crowd.
Also, in 2009 we launched a daily blog (www.codered.ru); it’s dedicated to graffiti, street art, graphic design, and more, and is aimed at the Russian-speaking audience.
This question ties in with the previous one, so forgive me if it seems a bit redundant. I want to go a little deeper and specifically know what made you and your crew want to make CODE RED? Besides your mission statement and goals, what do you hope to accomplish with the publication?
First of all, we just liked the idea, and we still enjoy what we do. Besides, I’ve noticed not so long ago that many people care about what we do. So, it occurred to me that we have a great opportunity to try and do something good for our graffiti community, as well as promote creativity among the young generation.
Our mission statement is simple: We want to promote creativity among the younger generation from the post-Soviet states.
Our Purpose is to share some interesting news and tell inspiring stories. We’d like to educate youngsters and broaden their perception of art so that they don’t limit themselves only to graffiti. We want to get them to know the great artists of the past, as well as some young talented people from different art fields, including sculpture, illustration, design, fine art etc. We also want to support the talented and creative youths by providing them with an opportunity to show their work on our blog.
There are many websites and magazines which showcase writers from all over the world, but the majority of their stories are being told from an outsider’s view (i.e.: Westerner’s view) and as good they may try to give authentic accounts, that outsider can only get so close to the truth; because they don’t live in the region(s) being reported upon and therefore a certain depth is missing. When compared to an outsider’s prospective, a native point-of-view will ALWAYS give a deeper insight. How important is it for you and your team to have Russian graffiti and street culture represented through your own eyes?
Of course, it is important that the insiders share their stories, experiences and thoughts with their local community. Different countries, and thus different communities, have their own specific problems and difficulties, so it’s really important to bring them out, share your thoughts on them, and possibly offer some solutions. I believe that the right ideas expressed by respected writers and artists (the insiders) can develop the scene and help the younger generation to go on search for their creativity and self-expression, and not just hang around writing their tags all over the place. We wish there were more talented creative young people in the post-Soviet states; their stories, once told, can inspire other kids to follow their example. And we would like to be a part of it.
Whether right or wrong, when Westerners think of “international” graffiti, we tend to look at Japan, Brazil, or England as “our examples” of the art. Despite all the available information online, Russia’s contributions to the culture tend to be overlooked [by Westerners]. Could you take this moment to educate us a bit on the graffiti culture in Russian?
The first wave of graffiti came to Russia at the end of the 1990s when the mass media began telling stories about the hip-hop culture; they even talked about graffiti and brake dance in some youth TV programs. No doubt that all that hype inspired a lot of kids to go out on the streets and try to spray paint. This is how the first generation of Russian graffiti writers was born in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other Russian cities.
Since the graffiti culture had only started to emerge, there were no local writers back then. The number of people who managed to get hold of graffiti magazines or videos was really small. The Dirty Hands film was copied over and over again on VHS tapes. Until 2000-2004 there was practically no information on international graffiti scene available in Russia; there were no graf mags, and very few people had access to the Internet.
On the one hand, it was hard, but on the other hand, Russian writers were more original, they were not as influenced by the foreign style trends as today. Moreover, at the very beginning of the 21st century the local scene was smaller and friendlier; people shared the same passion for graffiti, while today the scene consists mainly of different groups of writers who don’t hang out with the rest. Unfortunately, kids now are more interested in clothes and hanging around with famous writers rather than in developing their own style and skills.
Nowadays, it’s rare to meet a talented and motivated young writer. What is even worse, if you are talented and/or active and you get some fame, lots of other writers envy you and speak badly of both you and your style. This generates an unhealthy atmosphere within the local graffiti community. It would be great if people reflected more on what they do and why they get upset when someone else does a good job and becomes famous; this way such people could have developed instead of hating others and degrading.
You mentioned, in its beginning stage, that Russian writers were, “not as influenced by foreign style trends as today.” Has the divide between the individuality of Russian styles and foreign styles now become blurred?
Talking about graffiti, it really seems to me that it’s becoming harder and harder to avoid globalization and thus to develop and/or preserve an authentic style, which differentiates your country or region from the rest of the world.
The Soviet Union ruled over Russia and much of Eastern Europe for 69 years and during that time its doctrine influenced the way in which all art coming out of its states was to look; everything from literature, film, visual art, and architecture was controlled by the government. ?As you mentioned earlier, it wasn’t until the late 90s – following the end of the Soviet Union- that mainstream graffiti spread throughout Russia. Obviously, 69 years is a long time for artists to be influenced and conditioned by certain rules. As a result, I would image many people continued to follow Soviet-art-philosophies long after the system went away. Do you feel Soviet art influenced the way graffiti writers produce their work? If so, was it good or has it stagnated the progression of art form?
Personally, I don’t think that the Soviet art philosophy has influenced Russian graffiti much. What might have influenced all the writers, though, is the Soviet mentality, the generally low cultural and educational level of the Russian population, and the sense of indifference and stagnation that has prevailed in our society since the late 1990’s. Many young people don’t have any goals in their lives and therefore have no motivation to develop themselves and to progress in what they are doing (I’m not talking only about graffiti); they lack ambition and drive, and it seems that they don’t want to achieve anything at all. After more than 70 years of the Soviet regime, most people got used to not making any of important decisions for their own selves; it was normal that the ruling party would decide everything for you, and you had no choice whatsoever.
I want to switch topics for a second. Personally, I have a fixation with Russian history and culture. It’s one of my goals, in life, to visit Russia so tell me something(s) I MUST-SEE or DO when I finally visit Russia?
First of all, it would be perfect if you could contact some locals because it’s always more exciting to have an insider’s view of a place. This way you’ll see all what’s worth seeing and not only the places of interest from travel book. Besides, you’ll be more safe and comfortable because not many Russians, even in big cities, speak English.
Moscow and St. Petersburg are the first cities you should visit. Summer is the best time to come to Russia; the weather is usually very good, some 20-30 C (70-90 F). There are so many great places to see and things to do, that it will take me too long to name them all.
If you are planning a long journey, or you’ve already been to these two cities, you can tour the Golden Ring, which is a ring of medieval towns northeast of Moscow (Vladimir, Suzdal, Yaroslavl, and nine other towns and cities). They have beautiful kremlins (fortresses), monasteries, and churches with famous onion domes built in XII-XVIII centuries.
Veliky Novgorod, Pskov, Vyborg, Nizhny Novgorod, and Kazan are also wonderful and definitely worth visiting.
If you want to explore more of Russia you should go to Perm, Samara, Yekaterinburg, and other big cities because Moscow and St. Pete, though amazing, differ a lot from other Russian cities.
Many foreigners love it travelling through Russia along the Trans-Siberian railroad; you can get on train in Moscow and go all the way through Siberia to the Far East. You can stop by some great places on your way, like Lake Baikal for example. (A non-stop journey from Moscow to Vladivostok takes around a week.)
What is something a visitor should NEVER DO WHEN IN RUSSIA?
In general, Russians don’t care too much about what other people do or say but there are a few tips that might be helpful.
Though shaking hands with both men and women is a traditional way of greeting people in the West, in Russia it’s still uncommon to shake hands with females (we usually do it only at business meeting). The common way to greet someone you meet for the first time or don’t know well is to shake hands with males and just say hello to females. As for the cheek-kissing, though the traditional Russian way was to give three kisses, today we kiss only once and only with good friends and family.
Another difference is that when we come home or go to someone else’s place we always take our shoes off when entering the house. Maybe this tradition has to do with our snowy winters and rainy fall and spring when your shoes are always dirty, I don’t know. If you remain in your shoes you will be taken for a person with extremely bad manners.
As for taboos, since millions of Russians died in the World War II, everyone takes it really close to heart, so you’d better be respectful when talking about the subject. May 9, or the Victory Day, is still the most widely celebrated Russian holiday apart from the New Year.
In the West, there are some SERIOUS crackdowns on graffiti writers– in fact, some time writers are placed in the same prisons as violent offenders. How does the law deal with graffiti writers in Russia? Are the penalties as harsh as North America’s or do writers get ignored by the law?
The laws and the penalties are way less harsh in Russia than in North America and Europe. If you get caught you can almost always get away by bribing the police, which is totally corrupt. As far as I know, no one has ever been put in jail for graffiti in Russia; the worst thing that can happen to you is receiving a suspended prison sentence and being fined (the fine is comparable to the one you would get in Europe or North America).
Who are some of the Russian crews and writers you feel people [outside of Russia] need to be looking at?
I would recommend checking out the following artists and crews:
Scheme (www.stylekonstruktor.com) from Moscow, Russia. He is one of the most talented and motivated young Russian artists who began his career as a writer. His style has already been noticed abroad; he’s taken part in many European graffiti and street art festivals. This year he participated in the Public Provocations 3 exhibition together with such world famous artists as El Mac, Aryz, Won ABC, and others. He is constantly developing his art and I’m sure that he’ll be successful and famous pretty soon.
Sy (www.streetfiles.org/hellomynameissy) from St. Petersburg, Russia. He is a talented street artist who paints stylish geometrical compositions, each with its own story behind it. Unfortunately, not many people even from the Russian graffiti and street art community know him, though his art is definitely worth seeing.
Interesni Kazki (www.interesnikazki.blogspot.com), a duo from Kiev, Ukraine. In my opinion, they are the best street artists and muralists in all the post-Soviet states. Waone and Aec started with graffiti, and today they paint buildings with huge surrealistic compositions with lots of different layers of meaning. They travel and paint a lot, so probably you are already familiar with their work.
Aesthetics (www.streetfiles.org/aes-crew), a crew of four writers from Moscow and the Moscow region. They’ve being doing graffiti for quite a long time always trying to further develop their own style and not to be influenced by popular trends. Petro (www.streetfiles.org/petro-aesthetics) and Slak (www.streetfiles.org/slagone) have been experimenting with their styles a lot over the last couple of years, and it’s really interesting to watch them evolve. I’m sure that sooner or later they will make a name for themselves on the international graf scene.
TAD (www.topndope.com), a crew from St. Petersburg. Currently, they are the most skillful and active writers on the Russian scene. They followed the trend set by Askew, Roid, and other members of MSK, TMD, and HA. Thanks to their hard work over the last few years they have become the most visible crew on the local scene and are the first crew that got a sponsorship of a big spray paint brand.
Alexey Luka (www.alexeyluka.com) from Moscow, Russia. An artist who studied architecture and then picked up graffiti and photography. He’s been painting out on the streets for more than ten years. Besides graf, he paints on paper and canvases. Today, his passion is shared between abstract graphics and collages, which he creates using different techniques.
8350 (www.8350.org) from Moscow, Russia. He is one of the first wave Russian train-bombers. He started doing graffiti in 1997 and spent over ten years putting up his name, Beso, on trains and walls across the city. In 2010-2011 he switched to abstract graphics giving a new turn to his artistic career. His work is mostly influenced by post-punk, ambient and techno music.
Do you have any closing remarks or shout-outs you’d like to add?
I’d like to thank you for the questions and I hope that those who didn’t know much about Russian graffiti will find this interview interesting. Though there are some Russian writers and street artists who have already become quite famous worldwide, they are really few. So I really want our creative youths to progress and develop, and to reach a level high enough to be recognized by the international community. CODE RED will keep doing everything to help this happen by sharing inspiring stories and great images, as well as spreading the word about talented artists. Stay tuned!
For more information, be sure to check out: www.codered.ru