Some street art from Nairobi

Somewhere in the Parklands district of Nairobi, I came across a wall with beautiful street art. Markets in Kenya are full of beautifully executed art, sold at heart-breakingly low prices. I’d been surprised at the relative lack of street art, so this discovery was very pleasant. The Swahili word Jamuri means room, and that puts the piece in the featured photo in context. Imaginative, along with the graffiti inside graffiti.

This beautifully flowing piece on the same wall has the inscription Haki iwe ngao, which is Swahili for “Righteousness be the shield”. I like this East African “idiom” which avoids large areas of single colour, but uses stippling and stripes very extensively. On this large scale it makes for an extremely bright effect, somewhat in the way the pointillist experiments of Seurat did.

This superbly painted clubhouse gate more or less explained why this wall was full of street art. The logo of the clubhouse is rather cool I think. That background pink is really lovely.

This last one requires little explanation if you know a bit of Kenyan history. 1963 was the year Kenya became independent.

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Street art and ambush photography in Karaköy

Parts of Karaköy seem to be in terminal decline. The Family and I walked through back streets of these “old, poor, historic neighbourhoods”, as the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk calls them in his memoirs entitled “Istanbul”. The large number of tourists gave me an opportunity for ambush photography: the photographing of people who are being photographed by others. Where tourists thinned out, the walls became dense with graffiti. Plaster was falling off the walls of some of these buildings, revealing weathered brick. This is the area downhill from the Galata tower.

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The outline of the 14th century tower, a tall grey cylinder topped by a darker cone, is so clear and visible that I got used to orienting myself by it. I don’t suppose that there is any trace left here of the Genoese colony which built the tower, since the whole area became a fashionable district during the 18th century. Most of the crumbling buildings in these back streets are likely to be from the 19th century. I should really locate a street by street architectural guide to Istanbul when I go back there.

Turkish Street Furniture

You might not be surprised by Istanbul’s charm. A little square between buildings in Fatih with a swing and a teeter-totter makes a decent playground for the neighbourhood’s children. A few benches are scattered around for parents who are too tired to stand. And someone has painted a cheerful canary on the blue wall of one of the buildings which encloses the area. Charming? Sure. Surprising? No.

But in Galatasaray, two dolphins rearing up on their tails holding telephones in their plastic bellies is a touch of whimsy that one does not anticipate. We’d watched dolphins fishing in the Golden Horn. Here, a kilometer or two away, a telephone company had decided to use them as a symbol. Nice thinking.

Between the two, in the Eminönü district, a tap at the German fountain still works. Tourists and locals drink the water it dispenses. There is no sign saying which sultan had it placed here, but supplying potable water to citizens was a task that the Roman empire took very seriously, where in its first capital, or in the successor capital, Constantinople. We asked the locals about the tap water. They do not recommend it to tourists, but they drink it themselves. So we followed their example now and then, without getting into trouble.

On our drive through the town of Selçuk we saw an avenue lined with lions. This was quite surprising, and I hopped off the car to take a quick photo. I haven’t come across a description of this before, nor an explanation. Is it recent? Not recent enough for it to be made of concrete poured into moulds. The columns were made of stone. Sometime, somewhere I suppose I will eventually find the history of these lions standing on two paws.

Seats and water fountains are probably as ancient as the very notion of a city. Telephones have had their day, and phone booths are now quaint reminders of the twentieth century. It was comforting to walk by the Halic and see a line of ATMs waiting patiently. I didn’t have to use them, but after spending a week wandering through Anatolia, it was nice to be reminded that one was back in a city.

Istiklal Caddesi and its art

Istiklal Caddesi. This was the name which I would always think of as essential to Istanbul before I came here. Topkapi palace, Hagia Sophia, the Sulemaniye Mosque, were also-rans in my imagination. My imagination was full of what Nerval, Gautier, and Pamuk had written about Freedom Street. When I first climbed up from the Cihangir district to Istiklal Caddesi, it was everything that I’d hoped for: elegant shops and cafes as well as the charming decay of one of the world’s oldest global cities.

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The street is full of elegant buildings slowly decaying, brought alive today by the vibrant street art that you see in the slideshow above. It was dead at noon on a Monday, and came alive slowly as the day progressed. Istanbul is a party town, and this area is not a bad place to be in.

Art in an ancient city

After a week seeing the natural wonders of Turkey, and the ruins of ancient cities, I thought I’d forgotten what a living city feels like. When I got off the taxi in the middle of bustling Eminönü, it felt like jumping into the shockingly cold water of a Finnish sauna. A moment of shock, and then it was wonderful. An exhibition of photos at Istanbul’s new airport had introduced me to the work of the photographer Ara Güler. As I walked through the exhibition (a selection in the gallery below; for a better view follow the link), I realized that many photos of Istanbul are influenced by his vision.

Walking through the streets I realized that Istanbul has superb street art. I’ll have more to say about this later, but a sampler is the featured photo. It could be an early Braque were it not for the fact that it was a guerilla work in a boarded off lot in Eminönü.

Ancient Graffiti

Archaelogists seem to use the word graffiti in the same way that all of us do, to mean art that is made in a public place, usually without the sanction of city authorities. You can see quite a bit of graffiti etched into stone in the lower part of Ephesus. I suppose this is one way of figuring out that this part was not where the rich lived or cared too much about. The two main streets in this part are the Marble Way, connecting the library and the circus, and the Arcadian Way, leading to the docks.

The flagstones of the Marble Way show ruts of chariots, so making graffiti in the road here could get you knocked over. The fact that someone bothered to carve a foot and the faint outline of a woman into it (featured photo) means that they deemed it important. The building next to it was a Roman brothel, so this could have been a sign. The cross on the side wall of the road (photo below) seems to have been made over an older sign. There was an Egyptian temple here, so I wonder whether the Christian symbol was made to erase an older Egyptian symbol of an Ankh. This could be a territory marker. The photo of the circle with spokes comes from the Arcadian Way. I found this symbol in other ruins also, so this could possibly signify another cult. I wish I knew what it meant. Surely someone must have compiled a dictionary of Roman symbols. Otherwise there is an opportunity waiting for a historian.

In a city of about twenty to thirty thousand people, with a mass of sailors coming and going, why did we see so little graffiti? After all, the patricians did not seem to care too much about policing little acts of vandalism. Perhaps most graffiti was like today’s: painted or written. This would not have survived the millennia. Only the few etched into stone would not be washed away by half a million days of rain.

On the streets of Kusadasi

After a big iftari dinner in Kusadasi we decided to take a walk through the streets. Most shops had closed; their staff were off for their own iftari dinners. If it wasn’t for that, I would never have noticed this vibrant piece of art on the rolling shutter of a shop. My feelings about Kusadasi could not remain the same after this.

Kusadasi is a big town, but it is on the tourist circuit because cruise ships which come through the Greek archipelago stop here. In our three nights in Kusadasi we saw two such ships come in and leave. There is a wonderful promenade on the sea along Atatürk Bulvari, reminiscent of seaside walks on the Cote d’Azur. Behind it is a warren of streets with cheap shopping. Later, while chatting with the concierge at our hotel I would discover that British, Chinese, Russians and Indians are deemed to be the most frequent visitors. That is a mixture you wouldn’t find in most tourist destinations.

After that wonderfully wacky shutter decoration I wasn’t surprised by other business establishments. This one was shut, but the door was clearly made up to look like a cave. Roma hamami! Was this one of the Turkish hamams? There were several more hamams along the road, so it would well be one.

Further on I was reassured to find the usual internationally recognizable street art. It had an innocuous message in English. Either the youth here is not disaffected, or they get very pleasant tourists with time on their hands.

Off in a side street we came across a travel agency which advertised itself with these folksy paintings on its wall. One of them showed an embroidered head dress. Could it be traditional? It showed too much hair for a traditional Islamic woman’s headgear. But then, the Ottoman empire included Greek, Bulgarian, Albanian, Egyptian, Arab, and Irani people. The traditional Ottoman headgear could have come from anywhere in the Balkans, central Asia, or the middle east.

No conversation in Turkey is complete without çay. I saw a taxi business open late at night, with two on-call drivers whiling away their time in conversation, with cups of çay. They smiled and waved as I took their photo. Kusadasi is a base from which one can explore the major Aegean ports of antiquity: Ephesus, Priene, Miletus. We had hired a car for this leg of our trip, but if we hadn’t, then tour buses and taxis were not hard to get.

Street art of Shillong

I had quick glimpses of street art as the Rath of the Clan trundled around Shillong. My impression was that it had a better developed guerilla aesthetics than anything I see in Mumbai. The figure in the featured image holds a placard which says “Eat my shit.” When I saw this I wished I had the time to seek out other examples of local street art.

Unfortunately the hectic schedule of a relaxed family holiday left no time for such individual pursuits. I passed a long mural against human trafficking on one wall. I’ve seen similar messages in other places, so I believe it is not guerilla art. I hope someone local makes the effort to document this newly burgeoning scene. It certainly wasn’t noticeable five years ago.

Walking past a school of arts

I decided recently that I would walk in most of south Mumbai. Many roads have been dug up for the Metro, which is under construction, and the rest are therefore blocked with traffic, so this is faster. I figured that it would also be healthier to walk. What I didn’t realize is that I would become a tourist in my own town, seeing things which I hadn’t noticed before. The first pleasant surprise was the student murals on the walls of the J. J. School of Arts.

One of the origin stories that Mumbaikars tell each other is that Lockwood Kipling, the father of Rudyard Kipling, taught here. The story is even told in the School’s website. As a result, the Nobel prize winner for literature in 1907 grew up in a walled campus which much of the city commutes part daily. Caught in traffic jams nearby I hadn’t given it a thought. But walking past, my eyes snagged on little things behind the walls. Like the weird pipes around which a artist painted the mural which you see above.

Shabby maintenance is also evident in the work which you see above. I liked the work, with the man lying down to admire the wonderful colours around him. But the wall on which it is painted is a picture of awful maintenance. The hole which was punched into the wall to hold an exhaust fan did not account for the shape and size of the fan, and no one bothered to fill in the hole again. That this reduces the efficiency of the fan does not seem to be a concern! This in one of the country’s more popular schools of architecture!

The lovely pattern of pigeons and their coops is a rather clever trompe l’oeil. If the trick fails, it is because the real window is shabbier than the painted coops. The moss growing on the wall is doing a good job to restore the trick; I guess it won’t be long before the painting looks as unlovely as the window.

Here is a photo of the remains of a painting that I found interesting. Was this a picture of a lion and an unicorn fighting over a throne? What were the hands doing? I wish more of this was left. The more I walk around town the more I notice how utterly shabby Mumbai is becoming. Zipping across it in a car with windows down you notice only the oases of good repair. Walking, you discover the desert of crumbling buildings.

Far Kreutzberg

The Family turns out to be a natural-born hipster. While I was busy photographing street art, or admiring architectural points subtle enough to hit you in the face, she took a photo or two which turn out to capture the essence of night-life around Berlin. This happened over and over again, but most noticeably in the far eastern part of Kreutzberg near Oberbaumbruecke. In John le Carre’s cold war trilogy where the spy-masters Smiley and Karla face off, this bridge is the setting where Karla crosses finally to the West. I had a mad moment of imagination when I thought I would search for the gold cigarette lighter given to Smiley by his wife, which Karla stole in Delhi and dropped on the bridge as he crossed it. Instead, I took a few shots of the restored 19th century Gothic bridge (featured photo), as The Family examined what turned out to be one of Berlin’s hot spots: the Watergate club (photo below).

Most people come this far east in Kreutzberg for the many clubs which have sprung up in this area in the last decade. We were too early to start looking for a few sips of beer and music to dance by, but going by past experience, if it had been the right time, then she would have been able to either talk her way in for both of us, or found a different place. By all accounts, the area comes alive around midnight. We didn’t wait so long.

We had come here on a search for one of Berlin’s iconic murals, the one called Backjump by BLU. We stood on the bridge and admired the mural. The light was fading, and it was clear that our photo-walk through Berlin was almost over for the day. The gloomy double-decker Oberbaum bridge was made in that anachronistic Gothic style which we now think of as Harry-Potter-architecture. It was built at the end of the 19th century to take the increased traffic of that time as well as the then-new U-bahn. It was blown up in the last days of the war as a futile defensive measure against the advancing Red Army, and rebuilt in 1994. There was incredibly wild street art at the foot of the bridge (panels above). They were hard to photograph in the narrow space and in bad light.

Under the railway bridge at Schlesisches Tor, Berlin

As we walked back, I was intrigued by a gathering of people under the U-bahn line near the Schlesichser Tor station (photo above). A quick look told me that the kiosk is called Burgermeister, and its main offering is absolutely clear: burgers. This is another of the legendary places around here. I was torn, but decided to give it a miss, thinking of a bigger dinner later. This was a mistake because our dinner experience that night turned out not to be good. But that is another story which ended with The Family’s hipster radar leading her into one of Berlin’s hotspots of street art.