Yerevan is not a pretty city. It’s dirty – the air, the streets. Most of its old architecture, as I’ve come to learn, has been obliterated in favor of poorly built new buildings in pursuit of some silly, and elusive, European ideal for a city and a country and a people which are not European. The city’s parks are unkempt and many include gaudy cafes that tempt your humor, making you wonder whether someone really thought it was a good idea to put bright lights and Coca-Cola umbrellas in a quaint and otherwise peaceful place.
A lot of Yerevan’s look and feel has to do with the carelessness of the authorities and their disregard for aesthetics. Thus you have KFC signage in a pleasant park (see below) or overflowing trash cans or ruined sidewalks.
But the authorities’ inattention to beautifying Yerevan is most blatantly obvious while taking a stroll down Northern Avenue toward the Opera. On the main thoroughfare, nonsensical graffiti is visible on the entrances to the underground parking lots. Mind you, this is an area that opened in 2007 as the premier, central shopping and pedestrian area in all of Armenia. Although it’s impressive that someone was able to manage tagging in this area without being caught (from what I can tell, the street is well-lit throughout the night), the unsightly textual spray-paintings are out of place on the otherwise prim and proper avenue.
Perhaps more surprising is what I found at the capital city’s pride and joy, the Opera. The vaunted structure is where anybody who’s made it big in Armenia performs and anybody who’s made it big, thinks they’ve made it big, wants to seem like they’ve made it big, or just enjoys good performances goes. It’s so popular that all the idiots in the country got together and built cafes in the park across from the Opera and in such a way that the Opera is not visible from most of them, thus eliminating green space for a cafe you could’ve put anywhere but you put next to a structure you mostly can’t see only so you can say you put your cafe next to it.
On the ramps leading to the equivalent of Armenia’s Lincoln Center or Disney Concert Hall you see similarly nonsensical graffiti. Maybe there is a good reason (I doubt it) that it’s not cleaned up the rest of the year but it’s tourist season! You can’t expect to have your two central structures littered with gibberish. I know it’s far-fetched to expect Yerevan authorities to care but this is one of the things that can affect their bottom line and if we know anything it’s that that is definitely motivation for them.
If you were wondering, this is “street art” which I don’t appreciate (although I love some other graffiti).
Part of Yerevan’s blight are the soul-lacerating Soviet-era concrete projects. From the outside, they make New York’s projects look like a Ritz Carlton. The entrances to these crumbling depression machines are seldom, if ever, at the front of the building but rather in a courtyard accessed through a similarly drab passageway.
Some creative minds – or perhaps just one – saw an opportunity in these passageways and started painting and colorizing the gray. It’s almost hard to believe before it’s done but the difference some paint and pleasant imagery can make is astounding.
More importantly, somebody saw something ugly and instead of letting it send them into a spiral of hopelessness, they innovated and beautified. Credit to those who had the idea and made this happen.
There is also a smarter variation of textual street art and it usually takes the form of a stenciled message meant to elicit some feeling – pride, hope, inspiration, rage. I’ll take these crude markers of mental activity over the KFC awning and hooliganism from above any day.
Finally, what could be cooler than walking down a street and seeing a painting of one of your favorite authors unexpectedly plastered on an otherwise forgettable wall? A lot of things but this is nevertheless pretty cool.
To celebrate the 500th anniversary of Armenian printing, Yerevan was deemed World Book Capital in 2012. Most of these seem sanctioned and done by a certain BB Media and thankfully they were done with some verve and pizzazz.
More refreshing is that these giants of literature, now staring at thousands of passerby, have been deemed worthy of public exaltation in a place where, if the overheard conversations of young men are any indication, the speech and behavior of the criminal-elite is preferred over the mellifluous poetry of literate forebears.
Next step: books-for-mafia-soap-operas program.
As is seen in these pictures, the battle between the positive and negative takes many forms. An individual with a can of spray paint can use it to write utter nonsense and soil an attractive thing or they can use it to convey an empowering message; a person can look at a dull, dark passageway and sulk or they can use it as their canvas.
It’s only a matter of how you look at the world and what you see: hopelessness or opportunity?
By: William Bairamian