Sunday morning is the perfect time to explore any new city. The tranquility makes it easy to see the bones of the place without the people, traffic, and workaday commotion – and there’s no better way to do it than on foot.
Our little apartment was in the trendy, semi-bohemian Kapana District of Plovdiv. This historic area had its start 500 years ago as a tradesmen’s center but as frequently happens, it fell on hard times. Fortunately, thanks to a three-year effort, city government has transformed the once neglected area into a center for local artisans, galleries, cafes and coffee houses.
This rough-around-the-edges neighborhood is still in transition, and it’s where the talented street artists stepped in. What were once rusted metal doors, ugly utility boxes, and derelict buildings have become a city-sanctioned outdoor art gallery.
The art in Kapana is incredibly vivid, creative, and whimsical. The variety and number of paintings is impressive, and while the cognoscenti probably get all the esoteric messages, we just appreciated the color and creativity.
On our way to the high street, the combination of a ratty map and forgotten travel compass resulted in a wrong turn that turned fruitful. On a small side street we stumbled into a large, deep magenta-colored building covered in huge, complex, and richly detailed murals. It was the biggest collection of large scale, high quality street art that either of us have ever seen.
Once again, each complicated mural communicated its own esoteric message, which we guessed at, but despite not totally understanding the meaning, we certainly appreciated the art.
Plovdiv has been selected as the European Capital of Culture for 2019, which is quite a feather in their cap. Improvement works are going on all around town, and city government is taking this opportunity to put its best foot forward. Each year the city holds a street art festival, and new paintings are added. Before arrival, we hadn’t read anything about the street art so it was a wonderful bonus.
It speaks highly of any community which has such an appreciation for art, and is willing to include all parts of the artistic community in its efforts to make the city a more vibrant place to visit and live. We suspect that this attitude had a good deal to do with why Plovdiv was selected as a cultural capital. With it’s art, history, and architecture, it obviously deserves the honor.
James & Terri
P.S. For some of you, reading this post may have brought to mind the old argument about whether street art and graffiti are art or vandalism. We’d love to know your opinion.
Last updated December 17, 2018
I like that you’ve brought up the question. I have nothing against street art. Most of what I’ve seen is stupendous. You may not want to see it decorating the banking area of town but there are other place it fits. I believe artists involved in this art are mega talented.
You captures are outstanding. Wish we were less inhibited in our country. Stupendous art! 😀
Tess, like you, I’m a big fan of street art, and have seen the positive impact it can have in many cities. But over time, I’ve developed a clear opinion about whether it’s a good or bad thing – and that is permission. No matter how wonderful the art is, if the property owner has not given permission, it shouldn’t be there. All the art we saw in Plovdiv was exceptional quality, and also city sanctioned, so there was no question. ~James
Exactly. In my city we have artists who spray anywhere they like and if caught, penalized. On the other hand, we also have areas where artwork is encouraged. 🙂
Made me think I was back at Burning Man. 🙂 I just did a blog on their murals.I really appreciate that so many communities around the world are doing now mural art. Plovdiv’s are quite good. Thanks for posting. –Curt
I’ve seen many of your posts on Burning Man Curt, and honestly, all the art has been exceptional. So I wouldn’t expect the murals to be any different. There are lots of aspects to the issue of graffiti, but if I were a city official, I’d try to find a way to channel artistic talent into a positive force, instead of something to enforce. Of course, this is easy to say, but not so easy to do. ~James
Not so easy is right. So much of it is a way of fflipping off society. –Curt
James these are all fabulous images but the one with you in it my fave. Of course this could be because I am a huge fan but also because it gives perspective to the enormity of the art!
I loved this graphic as well Sue. I have no idea what the character is or where the idea came from, but it’s very cool and the largest image we saw. Many of the murals were larger scale than we’ve seen, and it was an amazing collection. ~James
My favorites are the photos of the books and the girl with her nose in/on a book. So many of these look like they came out of a graphic novel or comic book with their vivid colors – you could almost write the words “POW” and “ZAP” on them! We’re always on the look-out for street art and enjoy the impact it can have on neighborhoods that are in transition. Looks like Plovdiv’s neighborhoods are on the rise! Anita
I hadn’t thought of the comic book aspect Anita, but you’re exactly right. Terri and I spent some time studying the art and trying to figure out the message, and some were beyond us. I thought that the couple on the red wall were particularly interesting. They are obviously puppets, and the woman has a knife behind her back, and the piece is entitled “Romance.” Very interesting don’t you think? Any ideas? ~James
Such colorful and vibrant murals! I do believe that street art and murals will do any city good, unlike love locks.
Street art and love locks are hot buttons for lots of folks Bama. As I said to Tess, in my opinion, it really all comes down to permission. If the property owner has not given permission, then it’s vandalism: whether locks or art. ~James
That’s true. Art is a matter of personal taste anyway… unless it endangers public safety like those love locks in one of the bridges in Paris. I still prefer murals, but I can see your point, James.
I’m a fan of street art, be it graffiti, public sculptures or professional murals. For me, the vandalism is the tagging that goes on everywhere. It feels like the signature without the picture.
Obviously, we’re big fans of street art as well Marie, but it can be a slippery slope. On our last trip to Athens we had an apartment that was outside the tourist area in a normal, working-class neighborhood. The area was fine, but the graffiti was totally out of control. Nicely painted apartment buildings were just another surface for taggers to vandalize. When it’s like this, it’s depressing. And I’m sure the property owners felt helpless – not good at all. ~James
That’s the kind of graffiti I don’t like. Naples was the same.
It’s wonderful to see the city embracing the arts in such a way. Much better than letting the old buildings continue on to their ruin. Very talented artists, even if I don’t quite get the messages.
Laura, we’ve seen interesting pieces of street art scattered about, but never a collection that was this large and of such excellent quality. And it was interesting as well, that none of the areas we saw had random taggers plastering their tags on walls. I suspect there must be an unspoken rule between the artists. ~James
Oh the colors! The street art! It’s just beautiful and amazing!!
Almost all street art is vivid Liz, but in Plovdiv it was exceptionally so. Given the city’s support, it appears to have become a draw for seriously talented artists, and it’s shows. ~James
This is a very colourful city! You captured it well. I love the one with you in it!
Thanks Darlene. As I said to Sue, I love this jester (??) as well, and would love to know the inspiration. It must have taken a good deal of planning and artistic insight to pull it off. ~James
Plovdiv is getting even higher on my wish list. This is fabulous art for sure. We took a web found, trip advisor reviewed street art walking tour in Buenos Aires and found it really helpful in our political interpretation…then again just appreciating this creativity works too.
If there was ever a vehicle for exercising one’s freedom of speech, it’s street art. It would be interesting to know what percentage of street art has a political message, but it must be very high. I’m sure that your tour was interesting and educational. Most Latin American countries have turbulent political histories, and BA is no exception. ~James
Now I’ve also shared your Plovdiv posts with my husband and he agrees – sounds and looks fascinating.
Have you been to South America? I saw excellent – and legal – street art in Buenos Aires and Valparaiso. I think the quality is much better when it’s legal, after all, the artists have more time. And I am definitely against vandalism and love locks…
No I haven’t seen the art in BA, but another commenter mentioned that they are wonderful. The article that I referenced talks about the fact that legal art is much better quality because the artists can take their time planning and completing the murals. ~James
Such vibrant images. I think you bring up a very good point in regards to permission. I love street art but I think there is a tipping point where it can take away from the natural beauty of a place. It was everywhere in Greece & while I can appreciate the beauty of the artwork, there were times when we would have preferred to simply take in the architecture.
Lynn, if you read my comment to Marie above, you’ll see that I felt exactly the same in Athens. The graffiti was out of control, and in addition to being vandalism, most of it was crap. Graffiti is going to happen, and I think that it’s a good idea when cities make an effort to recognize and embrace it to some extent. But that doesn’t mean anarchy rules. I feel very strongly that taggers’ freedom of speech ends where property rights begin. And BTW, since you typed a nice, long comment, I assume that your surgery and recovery are coming along fine. ~James
I am doing very well James, recovery is moving along very smoothly!
What a great Sunday stroll. I love that you didn’t have to go inside to view the art. Thanks for giving us some scale in that last photo!
Isn’t that graphic just the coolest Susan? It was my favorite, and I’d love to know the inspiration for it. But I guess that the artist would say that if I need to ask, I don’t need to know. ~James
I love the street art. It’s so full of character and it makes you think.
I agree Leslie, and many of them do make you think. As I said to another commenter: I thought that the couple on the red wall were particularly interesting. They are obviously puppets, and the woman has a knife behind her back, and the piece is entitled “Romance.” Very interesting don’t you think? Any ideas? ~James
I’ll give that one some more thought, James.
I’m a big fan of street art myself. Living in a city recovering from earthquake destruction we have been inundated with murals and smaller scale art on abandoned & crumbling buildings. I’ve loved the input of colour into what, in the early stages of recovery, was a rather drab ghost town, however some of them have divided opinion amongst the locals & there are some people who have refused to see them as anything other than graffiti. I on the other hand love it every time I see a new one.
I checked out your post Fi, and Wow! What an excellent collection. Street Art is one of those polarizing issues. On one end of the scale, there’s the serious and talented artists working hard to produce high quality art, and at the other end are the egotistical
wankerstaggers who do nothing more than illegal property damage. And as you go toward the middle of this scale, the actual position of the middle is a subjective gray area. Probably, this will never change, but it will help when cities begin to recognize the art form and embrace it to some extent. Thanks for the link. ~James
City officials in Bogota would give you no argument that street art improves when it is not outlawed. I agree that pure tagging – nothing more than a scrawled ID – is not visually appealing, but the grayer graffiti areas, like stencils, stickers, etc., can still liven up a decrepit wall. Permission would be ideal, but I think the origins of street art as public protest make it unlikely that will ever fully happen! Love the post and the photos!
I agree about the gray areas Lexie. We saw some of this in Plovdiv, where derelict buildings that were total eyesores were improved considerably no doubt. And undoubtably, one of the considerations at the bottom of this issue is the subjective and fluid definition of “art.” Like most people, I have an opinion of what I like, and appreciate the right of public protest. But as I said to someone else, for me, the bottom line is the right of free speech ends where property rights begin. And the trick for city government is to find the compromise. ~James
What fun. It reminds me of the old town in Madeira where much the same has happened. In order to spruce the place up murals were painted on doors. The effect of that was to raise the whole area and its now a vibrant mix of street art, galleries and restaurants. We could well learn from the approach in many of our own downtrodden areas of towns and cities.
It’s always good to see when government actually gets it right Dorothy. If you look closely, you can see that the Kapana area of Plovdiv was a bit rough not so long ago. The street art and the government’s efforts to encourage local artisans have really turned the area around. It’s right in the city center, so it will need to look its best for the Cultural Capital festivities. And from what we saw, it’s on its way.
You had me at the first series of shots! Wonderful and fascinating. I say they definitely deserve the award, James and Terri. You two get the award for travel gurus of my world!
Thanks for your kind words Martha. As I said, this was the best collection of street art that we’ve seen anywhere, and in Plovidiv, Bulgaria of all places. Surprises like this are just another of the rewards of travel. ~James
I’m always drawn to antique and architecturally old anything — roofs, doors, trip, gutter spouts, etc. But this street art is something else. No wonder they’ve won the 2019 culture award — might be a good time to return!
The city’s getting geared up for sure, and I’m sure that by 2019, things will really be poppin’. But you know how this works. We loved the place because of its relaxed atmosphere and it was off the path, but it’s such a cool place that it’s bound to get more popular and busy. As a tourist (and a blogger advertising the place), I can’t really complain, but it’s always good to see a place before it got big. ~James
And you’ve served it well. Your pics make me want to add it to what may be a chance this summer to visit the region. Thanks!
I hope that you can visit Rusha, because this certainly is an interesting part of the world. We really enjoyed our time in Bulgaria, and particularly Plovdiv. If you get there, don’t miss it. ~James
Thanks for the heads up. Just in the planning stages right now, but it’s looking like a go!
I’m getting a little miffed at bloggers. Everyone seems to be getting photos of street art, and I’m not seeing any! What’s up with that? Seems like Plovdiv is a cool place to hang? Is rent expensive? I’ve been to Varna but no further inland. I like Bulgaria, nice people.
Funny you should mention Varna. We just watched a funny video called “The Spy” which had lots of action in Varna. We didn’t make it to Varna, but from this video, it looked very cool, but not the street art kind of place. And no, like most of the other places in the Balkans, prices in Plovdiv were very reasonable, especially our apartment. BTW, if you get a chance, check out this movie. It’s very funny. ~James
James, thanks, I’ll check out the movie, if I can find it here! And yeah, Varna was a very cool town. Had lots of stuff for sale from the USSR!
These are beautiful and I have a deep respect for communities that use the arts – in all its various forms – to revitalize the environment.
My favourite is the doorway with the library look and double-eyes mailbox 🙂
Joanne, this is high quality art by any standards and a great win-win example of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” I’m sure that city officials in many locations pull there hair out trying to control illegal graffiti, and I can understand how frustrating it must be. From what we saw in Plovdiv, they seem to have found a magic formula that works. I love ol’ double eyes myself. ~James
Some of these street artists are absolutely brilliant! I love the ‘Hope’ message and the door is so gorgeous. 🙂
I haven’t seen a dedicated email to send some more materials, so I post this video here (if the link breaks some rules, please, remove it) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=twcMiLhprPE The video is not mine, but it has some descent examples of recent street and graffiti art in Plovdiv. Hope you like it!
P.S. The magenta building is the Drama theater, which unfortunately burned a couple of years ago (from inside), but it is in a process of renovation. In the video I’ve posted you can see a lot of graffiti in a school yards also 🙂
Thanks very much for the link to the video. It’s very well done, and I love the contrast between the B&W and colorful art. I can see that there’s lots of high quality art scattered around Plovdiv, and it’s interesting that it seems to have become a mecca for street artists. ~James
Wonderful! Brussels is another city with good street art. Thanks for pointing this out to me.