Photo by Kuanysh Bazargaliyev
Photo by Kuanysh Bazargaliyev

Kazakh Ė American project
September 26 Ė 29, 2008



The art of graffiti has spontaneously invaded the city sights in the end of the XX century. It is an alternative form of art that exists in almost all the countries and is constantly enriched with new artists and fans. For several generations of youth, working in this field, graffiti has transformed from the way of self-actualization into something bigger: it is a lifestyle, a means of communication, an ideology. The graffiti artists call themselves Ďwritersí if they do it legally and Ďbombersí Ė their illegal works are officially considered acts of vandalism.
Graffiti is one of the main components of the hip-hop movement, based on rap music. In this way graffiti has become the visual expression of the hip-hop culture along with break dance Ė its physical representation. In fact, graffiti is a very complex phenomenon with a dynamic history, various styles, programmes and ideologies. It evolves, constantly interacting with the social and urban environment. The aesthetics and techniques of graffiti are used in advertising, design and video nowadays, the influence of this aesthetics can be tracked down in different forms of contemporary art.


On the left Ė Rekon at his work. On the right Ė DMNís work. Photo by Oleg L.
Photo by Oleg L.

About the project

Graffiti in Kazakhstan appeared in the beginning of the 90-s among break-dancers under the influence of the hip-hop fashion. It started with spontaneous and separate attempts to create something similar to not-so-well known Western hip-hop culture. Insensibly, graffiti became distinct in the urban environment, and quite a big group of writers appeared, who came up with a constantly renewed web site. Today we can confidently talk about a real graffiti society in Almaty. These young artists charm with ultimatism and obsession with the work. Freedom from the demands and public expectations. Strong support. On the other hand, it may be the reason why they are so seclusive. We wanted to explore this culture and try to open it a bit; examine it in the art context.

In this respect we found it interesting to create a possible dialogue between local writers with the artists from the native land of the hip-hop culture Ė from the US. The project has provided a platform for self-expression, dialogue and reflection on graffiti and, taken more widely Ė freedom, market, and modern art.

Daniel Gallegos and James Retano, experienced graffiti artists and Davon Ramos, a photographer and a director took part in the project from the American side. Kazakhstan was represented by Rafa (Rafkhat Chuyenbekov), Konan (Kuanysh Orynbasarov), Andrew (Andrew Ivanov), Rekon (Aidar Jusambayev), DMN (Dmitry Musikhin), Nail Mukumzhanov, Mag 13 (Ainura Magerramova), Sketch (Maxim Gusev), A10 (Alexander  Grishkeyev), Simba (Sergey Tsoy).

Tengri-Umai Non-Profit Foundation would like to thank Almaty Akimat, Almaly region akimat, US Embassy, Coca-Cola Almaty Bottlers and EFES for the support.
We would also like to thank Arts Academy student Malika Aliyeva for the assistance in preparation and organization of the project.



September, 26
12:00Ė17:00 Kazaktelecom yard writing
18:00Ė20:00 Opening of Davon Ramosí exhibition, called American Beauty. Photography, films. Discussion. Tengri-Umai Gallery

September, 27
11:00Ė17:00 Kazaktelecom yard writing
18:00Ė21:00 Showing of Davon Ramosí films and James Retanoís animation. Discussion. Tengri-Umai Gallery

September, 28
 Writing, ALISHMAN, Őuzafar, B. SITO, Mc Des, YELLOW bands perform on Arbat
18:00Ė20:00 Discussion of the project

September, 29
Animation and documentary master-class for the movie students. James Retano, Davon Ramos. Zhurgenev National Art Academy


Interviews with Daniel Gallegos, James Retano, Davon Ramos and, from the Kazakh side, Nail Mukumzhanov and Kuanysh Orynbasarov (Konan)


What are the reasons for you to become a graffiti artist?

Daniel: In the 80-s, American West Coast was going crazy about hip-hop, it was the hip-hop boom, and doing graffiti was a very romantic thing. Although I studied art, I followed the tendence. When James and I started doing graffiti, it was already the third generation of artists. Graffiti existed in New York, but after it had become popular on the West Coast, in California, it has become internationally acknowledged. Maybe we were the first ones to do graffiti in the West Coast. My town had some graffiti before that, but it was mostly ganster, criminal stuff. But in those days we hardly knew what was happening on the other side of the town. We thought we were doing something incredibly new and fresh. As we became older, the community grew. I was influenced by the movie ĎStyle Warsí, it was the first film devoted to graffiti. And a book came out approximately at the same time, ĎSubway Artí. It became our Bible. When I saw the movie and read the book, all I wanted to do was graffiti. And also, I wanted to say that 20 years ago the coolest thing was doing it in forbidden places and run away.

James: My parents are from New York. When I was a kid, there were really cool graffiti in the subway, and they sold comics and books, drawn in this style. It was some kind of adventure for me. It was amazing! And I also understoo dthat this art would become commercial. It had a wonderful compromise Ė you are doing something with maximum sincerity, and it sells well.

Konan: In the beginning o the 90-s there was no graffiti community at all, but some sort of fashion was arising Ė there were break dancers, and some of them could draw. Nobody knew a lot about graffiti except that it means writing on the walls. Then they started bringing cassettes with break dance and I saw graffiti for the first time. It was a break dance competition in Germany, and they were doing graffiti on the boards nearby. We got acquainted with the culture, and it turned out that it wasnít only about break dance and rap, it was about many things, graffiti included. Thatís how we started. Dancing, rapping, hip-hop impressed me so much that I decided I wanted to do it as well. First I was sketching on paper. And then one day I came to college and saw a commercial about a graffiti festival. I rushed there, but when I arrived, it turned out I was the only one. The organizers bought me some paint and said: do whatever you want to. It was in the ĎMotorí club, they wanted to make it look nicer. My first work was called Konan. Then I started making independent works.

Nail: I have never done graffiti. But lately I got into drawing on the streets Ė not because I like it so much, but it helps to attract the viewers. Doing art is a great responsibility in the first place. And, secondly, you have to make a big input Ė you have to buy the canvas, present it to people, add many small things that influence your creativity. In the streets you donít need those things Ė you go out, take a bomb and draw whatever you like. From this point of view graffiti is not an artificially constructed style, but a constrained answer to the economic environment that surrounds most of the artists. A few are wealthy and can afford to rent a gallery space, buy canvas, etc. You wonít need that stuff on the streets, itís a free exhibition and you can easily popularize it. The best thing is that the audience you are addressing doesnít like galleries very much, but walks the streets every day.

We tend to associate graffiti with the youth subculture and street culture. From this point, graffiti is associated with personal freedom, underground, challenge, control-free zone. At the same time we understand that graffiti has strict style frames Ė cannons that very few would go against. And we get an impression that inside a big totalitarian structure, strictly formed by, say, market, there is a small totalitarian structure that seems to resist the big one, but is formed by the same laws. Meaning that from the very beginning its freedom is restricted by certain styles, relations and stereotypes. Is this true?

Daniel: I think, itís true. I think, itís a great observation. Certainly, graffiti is not totally free. The only freedom comes from the fact that you can do it anywhere you likeÖ In reality, when you are young, you do graffiti just for the hack of it, and when you become older and develop your writer skills, you become more respected by the community and begin to depend on the social judgment. Usually, the youngsters respect the older writers. Itís natural, because older writers are teaching young ones, so the styles are passed on from generation to generation. This is where the rules come from. Itís like a succession.

Davon: From the beginning, graffiti was a public art as a part of hip-hop culture. And first graffiti have always been political, say, against some politician or politics in whole. It has always been the voice against. In any case, graffiti has always been based on contraposition and critics of the official culture. Lately we can see some changes. Like Banksy, who is commercially very successful. It doesnít mean heís worse than others. Graffiti is a part of a bigger culture, a whole layer of hip-hop with its own language, drawing manner, style, dance, singing, all included. And you can see this culture anywhere Ė from Japan to Kazakhstan. I think, graffiti is a part of human nature. People have started writing their names on the walls a long time ago, itís history. And itís a very important moment. Itís an archaic need to express oneself. Say, whatís a tag? A person writes her name on the wall. She wants to say: ďHey, Iím here!Ē Graffiti is a language. But I am personally more interested in artists, who go beyond graffiti.

James: When we started, there were no rules, we came up with the rules. There was no Internet, no publicity devoted to graffiti and everything that we were doing was like an amazing adventure, because it was associated with our personal freedom. By the way, take a look at thisÖ


Konan: Framed freedom. Thereís wild style, bubble, some others. I know them, but I donít follow them. In my works you can see intersections of many styles, but for me personally itís calligraphy on walls.

Nail: I think many guys are too much focused on their techniques and styles. I think in the beginning graffiti was invented to leave some messages. It acquired some visual form, pretty or not Ė doesnít matter. And the message itself relegated to the sidelines. And the form of graffiti that has approached us, is not correct. Because young artists strive for the visual impressions, not really understanding the essence of the writing. The message they are bringing to this world. If you compare graffiti to any media channel, already explored, like TV, radio, magazines, etc. it has no meaning. Most of the time itís just littering the world with some weird visual forms, thatís all.

Graffiti in Kazakhstan has borrowed American language, but seems to remain some indistinct form. Do you think that local graffiti culture has some specific features?

Konan: Americans have their own history and destiny. Gangsters, afro-americans, each one like a voice of a lower cast, protests, politicsÖ Itís very different here. Our people donít give a damn about politics. Itís important to express our culture. For example, Iím very much interested in history, Eastern culture, our mentality. We have a rich ornametalism, unique colors. Our people are not aggressive, we are softer, in a way. Iím against aggression. It should please everybody, Americans, locals. Of course, we are the descendants of American culture. We took their culture and are showing it in our own way. Our culture Ė through their language. At least, thatís what Iím interested in.

James Retano. Quasimoto


Is this your reflection of the freedom inside graffiti theme?

James: Yes. See, he wants to consume everything and he has a bandage on his arm, like a nazi. This monster is awfully correct.

Does American education system include graffiti? If it does, how is it correlated with law? How does official culture (art schools) react to the banning of graffiti in many countries?

Davon: Graffiti is not included into American education system. Maybe, some people do something similar during their studies, but they donít teach graffiti. You can make sketches in notebooks, but you canít do it on the walls, outside. It is prohibited. All you learn about graffiti, you pick up on the streets.

Sorry, I wouldnít want to skip the most popular question: is graffiti vandalism or art?
(everyoneís laughing)

Daniel: Itís a quite popular question. First, I am an artist. And for me, graffiti is contemporary art. Itís an eternal question Ė what does it mean  art, contemporary art. If you take it as an action. Itís difficult to say what does it mean graffiti, what does it mean art. The artist can be free to represent himself as he wants. If I do graffiti and art so graffiti is art for me. Sometimes graffiti is art, sometimes not. For me, it the problem is that graffiti is always is a kind of protest.

Why do you think itís a problem?

Daniel: Suppose, you can make a mistake. Or you can piss people off, make them angry when you put your work on top of theirís. You are responsible for what youíve covered. Actually, going deeper in this theme is almost like arguing about God.

James: Graffiti was born in New York. It is always present in the open society, in a fascist state itís unlikely. And itís always wrong because it has to be. Youth needs some piece of wild freedom to express themselves, their passions. State and police have always been and will always be against graffiti, because itís a part of that wilderness. So itís not a question whether itís vandalism or art.

Konan: Altogether, itís hard to separate one from another. People have different tastes, different education. For example, I write on grey walls. This way people wonít see this grey. If itís a monument, I will never do it.

Nail: I think, you can call anything vandalism. When you are spoiling a piece of clay or a piece of canvas or any other surface, doesnít matter. If you donít know what you are doing, itís vandalism. If you are using paper for no particular reason, itís an act of vandalism over the paper. You have to be responsible to spoil paper or any other surface. And if the message comes out interesting, when you understand what you are doing, then itís art. But when you spoil the paper, or a fence or a car and you donít know why you have done it, itís vandalism.

Did you have any expectations about Almaty and local artists? Have they been confirmed? Was something questionable for you? What do you think is the main difference between local and American writers? What are the similarities?

Davon: I was worried if the public would be interested. I was very impressed by the fact that people stopped by and watched. It was great! Nobode stayed indifferent. To tell the truth, all the graffiti I saw were pretty much alike. There was no big difference. But there was one thing todayÖ someone drew a chicken with a weird leg on the back side of the canvas and wrote something like ďIím hungryĒ. Very powerful graphics, looks something like a monument near the eternal fire in the park. For me it was the most powerful thing of all I have seen here. For me it was like Almaty. I guess, it wasnít something to be proud of, it was on the back side. But at the same time it was outrageous. It was done very well, very professional, it had a character, no doubts. A really new style. And the approach is very different from the others.


Did you have any expectations about the project and American artists? Have they been confirmed?

Konan: To tell the truth, I didnít get an internal explosion, but I did expect it. Americans showed old school, very techy, stylish, everything done very well. Itís the 80-s, maybe, 90-s, but not 2008 or 2010! Done well, cool. I want to show that our graffiti has a good level, that we can do it, that we can represent our culture in the world with this language. Iím not boasting.

Nail: I met a few people. And I donít consider myself a writer. But Iím sure these guys are talented. And the fact that they are doing all of this with no commercial interest is nice.

Nail Mukumzhanov. Photo by Viacheslav Kovalev
Work by Nail Mukumzhanov. Photo by Viacheslav Kovalev

Also I wanted to add that it was an amazing opportunity for me to come to Kazakhstan. I googled it, looked at the map and it turned out itís on the other side of the planet. Before that I had no idea where it is. I was warned that it would be awful, but itís totally different. But the best thing is that here I was on equal terms. I mean I met interesting people, who were interested in me as well. This is how you realize that any good music or art can become a means of communication.

Daniel: Graffiti has become international and thereís no big difference for me.

Saule: I heard you were telling Konan heís using an old styleÖ

James: You misunderstood. Heís using a very new style, 3D. We are using the old one. But the coolest thing for us was to recreate this old school style. And we were drawing with a sketch, but he didnít use it. Speaking of differences, nowadays Internet brings information everywhere. 20 years ago, when we started it was very much different, for example, the British were doing totally different things. But today I wouldnít define graffiti as an American art. Everyone has an access to the Internet. Graffiti was born in America, it has American roots. The base for it and itís structure were constructed in Philadelphia and New York. But today itís a world art. I saw fabulous graffiti in Munich, Berlin, Bremen. Brazil is the most fashionable place now from this point o view. We are not positioning ourselves like cool writers from the motherland of graffiti. I think your artists donít feel uncomfortable as well.

Saule: I would like to say something. I think graffiti is like petroglyphs, like nature. Like folk music or crafts. Folk art also has a lot of strict boundaries, incredible boundaries. It doesn\'t mean that I donít like it. My mom has devoted her life to folk music. Graffiti is a base. For me, as an artist, itís interesting to be above it. I want to jump, to be alone. I think any artist wants that.

Interviews by Margarita Amvrosova

We would like to thank Saule Suleimenova for being a part of the interviews as a speaker and a translator.

We would also like to thank Kate Dzvonik for translation the text into English.


Photo by Kuanysh Bazargaliyev
Photo by Kuanysh Bazargaliyev

Photo by Kuanysh Bazargaliyev
Photo by Kuanysh Bazargaliyev

Photo by Kuanysh Bazargaliyev
Photo by Kuanysh Bazargaliyev

Photo by Kuanysh Bazargaliyev
Photo by Kuanysh Bazargaliyev

Photo by Nail Mukumzhanov
Photo by Nail Mukumzhanov

Photo by Kuanysh Bazargaliyev
Photo by Kuanysh Bazargaliyev

hoto by Kuanysh Bazargaliyev
Photo by Kuanysh Bazargaliyev

Photo by Kuanysh Bazargaliyev
Photo by Kuanysh Bazargaliyev

Photo by Kuanysh Bazargaliyev
Photo by Kuanysh Bazargaliyev

Photo by Oleg L.
Photo by Oleg L.

Photo by Kuanysh Bazargaliyev
Photo by Kuanysh Bazargaliyev

Photo by Viacheslav Kovalev
Photo by Viacheslav Kovalev

Photo by Kuanysh Bazargaliyev
Photo by Kuanysh Bazargaliyev

Photo by Nail Mukumzhanov
Photo by Nail Mukumzhanov

Photo by Kuanysh Bazargaliyev
Photo by Kuanysh Bazargaliyev



Kazakh graffiti community

Daniel Gallegosí website

Daniel Gallegos and Davon Ramosí blog

James Retanoís Kazakh diary