Until three years ago, the chance traveller passing through the village of Staro Zhelezare, in Central Bulgaria, would hardly find anything of notice here, bar the hard-to-pronounce name and the crumbling remains of one of Bulgaria's two prehistoric rock circles. Located near Hisarya, with its mineral water springs and Roman heritage, and Starosel, with its dilapidated Thracian tombs, Staro Zhelezare looked like an ordinary village in the Thracian Plain. Its sun-bleached streets, lined with low houses and lush gardens, were mostly empty. The central square looked too big, with administrative buildings that appeared barely used, and an ugly statue representing some local Communists. The death notices glued on lamp posts and walls outnumbered the living souls around.
Now, however, Staro Zhelezare is utterly transformed. The low houses and the lush gardens are still here, and the central square preserves its agoraphobic quality. The people's faces that cover the walls, however, do not belong to death notices.
Black and white, larger-than-life Alfred Hitchcocks and Princess Dianas, Angela Merkels and Bob Marleys, The Beatles and Rowan Atkinson's Mr Bean, Mahatma Gandhis and Donald Trumps, Vladimir Putins and Barack Obamas, Boyko Borisovs and Volen Siderovs, and many more celebrities cover the walls of Staro Zhelezare. Each of them is coupled with a seemingly ordinary man or woman, dressed in the way local villagers do (T-shirts, plain dresses).
Some of the ordinary people shake hands with the international or national celebrities, share a table or a laugh with them, ride carts, tend farm animals.
Who are these people? Looking around you, you realise that they are the inhabitants of Staro Zhelezare.
The black-and-white graffiti at Staro Zhelezare are the brainchild of a Bulgarian-Polish couple, Katarzyna and Ventsislav Piryankov, and materialise an art manifesto, which aims to turn village life into the forefront of avant-garde art. As some of the manifesto's slogans stipulate, "All artists to the villages!" and "Genuine avant-guard art is born in the village!".
Pope John Paul II, Queen Elizabeth and Barack Obama share a wall and have a conversation with local people
In Bulgaria, there are other villages and towns where modern art thrives in public spaces. Ilindentsi village, on the road to Kulata border crossing point with Greece, has an open air art centre for marble sculpture. A brick factory in Cherven Bryag, a nondescript town in Bulgaria's north, has a garden full of brick, clay or ceramic sculptures and installations. Yasna Polyana, in the Strandzha, used to accommodate a wood sculpture symposium, and now most of the artwork is still in its streets. The depopulated Dupini village, near Veliko Tarnovo, is the territory of an art group for landscape art.
Staro Zhelezare stands out. Instead of playing with established art forms and concepts, it goes for graffiti, associated with urban environment.
It all started in 2015, when the Piryankovs who are artists and live in Poznan, Poland, organised the first Mural Festival called Village of Personalities-Art for Social Change here. Staro Zhelezare was chosen as Ventsislav Piryankov was a local and had a house in it. Several students of the artists joined the couple in painting the first graffiti in the village.
The idea was – and still is – simple yet clever. The owners of the houses choose the famed personalities they would like to have painted on their property. Then, portraits of the owners are added to the composition.
For the outsider, the effect is a gallery of familiar personalities, depicted in their trademark postures, costumes and moods. For the insider, however, this openair gallery has a second meaning – the faces of the villagers, their smiles and personality traits, are equally recognisable. The graffiti of Staro Zhelezare are simultaneously a representation of people of global and local importance.
The art of the group, led by the Piryankovs, enjoy popularity across Bulgaria. After three years, there are still villagers waiting for their turn to choose a Donald, a Vladimir or a Mother Theresa, and to have their portrait painted, escaping the fate of ordinary villagers across Bulgaria, whose faces appear on public walls only on their death notices.
Donald Trump in Staro Zhelezare
The owner of this house chose to be depicted along Lyudmila Zhivkova, daughter of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov. As the death notice on the door shows, he himself died soon afterwards
Students of the Piryankovs in the summer of 2017
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.