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Graffiti

Today I almost tested my recently claimed skills of being able to get home from anywhere in Nizhny. I caught a bus at about 5:00 that I’ve only taken two or three times before (and one of those times ended with me on the wrong side of the Oka River in the lower, industrial section of Nizhny). It was rush hour, and I was glad to get a seat, so I wouldn’t have to stand and hold onto those bacteria ridden bus bars. But, because it was late and I only got approximately five hours of sleep last night, I fell asleep leaning against the window. I woke up almost half an hour later with no idea where I was and a new, unfamiliar crew of people on the bus with me. I had a moment of terror, but then I pulled out my atlas (remember, this action deserves lightsaber-unsheathing-esque awe [I guess one doesn’t actually unsheath a lightsaber. Activiate maybe? Or can we turn the word “blade” into a verb meaning “to turn on the blade for (e.g. a lightsaber)”? Alright, it’s settled: lightsaber-blading-esque awe]) and found where I was in about two minutes. Sorry for the anticlimactic ending of that sentence. Actually, sorry for that whole sentence; it got a little out of hand. I kept myself awake the rest of the trip by tracking the bus’s progress and planning what I would do if the bus didn’t go the way I wanted it to. There was a happy, uneventful ending though, and I got off about 6 stops later.

Now, on to the main theme of this post. I’ve discovered that, decoratively, Russia doesn’t remind me of Ukraine as much as I thought it would. When I was in Ukraine, everything was Januarily damp, cold, icy, and grey. It seemed like every building was concrete, pockmarked, or haphazardly painted over in bland colors. Not very enticing to say the least. So I was more than a little surprised to see the violent jumble of colors and glitter and shine that permeated the rooms inside. The apartments were tiny but chock-full of glittering, glass figurines, glitter-edged flowers, and brightly woven blankets. The orphanage had all sorts of colored pictures, painted banners, and tinsely garlands hung everywhere. The general lack of adherence to basic design principles made me feel slightly claustrophobic at first, but the longer I was there, the more I realized that the decoration was as good a combatant against the dreary outside as I could think of. In Russia, or at least here in Nizhny, the insides aren’t quite so blatantly cheering. The apartments I’ve seen tend to follow a more modern design template: less is more. Even with the tiny apartments, they put their negative space on display. But the outsides of the buildings are just the same. Ancient concrete apartment buildings with narrow concrete stairways.

One one of my first days here, I walked through some underground tunnels near a train station. Tunnels under the streets are  used as pedestrian crosswalks for places that have a lot of foot traffic; I saw them in Kiev as well. Most of the tunnels that I’ve seen have tiny shops lining the walls selling everything from wallets to tulips and magazines to watches. These particular tunnels were too short to merit a thriving underground market, but had a life of their own. The walls, instead of being made of drab concrete, were covered with marble tiles, and great, square marble pillars lined the center of the walkway. I was surprised by the grace of the place, at the attempted eloquence that was only marred by giant, colorful letters of graffiti scrawled everywhere. I saw it, and I laughed. It was so Russian. So New York. So big city. Here was something chosen for more than mere efficiency, for a glimmer of class or beauty, and the city had taken it and made the tunnels its own. It almost mocked the effort of the builders: “Why try to be what you’re not?” The walls just oozed culture and life. (Granted, I couldn’t actually read anything written, so it might have been terrible and distracting, but I was just captivated by graffiti as an art form.)

On a slight tangent, there’s an interesting wall that I pass every day on my way to the university. There’s a lot of graffiti in Russian but just one phrase in English: “GOD MADE ME FUNKY.” Why yes, English-speaking Nizhny-Novgorodite (that word works better in Russian), God probably did make you funky. Although I cannot help but wonder if that word means what you think it means.

Anyway, a week or so later, I passed through the same marble tunnels I was just talking about, and the graffiti was gone. But so was the sight of the marble tiles. Someone had covered all of the painted walls with mundane, off-white paint. You could still see the bottom-most layer of marble tile. No one had graffitied that low, so the painters had no reason to cover it. It stood as a weak testament to what had shown before. It shocked me how much more of a crime this painting seemed to me. After all, the graffiti artists were destroying what was never theirs, violating the planned beauty of a place. And now it was their fault that this wall now looked like any other. But I was more angry at the workers with their white paint. How lazy of them, to merely paint over what could have been scrubbed off. How dare they hide the flavorful culture of the underground? Imagine if every graffitied surface in New York City were painted over. Brick and cement and sandstone and asphalt and marble and cinder block, all reduced to the same off-white, solid color. And, soon enough I’m sure, new graffiti would color the new canvas. And maybe it’s this inevitability that really bothers me: that the graffiti will show up again, and it might as well be on classy marble instead of boring paint. It’s the inefficient treating of a symptom instead of targeting the disease that ruffles my feathers. The fact that the ineffciency also manages to hide the history and culture and life and art of a place, no matter how lowbrow, also irks me. Sure, the government has covered this batch of painted words with its temporary solution, but at the cost of walls of marble.

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