From The Grey Ranks: Graffiti in War & Peace in Poland

From The Grey Ranks: Graffiti in War & Peace in Poland

interview with tomasz sikorski, by d.s. black

If on a summer's night a traveler...

I met Tomasz Sikorski by showing up on the doorstep of his Warsaw apartment late one June afternoon. I was given his name by an artist designer friend in Wroclaw, who told me Tomasz was putting together a gallery show on graffiti.

The train to Warsaw passed through Lodz, Poland's second largest city. I had heard Lodz was a heavy factory town, and was surprised to see what I thought was the sun setting through haze, until I realized that fire was actually a flame jet at the top of a stack, not solar. I happened upon Tomasz's address by chance, as I was wandering around Warsaw s "Old Town" (like much of Warsaw, this area was leveled during the war, and exists today as a modern replica of the old).
His building was enclosed by a scaffolding--the exact nature of the renovation, the work was not clear. . .it must have been a long-term project, whatever it was. Near the entrance I saw a man's face stenciled on the wall, somewhat concealed by the scaffolding. This had to be the place.

After explaining myself to the building's intercom, which greeted me in English, Tomasz said "Yes, you'd better come up." He was indeed the man stenciled outside. Tomasz invited me to the opening of an exhibition at Centrum Sztuka the next evening on "The Lost Paradise." It was a retrospective of two diametrically opposed but complementary styles in Polish art. A number of works were drawn from the social realist period, 1949-55, when the state's cultural agenda held sway, with humanizing portraits of ghouls like Stalin and the Polish commissar "Bloody Felix" Dzierzynski, boy-meets-bulldozer scenes of pastoral patriotism, and apparatchiks addressing Party congresses. Also featured was oppositional art of the 1980s, following the banning of Solidarity and the imposition of martial law. The next day, Tomasz was going to be showing slides of Polish graffiti in another wing of this gallery, which like so much in Poland was also undergoing renovation. Although a long-time fan and international collector of graffiti, I was unable to attend this show--for I had to fly to London the next day for the Attitude Adjustment Seminar that Chris Carlsson, Mark Leger, Melinda Gebbie, Linda Wiens and I were to inflict on the public to herald the publication of Bad Attitude, the Processed World anthology.

All Tomasz and I had time for was talking about graffiti late into the night. When it began to get dark, around 10:30, we repaired to the train station cafeteria for some cold soup. My flight was early the next morning, so I hastened back to my hostel by the 11 p.m. curfew, wishing there was time to read more of this Polish milieu through its markings, and the people who made them.

--D.S. Black

PW: Your father used graffiti in the Resistance?

Tomasz Sikorski: Yes, during the Second World War, here in Warsaw, beginning from 1941. My father belonged to Szare Szeregi (Grey Ranks), an underground resistance organization, derived from the Polish Scouts, incorporated later in 1944 into the so-called National Army. During the years 1940-44, one of the forms of active resistance was counter-propaganda: underground radio, press, and the most spectacular, writing and painting on the walls. One of the duties of my teenage father (he was 15 when he joined the Stare Szeregi), was to write slogans on the walls to manifest the resistance against Nazis, to build up a confidence in Polish people that Germans will fail, sooner or later.

German signs were being changed back into Polish; signs of FIGHTING POLAND (the two letters P and W form an anchor, the symbol of hope), signs of resistance organizations and slogans in Polish and German were written on the walls.

Germans used their propaganda; for instance, there appeared huge inscriptions which read: DEUTSCHLAND SIEGT AN ALLEN FRONTEN (Germans Win on Every Frontline). By altering just one letter, this was quickly transformed into DEUTSCHLAND LIEGT AN ALLEN FRONTEN (Germans Lie on Every Frontline). Or the name of Hitler would be turned into "Hycler," which sounds similar to the Polish word for "dogcatcher."

Writing on walls is a very quick and direct way of communication. It catches you by surprise whether you want it or not. Everybody is a potential receiver. Therefore it was used as one of the weapons of psychological war.

You see, after long years of occupation, some weaker souls may lose their faith and hope, and may try to adapt themselves to the new, for others unacceptable situation. It was so very important therefore to maintain that faith. During the years of occupation one strong sign of resistance worked like a spark in deep darkness.

With the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising on the 1st of August, 1944, writing on the walls subsided. Nazis were pushed out from the central districts of Warsaw, and graffiti was replaced by posters and printed news-sheets displayed on the walls. Now, not brush and paint were used, but guns and bullets.

Then the Stalinist times came, a new wave of terror, cold war. As far as I know, there was no other form of street propaganda then, other than official monumentalism. My father does not recall any examples of graffiti, neither then nor in the following years, although it is quite probable that it appeared around protests and demonstrations in 1956, 1968, and 1970.

The first form of graffiti that I have witnessed was the striking series of human silhouettes that suddenly appeared somewhere about 1973 in Warsaw. In one particular area, there were grouped outlines of human bodies, in natural size, painted with a wide brush with either white or black paint in places where, according to rumor, civilians were killed by the Nazis. It is supposed that someone had witnessed those acts and then, thirty years later, reconstructed them in the exact places--for instance, while leaning against a wall with their hands up, or caught while jumping over a fence, probably in an attempt to escape...

PW: Reminds me of Chicago in 1981 or '82. Suddenly on the sidewalks of Hyde Park appeared the words, at various strategic points, "A Woman Was Raped Here." You'd be walking along, and without warning find yourself faced with a shocking flashback. Also, there are the shadows that appear on the sidewalks in August to commemorate Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

TS: And strikingly similar to the figures of the so-called desaparecidos in Argentina and perhaps in other parts of Latin America. It was the first graffiti that I saw, and the first one that I took pictures of.

With the rise of the Solidarity movement in 1980, it brought a whole new wave of iconography. In 1980, this was used mainly for political statements and slogans, signs and symbols of the forces of opposition. Later, when Solidarity grew into an all-nation movement, it adopted the symbols that traditionally denoted the nation's ideals and its struggle for freedom. Two colors were dominating: white and red, the national colors of Poland.

Under the terror of martial law in Poland (1981-1983), political graffiti and underground press were extremely important. A very interesting phenomenon was the reappearance of the anchor-like symbol of the Underground, Fighting Poland. Their message was clear: Poland is occupied again, and again we will fight the enemy.

Very few things were legal then, and the absurdity of martial law was beautifully pinpointed and ridiculed by the Pomaranczowa Alternatywa (Orange Alternative) movement led by Wladyslaw "Major" Frydrich. In 1982, he and his friends started to paint colorful elves on the walls of Wroclaw. In 1983, elves appeared in Warsaw. They were smiling, innocent, some of them holding flowers in their tiny hands, but they were all illegal! Imagine, illegal elves! The authorities didn't know what to do with them. They couldn't leave them because they were illegal, but neither could they wipe them off without making a laughing stock of themselves.

Major's favorite places for painting elves were the fragments of walls where previously there had been illegal inscriptions. Special crews painted over this graffiti; their job was to blur messages before they could reach the public. The crews used paint of a particularly ugly grey color. Those stains of grey were perfect, prime spots to put new signs on.

Everything painted and drawn on the walls was being systematically destroyed during martial law, and in the following years, until the fall of communism in 1989.

I took real pleasure in photographing those little elves, and that's how my slide collection of graffiti began. Then in 1984 my life brought me to New York City, and I was truly overwhelmed by the polyphony and the power of graffiti there. I took pictures of everything that I could. Left some stencil prints on the walls and sidewalks of SoHo and the East Village. I came back to Warsaw in the Fall of 1985, and immediately started to spread my stenciled works on the walls over here.

I brought home quite a big collection of slides of New York graffiti. My intention was to spread around and spur graffiti in Poland in order to fight the rigidity, the uniformity and the hypocrisy of the socio-political system here. I traveled to various cities with a show of about 300 slides which were synchronized with an audio tape. On the tape there were sounds recorded in the places where I took pictures, bits of various music and other sounds of Manhattan. Sometime in 1986, to my uttermost delight, some friends of mine started doing their own graffiti. From the very beginning, stencil was the most popular technique. Because of problems with finding spray paint (the cunning authorities made it unavailable for long years), the paint was applied with a sponge wad.

It is perhaps worth mentioning here that those who were first to do graffiti in Poland were either art students or graduates. Nowadays there is a whole avalanche of graffiti makers: teenagers, kids, organized groups, recognizable individuals.

Most graffiti in postwar Poland, if not all of it, was political; its source was disagreement. Besides strikes, demonstrations, and underground press, wall writings were the true evidence of this disagreement. The communist propaganda, on the other hand, used its boring messages everywhere. There were, for instance, huge monumental, pseudo-patriotic slogans painted on factory walls addressed to the workers, large-scale poster-like billboards in a terrible style, attempting to make them work more and more for the country's better future and international peace. These were made with steel and concrete to last forever. The opposition scribbled on the walls with haste. The two aesthetics differed greatly, one legal and untrue, the other illegal and true.

All of political graffiti was generally against something, against the occupant, against the system, against the government. Only in the late eighties there appeared graffiti which brought messages that were not against something, but rather for something, let's say for normal, real and joyful life, without hypocrisy and pretense. I think that most of art can be seen as an endeavor towards the wholeness of human life.

It is necessary to make a distinction here between graffiti as a political weapon, and graffiti as a form of art. It is an extensive topic, but briefly speaking one could say that art--or any other form of individual expression that comes from a totalitarian system--weakens that system. All forms of art are valid in this respect, but graffiti art is perhaps the most perfect because it can be done by anyone, and because it can reach anyone, without any mediators or interpreters.

And besides--artworks placed on street walls come as a surprise, and are perceived unexpectedly. Their power is different than that of artworks exhibited in art galleries. Graffiti lives in the context of the real environment, it originates from it, is a part of it, and transforms it. It does not need any special, abstracted space.

The thing that I find most interesting in graffiti art is the desire to transform the environment, the striving to turn a place you live in to a place you feel like belonging to. It is like putting a charm on something in order to make it alive and more humane.

That is what I experienced in New York: I saw that most of those dead buildings with burned-out windows and other abandoned, strange looking places were painted, marked and drawn all over. There were many graffiti signs that were very tiny, you had to look around very carefully, come very close, sometimes squat down or lean over a fence. Some of those little arrangements were done with evident love or passion, and looked like sanctuaries. Very powerful, although modest and silent!

I think that the same impulse drove the unknown souls in the desolate areas of Manhattan and in the grim cities of Poland under martial law.

Under martial law, most artists--I'm thinking about visual artists--were boycotting official places to show their work. Classical forms of art couldn't do much. But when one door is closed, another one is open. For instance, for me one of the ways to show my work, to continue my activity, was to do something in places which weren't belonging to anybody in particular, to any organization or institution. Street walls, telephone booths were perfect places to use.

PW: What has changed about graffiti since Solidarity came to power?

TS: Sometimes it is hard to believe how much and how quickly the things have changed over here, from one extreme to another. After years of total control, suppression, censorship bans, and such--we jumped into the vast waters of freedom. And look, now we have a show of graffiti which is going to open tomorrow evening right here, at Center of Contemporary Art (Centrum Sztuki Wspolczesnej). It will be the first show of its kind in the country. This show, which I am curating, will take place on the second floor of this seventeenth century castle. You see, some few years ago I did my first graffiti prints here in the dark of the night, frozen with fear of being arrested.

Today, the same works are being shown just a few steps away from their original location, this time openly, one of the most official places, sponsored by the Ministry of Culture. Everything changes, and all is possible.

Graffiti in Poland is on the rise now, it is growing very quickly and now you can see it even in the small, remote towns.

It is also losing its combative spirit. It becomes lighter, more entertaining, more decorative, more elaborate, more related to young subcultures, to music... Since graffiti is not so bound to politics now, many really young kids joined in with their own iconography. You can notice now certain schools or groups. There is an air of growing competitiveness and showing off. And obviously, it is much more diversified now, since more and more people do it.

The common enemy has died. That's a strange moment: for some, especially for the beginners, it is very activating. For some others, on the other hand, though, it is quite demobilizing. You see, if you no longer have this enemy, this all-too-obvious target or point of reference--you have to think what to do now.

[But] I think there will always be something which you would feel like opposing. Youngsters, for instance, have different problems than those who are 30 or 40 years old. I am not doing graffiti anymore because I'm concerned with other things now, primarily with painting, but for younger or beginning artists, graffiti is a good way to manifest themselves and to join the culture.

Youngsters want to be seen. They go the fast way, they do not want to wait for some remote tomorrow. I know committed graffiti-makers who are 15 years old or younger, and of course it doesn't mean that they will do only graffiti in their lives. I don't know anybody who does just that. Imagine someone who is sixty, and still goes around with a spray can.

Graffiti may just be a certain stage in someone's development, or a certain episode. Therefore, attempts to fight graffiti are unwise and unrealistic.

And, obviously, graffiti-making may be a passage to the art world. You could have noticed it in America. After the big boom in 1983-84, people like Keith Haring, who started with graffiti, quickly became famous. There were many followers, whole organized gangs from New Jerseys and Bronxes, who would dream of making quick careers, not necessarily financial, so they would come over to Manhattan, paint huge walls, remembering to leave a legible signature. I have met young graffiti artists in Poland who are now trying to enroll in academies of fine arts. They feel like being artists, they are artists, beginning artists who started off and expressed themselves primarily through graffiti.

PW: What do you see as the future of graffiti art in Poland?

TS: I don't know. I think this is perhaps the most interesting part of it. It is a kind of art form that is very strongly connected to the present problems of the times, to the political, cultural, and social situations.

Graffiti will always be there until everybody will be satisfied. But it is quite inconceivable that everybody will be happy, and I suppose that in our times, in places like Warsaw, New York, and other big cities, there will always be problems for at least certain groups of people, and that they will always feel the urge to articulate their position.

But beyond socio-politically engaged graffiti, there is something that is especially interesting to me, which is graffiti that transcends the prosaic aspects of life and is more spiritually oriented.

For instance, there was a guy called Larmee. In 1984/85 I saw many of his paintings on the walls of Manhattan. He would make his paintings at home on paper, and then he would glue the ready works on the walls in various places in Lower Manhattan. His works were not politically oriented, not at all. They instead expressed loneliness, the solitude of a person in a big city, something that was particularly striking in crowded places, like on Broadway in rush hour. Just imagine seeing suddenly a beautiful, detached, and somehow sorrowful face in a dehumanized place: something very tender, very human, something that suddenly shifts your attention onto a higher level.

Another example: a stencil print, small delicate, almost unnoticeable, faded face of a young, pensive boy with an inscription below, "THERE IS A NEW KID IN TOWN." Very simple and very touching. I still remember that face, it looked so much more humane than the faces of the rushing phantoms around.

My own graffiti works, my first stencils and chalk drawings, were also not politically oriented, and it was curious to observe that these special crews of graffiti exterminators would sometimes leave my works intact. Some of them survived the long years, and are still there. They were for everybody, you see, for the right and the left, for communists and non-communists, for atheists and for the believers, they were just for men and women, regardless of their external guises.

At that time, in 1985, I didn't use any distinct political messages except for one thing: I made a stencil with the emblem of the city of Warsaw, which is a mermaid. The emblem is strange and alien to me, because the mermaid holds a shield and sword. So I made a new image: the mermaid joyfully throwing the shield and the sword away, freeing herself finally from that burden. The message was clear: change is coming, end of playing war, no more creating enemies, no need for armament. And also: down with the army, with the military.

PW: What are the risks involved in making graffiti in Poland?

TS: I used to do it at night, because one couldn't foresee the consequences; anything could have happened. My father would be shot dead if caught doing it in 1942. If I were caught doing it in 1985, I would be arrested.

Now I hear from a graffiti kid that there is no written law that bans graffiti. It is not illegal, it must be legal. I never heard about a trial, or sentence, or a fine for making graffiti here.

It is not dangerous anymore. Maybe it's one of the reason that I quit doing it. It is not exciting anymore. Resistance is a natural and very strong energy in the human psyche.

PW: To summarize?

TS: Some words about the future, perhaps.

I think there are two directions. The first is the obvious voice of those who feel like expressing their unfavorable situation or political opinions. I suppose that in Poland more and more individuals will fall into very difficult positions. This first kind of graffiti could be called political, combative, or contentious.

The other kind is artistically oriented. Among meaningless scribblings, there are true artworks painted on the street walls instead of on canvas and shown in interiors accessible to few. This is very important. I think that this is, in today's free Poland, the real test. The external enemy is gone; now is the time to drive away the internal enemy--ignorance, mental stiffness, prejudice, superfluousness, laziness, and so on.

I remember what Keith Haring said in one of the interviews about his graffiti. He said that even when he started to show in galleries, he still wanted to use the more immediate way of communication, without any mediators. It is really wonderful, because you do it for other people, engage yourself into something that transcends your own particular case, and you do it selflessly.

You paint something on a wall, and it hits the people right away. There's no time in between the execution of the work and the act of showing it. You do it, and it's already there, in action!