One of my great hobbies is complaining about the weather. Any deviation from a strict 70 degrees will do for this; my habitat is definitely the indoors. Vermont Februaries, I think darkly to myself these days, are savage and merciless, the crocodile of the seasons.
Google tells me it’s -10 F outside, and the wind I can hear howling through the alleyway is taking on a distressing intensity. I’ve been holed up in my room with my laptop and a nest of blankets all day, and I’d be lying if I said I had any intention of introducing change to what appears to be a winning strategy. It’s the kind of cozy in here that leads to lighting candles and ruffling through old notebooks.
I came across a forgotten Wordpad document today. By itself that would hardly be noteworthy – I live in a perpetual state of disorganized organization, with half-finished lists falling out of half-read books, faded sticky notes turning up in piles of clean laundry, and a sprawling empire of miscellaneous text documents on which the sun never sets. The Wordpad file in question, helpfully titled “ahfgejgy”, contained the beginnings of something I had intended to write many months ago about Turkish street art.
The timing couldn’t have been better. I’ve been thinking about this blog lately (guiltily), and spent two hours of the mid-morning fleshing out the bones of a a collaborative article with my friend Jessica. On top of that, February is my wanderlust month. No, seriously, I’m not even making that up for rhetorical purposes – at one point, I scanned over my ten years of journals and discovered that, for whatever reason, the frequency of travel mentions hits a wicked spike in all of my Februaries stretching back to ninth grade.
Turkish graffiti, it turns out, is pretty neat. I remember thinking, during my days in Istanbul, how soulful it all seemed, and how political, and funny, the solitary dot in the center of that unlikely Venn diagram. I’m used to seeing gang tags scrawled under overpasses in the States, the occasional city-sponsored installation. What I found on Turkey’s walls and bridges had a different character. “The solution is Drogba,” it could say, referencing a soccer player who once played for the Turkish team Galatasaray, or “throw yourself into the sea, there’s freedom everywhere.” I always had the sense that the plainly-dressed Turks I came across going casually about their days- the simit sellers, the garbage collectors- might be secretly toting spraypaint. They might be running through lines of old poetry in their heads, or planning out a stencil of a tear gas canister that sprays flowers. And in a shadowy moment, they might commit their convictions to form on a shop wall with the composure of a student doodling love notes in their margins.
I’m not trying to make Turkey out to be a nation of remorseless vandals, you understand. There’s something exciting about their graffiti, something that the pattern-recognition part of my brain is trying to tell me speaks to the disquiet of an overwhelmingly youthful population in a country which is not exactly in the space race when it comes to free speech. Much of it is strikingly, wryly funny, as though the entire public is enjoying a communal snort of laughter at the government’s expense. And then there are bursts of color- birds, lovers, gun-wielding kittens. You might say the streets of Istanbul hint at no particular reverence for civic property, but a considerable respect for the spirit of the nation.
“We are nobody’s soldiers” – photo by Esen Karol
İstiklâl Caddesi (or Independence Avenue), which stretches 1.3 kilometers from Tünel Square eastward to Taksim, has seen its share of protests. To a foreigner like me, the marches and rallies seemed sometimes to begin out of nowhere; a subtle change in the wind, a thickening of the crowd, and suddenly placards would be carried, megaphones shouted into, banners raised high, discarded flyers trampled underfoot. Thousands gathered on the cobblestones of İstiklâl during the 2013 Gezi protests, which grew from public backlash over a government plan to replace a park with a shopping mall into a widespread and heavily-televised swell of ire towards everything from corruption to censorship. And out of it all, a surge of graffiti. Turkey’s irony levels shot off the charts.
When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took to calling the demonstrators “çapulcu” – looters, vandals, riff-raff – they co-opted the term whole-heartedly. Soon, it was anglicized as “chapuller” and reinvented. In the eyes of the Gezi resistance, a chapuller became not a ruffian, but a defender of democracy whose only tools may be comedy and peaceful protest. “Everyday I’m çapuling” read one anonymous graffito, referencing the hip-hop line “every day I’m shuffling” and spawning a viral video. A master’s thesis by Cemre Güneş Şengül examining the evolution of Turkish street art during this time noted that 73% of Gezi-era graffiti was humorous, representing a sudden jump of 14%.
Nearly a year later when, in March of 2014, Erdoğan announced that Twitter would be banned, millions of eyes must have been rolled in unison. Turkey’s two-and-a-half-year YouTube block- instituted after a high court ruled that certain videos were criminally insulting to Atatürk- had been all but theoretical, and it remained the eighth most popular website nationally during the entirety of the ban.
The Twitter logo began to crop up on street corners and in alleyways. Turkey’s graffiti artists took easily to the timeless freedom metaphors of flight and birdsong, and for a while, birds were everywhere. Next to outstretched wings and anti-censorship slogans they would paint DNS addresses which could be used to circumvent the ban. Something about this whole scenario really nudges at my funny bone. “You may control the Internet, but we control our streets,” I can picture a hoodied tagger announcing. “But actually, you don’t really control the Internet either,” she adds. “Honestly, you just look kind of silly.”
People ask me a lot why I like Turkey so much. (“Why are you so obsessed with Turkey, Sierra? Can you stop talking about Turkey for like, three seconds please?”) In the nearly five years since I first stumbled blearily out of the airport into what would almost instantaneously become my hands-down, no-contest, one-hand-tied-behind-its-back favorite city on earth, I haven’t managed to formulate a decent explanation for that. “It’s cool, there’s like a lot of stuff going on there,” I say with my usual masterful eloquence.
At the risk of sounding like a massive hippie, the storefronts and back alleys of Istanbul speak more stirringly than I can for all of the things that keep me poring over history books and scribbling out nostalgia-filled pages in my journal from five thousand miles away. The voice of Turkey’s youth, its postmen and tailors, its protestors, its liberals and academics and artists, is a voice I want to hear. I want to see their spraypaint-stained fingers and the stars they draw on their walls.
I want to sit on a quiet stoop at night and listen. I want a passerby, it could be anyone, to write “pay attention” in careful letters on a fence and disappear, laughing, into the darkness.
Featured image by Bulent Yusuf
Crocodile picture by Leigh Bedford