Kyiv murals - symbolic embodiment of power to change city image

Author : Varvara Podnos

Source :

Murals increase the attractiveness, aesthetic quality of urban space; color pictures give life to monotonous typical buildings in residential areas and industrial zones. But some citizens are dissatisfied with what they see in the city space
10:30, 4 January 2017

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Why some people don’t like murals in the city? We tried to move away from the question of aesthetics because each of us has his own tastes. Instead, social sciences make it possible to analyze the process of creating the mural through the prism of power relations, and the mural itself - in terms of the functions it performs.

What murals were made for?

Art facilities for Kyiv citizens are no longer something unusual – indeed, the streets and squares of Ukrainian cities are full of various monuments, sculptures, architectural groups. However, the phrase "a picture on the wall" can cause a variety of emotions – graffiti, wall inscriptions and other similar art objects can be perceived both positive, and cause resentment because of their poor art quality, be labeled as vandalism, bad taste. This raises the question of the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable work in the public space. What we already consider art and what is called vandalism?

Street art as part of urban art in 2000s has become very popular in Ukraine, a legitimate part of the urban space. Such artists as Hamlet Zinkovsky or Roman Minin, from art interventionists turned into famous artists and their works can be seen in the streets of many cities.

Recently large murals began to appear in Kyiv on the walls of apartment buildings throughout the city. Whether they are art objects? Why there are so many of them and whether this is something beyond art? What are their distinctions?

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Mural's important positive functions are to increase the attractiveness, aesthetic quality of urban space; color pictures give life to monotonous spaces of typical buildings in residential areas and industrial zones. Such images on the large buildings makes them more comfortable, friendly for visual perception, closer to the human scale.

Murals and the city space

In general, objects of urban space - a road sign, a sign with the name of the street, monument, graffiti on the fence - have the symbolic load. Such objects can be considered as markers of urban space - characters that are the identifiers, means of description and distinction of some elements of space from others, and provision of certain values to these symbols. Together with other visual objects, ideas about the city and urban practices, they form what anthropologists and sociologists call the City text

City text – is a set of specific meanings, metaphors and images available in urban space and, therefore, associated with this city. It is also a set of historical narratives and literary texts, metaphors, which describe a particular space. The city text can both create an objective image of the city and construct certain practices, images, rules of stay in. Murals are part of the text. Accordingly, their important functions among the mentioned revitalization and improvement of attractiveness are:

  • creating spatial orientation - the creation of new routes, practices and norms of interaction with space,
  • designing space - murals are new objects in existing space, but also create their own "meta-space", disrupting or altering the traditional spatial disposition,
  • marking space - bringing new and important markers and symbols, thus space receive symbolic colors.

The ability of murals (and other large-scale art objects or series) create new spatial landmarks, tourist destinations and urban symbols means that they create their own meta-space, changing and turning over the existing spatial disposition. In other words, the new "street art route" may not just overbuild or simply complement the historic character of area, but completely change it. Create a new image of space, which eventually will replace the old one.

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Who creates murals?

Also important thing is - who creates murals in urban space, who determines these images and objects as legitimate, necessary and important to be exactly it in this place. In Kyiv, the agent of symbolic power in relation of murals is rather small group of people - in fact, the sponsors of murals project and city administration officials who support them. City resident are deprived of their right to influence, construct and identify local space, the space of their existence and residence.

Such decisions are made without the active participation of the local community: murals appear like mushrooms after rain, and nobody asks local residents about it. This in turn can lead to protests from the community which was not asked about they want to label, structure and design their area of residence. Exclusion of community from decision-making process about changing urban space is a reflection of depriving communities of symbolic power in this space.

Mural’s political economy

What personal benefits get the agents of change - the same small group of ideological inspirers and authors of murals’ project? If it is fame and recognition, why for this the street art objects are implemented through interference in common to all citizens and residents of the city space?

Quite frequently we can see promotional murals that are created in violation of the law on advertising. On the one hand, this may be a straight commercial advertising branding and logo. In addition, receiving indirect image or political gain.

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And who are the sponsors of such large-scale projects? And what is offered to sponsors in return? The projects funded by philanthropists often provide an opportunity for everyone to participate, receiving in return a public appreciation and recognition among the list of benefactors. Lack of information about this only creates speculations and assumptions.

Murals and city branding

Another element of murals’ symbolic load Mural is that they aim to attract more tourists in Kyiv. Murals created in the city center could be a part of separate tourist route and positioned as a special and interesting attraction for visitors of the city. However, in this case tourists become the only agents and purpose of murals’ creating process, its main target group. Less attention is given to interests and needs of local people despite the fact that they are the tax payers and, in general, the main actors that interact with the urban space. Returning to the issue of tourists, murals can’t solve the problems such as lack of pedestrian infrastructure, convenient navigation in the city or a small number of hostels, which are much more important for a comfortable and pleasant stay of tourists in the city.

Mural become agents of creating a new city brand and its identity. However, proper branding can’t be implanted by only one group of actors, it is important to research the public opinion and the current state of the city and its features. Sometimes it seems that Kyiv’s authorities rather attempt to speedily make such a "creative" city, turned it into a "new Berlin" and quickly sell it to visitors. After all, focusing on tourists means a commercialization of urban space.

However, whether the world needs a new Berlin? When it comes to identity and its own brand, are Kyiv’s murals different from other cities? Their authors create something special or just playing in the international style of popular culture? Do tourists come now to Kyiv for the murals or, say, Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra and Motherland? Then why not to focus on and not to promote existing attractions?


The image of the city and its text should be created, given the existing spatial elements. This will reduce the likelihood of conflicts with the existing urban identity of population. Such inconvenience (which is only reinforced by the lack of community involvement in decision-making regarding the creation of murals) causes conflicts of townspeople with the initiative group on creation. Local identity, one of the most important agents of which is the city text, is formed as other types of identity, by affiliation to a certain "in-group", which can be bound by common locality, a set of daily practices and more. Unauthorized intrusion of new objects to this community, even those that are positioned as art and created with "good intentions" can’t immediately fit into the system of world perception of local residents. In the case of persistent and rather massive (tens or hundreds) reproduction of "foreign bodies" people’s dissatisfaction could have the bigger impulse.

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