He looks like he knows the answers to everything.
I stand there, munching on my blueberry Pop-Tart (aka sugared cardboard) and imagine that if this were the Harry Potter universe, he would come to life and dish out a little wisdom.
But Mykhailo Hrushevsky, Ukrainian historian and politician, tells me nothing. Fair enough. Maybe he, like me, does better after a coffee.
The Kiev street art scene is off the wall. Over the years, the city has contracted dozens of artists to create stunning and usually bizarre murals on the sides of buildings – there are between 150 and 200 of them, depending on your source. I’ve appreciated Kiev street art for months, always talking about doing a little photo scavenger hunt, always putting it off – until today.
Because today I’ve promised myself brunch.
The murals in Kiev are pretty well documented. There’s both a website and an app – which I discovered after spending an hour or two jig-sawing together my own map from the website. I plotted out a vague circle from my apartment, to the best brunch neighborhood, back around to my apartment. I would be gone maybe two hours, I estimated.
Knowing the Pop-Tarts would only hold me over for so long, I move on from cryptic Mykhailo, heading for one of my favorite, but a bit out-of-the-way, murals. A boy (I assume, though looking now maybe that’s presumptuous), on a magic carpet, his head a total maze. I relate to this boy – which is kind of puzzling considering he’s a youth going on a magic carpet ride guided by a scarab. Well that’s life, I decide, and continue.
Next is Garden City Residents. I’m a sucker for nature scenes painted in urban areas, though a new apartment building has sprung up next to the Garden City and I have to crane my neck to get a good look. I can’t tell if the artist has masterfully painted sun dapples on the pond or if it’s the serendipitous reflection off the new building’s windows. I’m even more delighted to realize that further back in the courtyard there’s a second Garden City Residents mural. Looking at them from back there in the dilapidated cabbage patch playground, they create a deep and lush forest. Well, until a car honks.
I walk down to the circus and hang left. Down the road there’s a portrait of Pavlo Skoropadskyi, another crucial figure in Ukrainian history. He was the first Hetman of Ukraine, a title I don’t really understand, in a period when Ukraine was briefly independent and therefore embroiled in political turmoil. My ignorance is enough to make me mentally recommit to learning more about Ukrainian history, delving into history books.
But up next is one of my favorite murals, a mosaic called Chatty Dinosaur. How could a garishly bright tile mosaic featuring a T-rex, cherry-headed people, and a flying spaghetti ball not be awesome?
Down the street is a more esoteric mural, one that combines Buddhism, Ukrainian cultural symbols, and revisionist history. In the app there’s a story of how the artist won over a grandmother who had wanted a brighter mural, but to be honest, I agree with her.
One last stop before brunch – I detour down a side street and pop into a courtyard to find these whimsical pink giraffes. They’ve been chilling here since 2009, so they’re not the cotton candy pink of old, and the playground below them has definitely entropied under hundreds of children’s feet, but they’re pretty adorable all the same.
At this point, I’m starving. I’ve been out for two hours already, and I’ve definitely earned brunch. #Alltrueeast has become my newest brunch obsession, so I take a break for shakshuka. Life-giving food.
Back out soon and I hurry across the street to snap a picture of this ninja girl – who I realize may be neither girl nor ninja. But I don’t know, isn’t art what you make of it?
Around Maidan, the street art gets more political. Up a subdued side street, the Slavic goddess Berehynia seems to be sleeping. Maybe not the best stance for someone who’s supposed to be… protecting, but I like the idea that this warrior spirit isn’t needed right now by resilient Ukrainians.
Though Ukrainians have definitely shown their warrior spirit over the centuries, even in recent history. At the back of the Garden of the Heavenly Hundred, there’s a portrait of Serhiy Nigoyan. It’s cut and chipped from plaster, exposing the brick wall underneath. A simple and elegant way to portray Nigoyan, who was the first Euromaidan activist to die during the Hrushevskoho Street riots.
Behind Saint Michael’s, there’s a labyrinth neighborhood with some of the best art in the city. I like this area because it’s a mix of commissioned murals and guerrilla street art. There’s the bizarre Time for Change, which reimagines the Ukrainian fight for freedom with winged warriors and snake creatures.
There’s also the mural honoring champion gymnast Anna Rizatdinova, who is from Crimea but has since relocated to Kyiv. Underneath her portrait, two teenage girls have jumped the fence to take pictures in the unused parking lot.
The streets here are twisted, so it takes me a minute to find one of my favorite pieces of Kiev street art, what I have lovingly dubbed Third-Wheeling Robot. I don’t know what its real name is, but I’m also pretty sure it doesn’t matter.
I manage to pack in three more murals in under ten minutes. The psychedelic mural for Yaroslav the Wise, an acid trip reinterpretation of Ukrainian folklore. The only part that really makes sense to me is the small silhouettes of the founders of Kyiv in the bottom right corner.
Next I crane my next up to get a look at Lily of the Valley, which celebrates Ukrainian activist and poet Lesya Ukrainka with a dreamy portrait.
And finally there’s the rather puzzling Car Carousel… which, according to my app, was a present from a blogger and TV presenter to his daughter. That’d be pretty cool, I guess, but I also wonder how much she likes cars.
I have one more mural on my list, and it’s a bit of detour from home down (and then up) a hill. I push on and am rewarded with what may be my new favorite mural. I love the bright color, the play with shadow, the humor of capturing the window in a light bulb. It’s lovely and a little bit strange, which is basically Kiev street art in a nutshell.
It’s been five hours – five hours – of walking around the city, and I’ve seen just a fraction of the art the splashes all over Kyiv’s walls. There’s such a diverse collection of quirky, elegant, and historical murals, but as I hobble the familiar route home, I look for some of my favorite graffiti street art. The skeptical face on Yaroslaviv Street, the strange family road trip over the grassy patch on Sichovykh Stiltsiv Street, the prevalent Darth Vader helmets all over the city. And maybe, too, I’ll spot something new.
You can use this website or download this free Kiev street art app to plan your own excursion. I’ve only managed to showcase just a fraction of what’s out there – and some of the most impressive murals are on the Left Bank.
Heading to Ukraine? Check out more of my Ukraine travel tips!
And why can’t I seem to make up my mind about spelling it Kiev or Kyiv? It’s complicated. Basically, I spell it ‘Kyiv’ because that’s how the people who live there spell it and I want to respect that. I spell it ‘Kiev’ because that’s how people who don’t live there spell it and I need to show up in Google searches.
Which city is your favorite for street art? Let me know so I can make sure to check it out!