NOW CURATING: YOMI
s t r e e t a r t i s t
YOMI’s work is poignant and powerful, usually informed by experiences in communist in Bulgaria and the contemporary political climate. We talk about the politics of street art, and how he expects his own work to be received.
Amanda Victoria Wagner: As someone who creates political street art, do you think there is something inherently political about street art?
YOMI: Early graffiti, even since the Roman Empire, has showed us that street art is a vehicle for protest. In that sense, yes it is.
Recently there has been a lot of buzz about street art in Philadelphia with the Streets Department curating a bunch of pop-up shows, one of which was mentioned in the New York Times. There are a lot of talented artists who live here and who have come from Philly and they are coming into the spotlight. It helps that Philly’s reception to street art is pretty good. That’s not the case everywhere.
AVW: Taking that into consideration, in our current political environment, is street art an effective vehicle for political commentary?
Y: I believe it is. As a tool of protest, street art gives a voice to those who are afraid to use their own voices. It gives voice to the vulnerable and people who are frightened to speak up because of the repercussions of speaking up.
Today you see people incorporating contemporary issues into their work instead of broad ideals. There are several examples in my work; I’ve done work for Standing Rock and for DAPL. I made work for the women’s march. The idea that these messages can be a physical instrument of change is really interesting. In this way street art becomes art to help people feel empowered.
AVW: What are you doing now?
Y: I recently launched a series of executive orders, which is a mockery and reaction to the Trump presidency. The pieces aren’t lasting very long, though. Once, as I was putting them up, I saw someone taking it down right behind me. The piece speaks volumes and people are reacting. I’m also doing a lot of work around environmental issues.
AVW: Is there something about your personal experience that speaks to your interest in political art?
Y: Coming from an ex-communist state, and being under communism for 16 years, political art sinks into you. I grew up around constant propaganda. Growing up in that kind of environment, there is a point when you start to open your eyes and you become repulsed by the regimes and oppressors. You get sick of being told what to do.
Chernobyl is a big influence of mine and sparked a lot of my feelings around political art. Up to present day, it is still considered one of the largest man-made disasters in history. Even in recent history we have been learning more about its impact. Being a kid in Bulgaria when it happened, we didn’t find out about the accident until months later. Prior to finding out, were experiencing weather anomalies. I was seeing these deep yellow clouds in a clear sky. Rain would follow and form into deep yellow puddles. It was 2-3 months later that the government radio mentioned the accident, saying it was being taken care of. They never mentioned how much damage was done. So many people have died of radiation and nearby environments are still uninhabitable.
I think that experience led me to create more environmentally-focused work, even though I was a kid back then and I had no voice. Street art was an incredibly dangerous thing to do in my country. At the time there were a lot of intellectuals killed or put in prison for their opinions.
AVW: Growing up in a communist regime, why do you think it’s so important to advocate for your rights in the US, a country that has never seen or experienced anything like you have and whose people often carry a bit of naivety when it comes geopolitics?
Y: What happened to my country can happen anywhere and at any time. I think it’s already happening here. I think there’s been a suffocating of democracy here since the election and I think we are seeing the rise of an autocracy. You see people trying to bypass congress, rewriting and ignoring laws to get what they want. You’re seeing the beginning of a dictatorship. The US is sitting on decades of mismanagement, lies, and abuse of power. What we are experiencing now is a corrosion of the political system and public trust.
It’s a part of the artist’s responsibility to bring political awareness to the people. Art has always had a strong voice, especially political art, and that’s also what makes art so dangerous. It’s a serious tool. Philly artists can step up to the plate a bit more. We have to be louder and sharper without any apology.