A Walk in Tbilisi with Gagosh - Georgia’s Stencil Master

Written by A.J. Vitiello

“No, I can say fuck you directly. Why should I hide in the bushes?”

When I first discovered Gagosh, the pseudonym for the provocative Tbilisi-based Street artist, Banksy seemed like the obvious comparison. Here is an activist using satirical painting to protest social stigmas, the decline of critical thinking, and current events such as the influx of Russian expats to a former Soviet country suffering from post-traumatic stress as war drags out in Ukraine.

“I really don’t want to emulate Banksy,” Gagosh says.

We share a bench in front of the Opera and Ballet Theater on Rustaveli Ave before embarking on a walking tour of his murals that have not yet been covered up by the government.

“No, I want to be Gagosh. This is my voice, yeah? When I was a student, I was demonstrating on the main square and screaming. Then I understood I could start screaming another way.”

To cross the street, we descend an underground passageway, and it is inside the tunnel where the artist shows me his first wall. “Here is Mother Mary,” he says.  “I mean, Mother of Georgia.” An icon in Tbilisi, the Kartlis Deda statue defends the city up on a hill, bearing wine in one hand for those who come as friends, and a sword in the other for enemies. In the mural, Gagosh reimagined this character to wave a Ukrainian flag, crowning her with a wreath of blue and yellow flowers. For the Russians rushing past us, they look away.

Gagosh shows me another wall, on his phone, where he repainted the Mother of Georgia. Here, she wields her sword below the waist, but her other arm extends the hand upward to cover her left eye. “Gavrilov’s Night,” he says, referring to the 2019 protests.

That summer, the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy was held in Tbilisi. Sergei Gavrilov, a Communist Party member of the Russian Duma, opened the session with a speech about brotherhood between Georgia and Russia, sitting in the chair reserved for Georgia’s speaker. The opposition, including the liberal European Georgia party, stormed the chamber, outraged by the representative of a country whose military currently occupies 20% of Georgia’s land. Protests turned to riots when activists attempted to enter parliament, as riot police deployed tear gas and arrested more than 300 demonstrators. Activists went blind from shots to the eye by rubber bullets.

Gagosh says the government erased the top half of his mural, so all that was left was a headless torso holding a sword. He acted quickly, painting a police officer next to the Mother, pointing a gun at her as if he’d just popped off her head. “It’s gone now,” says Gagosh.

“You’re not worried?”

“Like I said, I’m not interested in hiding. Anyways they can find me. They have cameras everywhere. But to change someone’s mind is not easy. And they don’t think I can change much.”

A society that regularly sees, hears, and consumes art, is more likely to be influenced by art. And the Georgian government, with its ties to Russia, doubts people pay any attention to art. If one day, leaders wake up and think Gagosh has the power to persuade the European Union that Georgia should be a part of it, they’ll take care of him. But for now it is fines, or one night in jail.

“Your Wikipedia says nothing about being arrested.”

“Because I don’t have Wikipedia.”

“Yes, you do!” I pass him my phone as proof.

In the light on his patchy, ginger beard, I discern genuine shock, and, if only for a millisecond, a rebellious flash of excitement. “Oh, it must be new,” he says.

We collide with pedestrians because he is ranting about Georgian politics and I am failing to match his speed in my notetaking. When we arrive at the street-facing, open gallery of the National Academy of Sciences, Gagosh leads me to the rear courtyard, where there is grass and hipsters smoking. It smells like shit. Not shit. Sewage. My eyes water and flies attack my legs. Gagosh points to the bottom of a wall, separating us from an exposed septic tank, and plugs his nose. A smiling Matryoshka doll holds a Russian passport and a red suitcase. Spilling out of the suitcase, an armed brigade of soldiers and tanks advances on a red carpet.

“You know about Trojan Horse, yes? Here the Russian doll says, ‘we are friends, we bring money, we are nice people.’ But inside her is all the war. It is soft power, like this. We should go.”

We go underground and tour another tunnel. On this wall, a Neanderthal is cloaked in the flag of the European Union, urinating on political posters. The posters represent the Russian foreign agent law, which requires citizens who receive “support” from other countries to declare themselves as foreign agents, subjecting them to audits and rights violations. A bill in Georgian parliament sought to mimic this legislation, but it was dropped in March 2023 after mass protests.

Gagosh explains that the oldest human fossils found outside of Africa belong to Georgia. The skeletons even have names: Zezva and Mzia. The first Europeans, then, were Georgian.

“If we are the first Europeans, why do we behave not like Europeans?”

Some people will laugh at the suggestion that Georgia might be considered Europe. Geographically, the country lies west of the Ural Mountains, but too far south, separated by the Black Sea, and there is no denying the Persian influence.

“Culturally, we are Europe,” says Gagosh. “We share the same values. Different identity but our values are the same. Once people share the same values, they do not fight. Most people want to be part of the EU. But propaganda works really well here. Our economy is cuddled up with Russia. We are the first Europeans, but our government is against Europe. This is the irony.”

His next painting depicts silhouettes of the heteronormative family taking a bucksaw to a rainbow. Father gets the job done; brother and sister assist. Mother is an onlooker, baby in arms. Colorful sawdust resembles tears. Later on our walk, I ask Gagosh what life is like for LGBT people in Georgia. I had already enjoyed more than one night at Unholy, the only gay bar I could find that was not deserted.

Around the world, the International Day Against Homophobia is observed on May 17th, commemorating the World Health Organization’s decision in 1990 to declassify homosexuality as a disease. On this day in 2013, gay rights activists in Tbilisi rallied at Freedom Square, and were met with some 20,000 priests and churchgoers whose duty it was to throw stones and protest “sodomy.” Amnesty International received reports of an attempted gay lynching. The following year, the Georgian Orthodox Church declared May 17th as the Day of the Holiness of the Family. In 2021, far-right militias attacked Tbilisi Pride on Rustaveli Avenue, leaving more than fifty journalists injured. On Instagram, Gagosh posts a photo of the rainbow mural with the caption: “Happy Family Purity Day to Georgians.”

“Are you gay?” I ask Gagosh.

“No.”

I hide my disappointment. In New York, straight allyship seems frivolous. Perhaps even insulting. But here in Georgia, this artist’s solidarity for the Orthodox queer community is crucial.

Gagosh tells me about another rainbow mural which no longer exists. A controversial reveal when he first painted it at Vake Park’s famous Graffiti Tunnel, the stencil shows the Greek god of love, Eros, firing colored pencils at an army. The army hides behind their shields because they are afraid his arrows might turn them gay.

“City Hall commissions commercialized street art and erases our graffiti in the tunnels.”

I stumbled across the Graffiti Tunnel a week earlier, enticed by the impressive, wrap-around ceiling, flaunting kitschy designs of world landmarks like the Statue of Liberty and the Pyramids. Flawless murals of musicians like Whitney Houston and Bob Marley warranted an immediate snapshot. It is meant to be eye-candy, but without the politics. The city’s decision to abolish artists like Gagosh and redesign the tunnel reminds me of the New York mayor’s whitewashing of the iconic 191st Street Tunnel, not only wiping out organic artwork, but history.

“How often do you paint?”

“It depends,” replies Gagosh. “If our government misbehaves, then a lot.”

We come to a bridge and cross to the left bank of the Kura River, but under the yellow streetlamps, I see writing on the stone railing and sidewalk. Graffiti on the bridge displays curses like: “Hated Russia before it was cool” and “Russki, my country is not your restaurant.”

“You are not bad people, you just come from a bad place.”

But I am struck by one column, which says: “You are not bad people, you just come from a bad place.” Beneath this line, in different color handwriting, is one message: “Thank you.”

“Who do you think they are?” I wonder.

“It doesn’t matter.”

“How so?”

“This is the underlying idea behind street art. The author is dead. Now this is for you. You are the receiver. You need to deal with it¾if you catch this communication. Otherwise it is lost.”

“I can tell you read Barthes.”

 

“Street art is not for people searching for art. These people go to a gallery. Street art is for everyone, that’s the point. It could be a beggar or a student, they see themselves and it matters. It is my job to seize their attention, be a street terrorist. Then I go away.”

“Do you consider this street poetry?”

“I will show you street poetry.”

Gagosh takes out his iPhone again, and I realize there is only so much he can show me that hasn’t been covered. On a white wall, I observe a simple sentence in Georgian script, an alphabet so beautiful it is no wonder the language has survived the many historical attempts to eradicate it.

Gagosh translates: “I am a wall and I can’t, but you?”

“What does it mean?”

“A wall can’t act. It just stands there. Why today, do so many people behave like walls?”

“Fear?”

“Or stupidity.”

“So which is it?”

“I can create the question. It’s not my job to give people answers. It’s Socratic stuff.”

Since we don’t have any destination at this point, Gagosh wants to introduce me to his friend who owns a writers bar. He describes it as an intellectual club. I offer to pay for our taxi, but he insists that we drive his car, though he doesn’t remember where he parked. He left it somewhere two weeks ago. We find it on a side street, and I’m amused to learn that Gagosh is quick to road rage.

When we enter the establishment, it is immediately clear to me that I am the only foreignor. There are no Russians here. Georgians gather at small tables drinking red wine and eating sandwiches, playing backgammon and literary trivia. The place is so packed we can barely walk, but Gagosh clears the way to the bar. There, a beanstalk of a man with a striped shirt and bowl cut kisses Gagosh’s cheek. This is Paata Shamugia, the most influential contemporary Georgian poet, whose work has been challenged by parliament and the Orthodox Church.

“He is very famous, you know,” says Paata, tilting his head at Gagosh. “He has a special sense of momentum.”

Next, I shake hands with Beka Korshia, who Paata says is a respected journalist.

“Ooh, what kind of journalist?”

“He trolls governments.”

I conclude he is the equivalent to a Seth Meyers, or a Jacques Servin, a culture-jamming media artist who pranks calls politicians to expose their true merits. Fraternizing with this crew, I understand the writers bar is more than an intellectual club, but a rendezvous for artists, wordsmiths, and propogandists of all breeds to debate and scheme their collective efforts to make Georgia a freer country, and cut the umbilical cord with Russia.

Gagosh’s drink of choice is a gin and tonic. He has three of them. We cheers, and on the TV, I am astonished to see Tina Turner, strutting around New York in red lipstick with her massive hairdo. Georgians sing along, adequately drunk.

“So,” I ask Gagosh, “what does love got to do with it?”

“For me, it’s about happiness,” he says. “I started this because painting makes me happy, and I want Georgians to be happy too. We have a long way to go.”

In the meantime, Gagosh tells me there will be a Banksy exhibit at the Tbilisi MoMA, and he will have original artworks in conjunction on display. Unfortunately, I will have already left Georgia before I can find out if this is true.

A.J. Vitiello