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Graffiti was once labeled vandalism or cheap art in Kazakhstan. Now, graffiti and murals have risen to prominence thanks to talented street artists, and they have also been exploited as tools of government propaganda.
In Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, the murals have come to represent a strange battlefield between youth activism and government-sponsored messages. Some murals challenge the current political system, others extol its achievements.
In recent years, authorities have tried to use graffiti to promote messages of national unity and culture, but these murals have often been trolled by young artists and spoiled.
Art – especially graffiti – is one of the few means of free expression in highly controlled and authoritarian Kazakhstan. When the media is totally controlled and social media and the internet are partially blocked or filled with state troll farms, art is the only way to show discontent. Kazakhstan is ranked 155th on the press freedom list, and locals have long fought to make their voices heard.
Street art is provocative, political, and free. In Almaty, the artists found in the facades of buildings or city walls an alternative space to face positions, far from the governmental discourse.
Government officials tried to curb the wave of runaway graffiti and endorsed state-sponsored murals, such as the puncture of those holding the world with their hands, as a tribute to their efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
The most popular murals are those with ironic images of the former president or references to popular culture that make fun of the system.
In 2019, the street art collective REPAS created a great illustration dedicated to the premiere of the film Joker, which is about the villain Batman. The mural caught the attention of the film’s director, Todd Phillips, who also posted it on official advertising accounts.