Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, can be considered the city of opposites. Spirituality and worldliness, tradition and modernity, progress and a sense of nostalgia for what has been. Istanbul is the “meeting point” between Europe and Asia, geographically very close but sometimes really distant.
The beating heart of this city are surely people: many souls who give life to this metropolis. In the streets you can smell the aroma of tea which in Turkish is called “çay”. “Çay” is not only one of the traditional beverages of Istanbul, but it is also a pretext to encounter people and friends. The typical expression used to invite someone out is “Çaya gidelim”. In addition, in the colorful streets of Istanbul you may come across many places where you can try the “hookah” and its perfumed smokes. Besides the traditional side of the city, there is also a hidden side of Istanbul. Street art characterizes this city, that “underground side” recalls other European cities such as Berlin.
Spray paints, colorful graffiti over the walls and the strong smell of fresh colors give this beautiful city another connotation that goes beyond tradition. The most famous neighborhoods where street art is heavily present are “Kadıköy”, “Karaköy” and “Galata”.
We had the pleasure of meeting Irem and Schenki who guided us through these suggestive streets of Istanbul.
Irem is a street art photographer who defines herself as the “curator of an open-air art gallery”. She wants to keep and preserve this kind of art that is likely to disappear the day after its creation. Irem tells Istanbul from her point of view.
Hello Irem, when was your passion for street art photography born?
First of all I must say it’s such a thrill to be on the platform. My fondness for urban sociology dates back almost to my childhood, while my interest in documenting street art began in high school. I started my journey of street photography with amateur enthusiasm. I have been photographing all types of works such as stencils, stickers, murals, and graffiti that carry the traces of transformation into the public sphere since 2008.
I believe the real concern of street artists is to introduce meaning into their art to the masses. I see the streets as an open-air museum, thus myself as a kind of curator.
Can you keep paintings in the open air eternal with a click? What is street art for you?
As a photography artist, my interest in being on the observer’s side stems from a desire to archive works that risk not being able to survive the next morning and allow them to remain permanently, which they deserve, just like any other form of art. Street artworks are effective only when they are able to reach the audience. Otherwise, artists might as well just draw on their sketchbooks or so. I believe the real concern of street artists is to introduce meaning into their art to the masses. I see the streets as an open-air museum, thus myself as a kind of curator.
How does this underground art manage to tell the city of Istanbul?
Graffiti, a culture that emerged from the ghettos to its very existence, has now taken over the districts of the city which are supposedly labeled as ‘decent neighborhoods’. The city of Istanbul has been transforming and street artists have been representing ‘the other’ in the public sphere. Thanks to the works of creative artists who manage to reach not only a narrow group of art lovers, but also large masses of observers on the streets, public awareness of art and culture is developing in this big Metropol. As Istanbul is the meeting point of many dualities, one can easily see its reflection on the walls.
The most enjoyable way to explore the city and find its hidden gems is to follow the traces left by the artists and look for clues, just like a treasure hunt.
What is the artistic area you prefer to photograph?
It is possible to see works focused on different techniques in every region, especially in Kadıköy. For example, the Suadiye neighborhood is filled with tags of many local and foreign artists. The street near the Fenerbahçe Stadium is an area where graffiti is concentrated. It is possible to encounter many old and new works by well-known artists around St. Joseph High School. Yeldeğirmeni is also commonly known to be one of the places that you should visit, especially if you are mural lovers.
In your experience, can graffiti become a tourist route to visit a city?
In my experience, they have already become, as that’s exactly what I and many other people do. Also, city tours that include street art are currently being organized around the world for tourism purposes. Of course, this year they have been interrupted, but the same tours continue even online. The most enjoyable way to explore the city and find its hidden gems is to follow the traces left by the artists and look for clues, just like a treasure hunt.
Schenki is a street artist based in Istanbul. He thinks that “walls have souls” and thanks to street art they can take on another connotation, they can “wear the artist’s feelings”. Schenki first used a spray can when he was 13-14 years old and has continued to express himself through street art ever since.
How did you approach street art? How was this passion for graffiti born?
I’ve always been drawing cartoons since I was a child. The place where I was born and raised put me in the middle of the street and neighborhood buildings. I first sprayed my hand when I was about 13-14 years old. Honestly I didn't know graffiti or street art. I believe it was something I had to discover and deepen. Over time and also thanks to social media, I have become a witness of its existence, of its evolution over the years. I think of my first source of street art because there is so much need to call something art.
Strictly speaking, the most likely place for different people to cross in their lives is perhaps the streets. I think that people can see and feel things regardless of consciousness or money.
In addition, spray paint has its own unique feel. The spray paint “has held control” over me for 6 years since I first got “sprayed”. The material that looks so simple from the outside is actually the finished work, it becomes the brush. I really like this difficulty with the different usage patterns.
What I like the most is that the wall has a soul. I like to act in the spirit of the wall rather than just doing my job. When people look at my works they know that “Schenki did it”. But that’s not what I’m trying to talk about. The spirit of the wall that people feel when they look at it must be shared.
Street art can be considered as the “underground side” of a city, do you think this kind of art can give a more original perspective of the city? I mean, make it more attractive to foreign eyes?
It definitely adds a unique touch to it, but I don't think it will be that effective. Obviously the speed of communication through social media has increased, and this has accelerated the communication and the flow of data between “writers” (used by graffiti artists). For example, a writer in Sydney and one in Istanbul may share the same style or be very similar to each other. This doesn’t mean one writer is stealing ideas and designs from another one, let’s say don’t be impressed. I know there is someone in America that I know who has a similar style to mine, and I have similar “colors” in Spain too. Before seeing them I created my works and I didn’t know I was similar to other artists, but when I saw their artworks, I tried to differentiate myself. Without straying too far from the subject. Even if it is simple writing, the city is freed from the gray walls and whose soul is taken away. So yes, it can give a unique perspective to the city, but it is very likely that it is not unique to that city.
When you paint walls what kind of figures or characters do you represent?
I usually draw an old goatee and thin person on the walls. In addition, I occasionally make illustrations of skulls and octopuses. Since it is mostly abstract and illustrative, I can deform it however I want (without ignoring the rules of anatomy) without worrying about realism. What I am trying to explain is that they are prototypes people are used to. Nowadays, I’ve noticed that men are all muscular, with long, bristly beards. On the contrary, I draw someone with a goatee, sometimes bald, sometimes with long hair, weak and very warm and active compared to their clothes. People are welcoming, in contrast to plasticization. I am often compared to the character structure I just mentioned: I have been drawing these characters for 7-8 years, but I have been similar to them for the last 2-3 years. I mean, “they” are older than me. I prefer my walls, especially the more colorless and calm ones (gray and light yellow) so that the place and the wall I have built can be a little bit alive. Because as far as I understand from the feedback I get from people in the places I create, walls really affect life unintentionally. Why shouldn't I try to make people have a better day?! In fact, this answer fits the second question as well.
Istanbul is a very big city, can you tell us about its hidden side? For example, are there any places in particular where young artists can go and express their art?
There are too many places, factories, abandoned houses, but they are constantly being demolished or rebuilt so I don't know their latest situation. These places I know are mainly in these districts; “Yenikapı, Maslak, Taksim, Kadıköy and Karaköy”. I counted these districts, but there is not much space left here, so let them build it on the wall they see. As you said, the city is big, so there are many writers who paint what they capture.
Is there a particular place in Istanbul you like the most for doing your graffiti?
Facades of tall buildings and also anywhere in Kadıköy or Karaköy.
Istanbul is the city of duality: many traditions and stories meet and collide with one another, revealing a city full of surprises and full of street art colors.
“If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul” - Alphonse de Lamartine
Image Sourced from
Irem and Schenki