It was a stencil on an abandoned building that first caught my attention. I’d seen the graffiti prominent in almost every neighbourhood I traveled through in Istanbul, but hadn’t really noticed it before then. “Remember to call your mother” the message in dripping black paint read, bringing a smile to my face. A simple, yet profound, reminder of the importance of family tucked in an obscure alley I’d wandered down by chance. I took a photo and and continued walking.
Thus began a three hour exploration of the streets and alleys of my new neighborhood, searching out the hidden and not-so-hidden gems of Karaköy.
Karaköy is a neighborhood in transition. Formerly the central banking district and bustling port during the Ottoman era, the once predominantly non-Muslim neighborhood, its Jewish, Italian, Armenian and Greek influences still visible in the churches and architecture, suffered decline during the 20th century as the city moved away from industrialization within the city centre.
A resurgence began in 2004 with the installation of the Istanbul Modern art gallery in a former customs building overlooking the Bosphorous. Karaköy is now home to multiple galleries, including the former New York based Krampt Gallery and ArtSümer, a gallery and project space for established and emerging arists.
Outside, the decaying buildings, metal shutters and plywood construction barriers of the neighborhood form the canvas of an alternative open air gallery. Bright colours and bold designs contrast the drab and utilitarian surfaces on which they’re created, adding vibrant hues to the otherwise neutral palette of the trendy coffee shops and boutique hotels invading the area.
Artist Leo Lunatic, infamous for his hip pandas overseeing the streets of Istanbul, is prominently displayed throughout the neighborhood, as are Kein’s winged lamps. Pepe and Mr. Hume, among others, also vie for space quickly becoming rare as buildings are renovated, restored and repainted.
Inspirational messages such as “go be a hero” and “consider beauty” are interspersed with the bold murals, providing a momentary pause to consider the multiple interpretations of both the words and the art. “First be yourself” has been ironically stenciled beside an image of the iconic Marilyn Monroe, known for creating a persona that was anything but. Intentional? Only the artist knows for sure.
Some pieces will be lost as the boards surrounding construction zones are removed and the metal shutters replaced with floor to ceiling tempered glass. Many will remain as patio backdrops, the locals as enamored with the artwork as the tourists drawn to photograph it.
Having opened my eyes, it is now impossible for me to not see and I find myself glancing down alleys and up the sides of buildings, seeking diamonds amid the brick and mortar.
Karaköy is not the only neighborhood in Istanbul decorated with street art, but the stark juxtaposition of graffiti amid the upscale coffee shops and high end galleries make it worth exploring.