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BISHKEK | In the late 2000s, strange, distorted human and animal faces, obscure quotations, and elliptical phrases started appearing on walls, garbage cans, tram cars, and fences around Bishkek. Some of the messages, including “Che za huinya” (What the fuck) or “Antagonism,” written in English, seemed provocative.
With their use of stencils and posters, they were different from the spray-paint tags long seen around the city. It was the beginning of a new wave of what some call street art, others vandalism. There were several groups of young people behind it, but one young man, by many accounts, blazed a trail the others would follow. He called himself “Dope,” but others have dubbed him the Banksy of Bishkek.
Dope, aka Denis Kapkanets, was a teenager at the time, a period of tremendous tumult for Kyrgyzstan. President Askar Akaev had been overthrown a couple of years earlier, and even the most apathetic found themselves debating the country’s politics and economy.
At the same time, artists such as Shepard Fairey were marking the walls of some U.S. cities and raising the profile of street art.
Obsessed by art, wounded and depressed by unrequited love, and inspired by a talented graphic-designer uncle, Kapkanets found his own themes and styles.
He says now that he waged a “personal war” that played out on the streets of Bishkek.
“I prefer to make pictures with one plot, one story, such as a human hand that catches an arrow, or incomprehensible and strange human faces,” Kapkanets says. He sought to shut out “a constant topic in this city: things regarding social problems, and calls to do something.”
Years later, Kapkanets has packed in his posters, for now, but many who were around at the time still credit him with shaking up Bishkek’s street art scene.
“There were lots of graffiti guys who were always carrying cans of paint and making different geometric patterns, painting the walls and putting up their signatures,” says Vyacheslav Filyev, a young photographer in Bishkek who has known Kapkanets for years. “Denis stood out from the crowd by using different methods in street art. He would draw stencils and posters at home then go out and put them on the walls with glue and long paint rollers.
“People started to pay attention,” Filyev says. “Denis really generated a boom in street art in Kyrgyzstan. Young people began to mimic and to steal some of his trademarks; ordinary people started to take photos of his work, to write articles and post in social networks about it, and they tried to discover the creator of these unusual screaming stencils.”
ALL FOR ART
Born in Bishkek in 1989, Kapkanets knew at a young age that he would be an artist.
The indulged son of a single mother, he entered a prestigious art school for children at age 11. Constantly drawing, he neglected his other studies and at 16 enrolled in the capital city’s only arts college.
“My thoughts were full of images that I wanted to put down on paper. I couldn’t understand why I needed to fill my head with unnecessary things,” he says.
Kapkanets studied graphic design and painting for two years. When it came time to present his final project, he broke the rules and used stencils and posters. For that, he was expelled for a year, during which his street art took off.
“I started to make street posters and stencils when I was a teenager, when I was suffering from all sorts of feelings and the hardships of relationships,” Kapkanets says.
His first posters made for the general public were plastered on a tram car. Images of bunnies, lambs, and mushrooms, they were purposely devoid of meaning.
Kapkanets says he kept his identity a secret because he was uninterested in promoting himself. He settled on the name Dope because he liked the way it sounded.
He didn’t work alone. He and two other artists, Yuriy Pak and Angelina Gaier, would draw stencils and posters at home, then meet in the predawn hours on Sundays to begin marking while the city slept.
For all its impact, that phase of Kapkanets’ art lasted only a year before he returned to school. He subsequently went to work as a graphic designer.
Today Bishkek’s walls are regularly cleaned, and street art is allowed only in certain places. The traces of Dope’s visual revolution are barely visible, although in some places, untouched by the mass cleaning, you can still see the faded, dingy posters with distorted faces.
And street art has come up from underground. Since 2009 – just when Dope was hanging up his rollers – Bishkek has hosted an annual street art and graffiti festival. This year it attracted artists from Germany, France, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan.
Among those who cite Kapkanets as an influence is Aizhan Aidieva, a successful portrait artist. He was a harsh critic at first, she says, even laughing at her work. But it was Kapkanets who steered her away from street art toward portraiture. She calls him “extraordinary, very creative, and talented.”
Others are less complimentary.
Lubov Jdanova, an art professor at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, takes a dim view of Kapkanets and his cohorts. “Should we consider the damaging of state property high art?” she says. “Of course, street art deserves some appreciation, because not every person can create courageous and original sketches, but to raise these street activities to the level of the classical conceptions of art is at best ridiculous.”
And it’s not just establishment figures who are critical. One street artist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says Kapkanets’ work is less innovative than many claim.
“Dope has a strong reputation in the street art world, that’s true. He was one of the first artists who used stencils and posters, but why we should consider that a special and unique activity?” this artist says. “There are lots of young talented people who are doing exceptional and creative pieces of modern art that really fascinate, but people only used to notice Dope.”
The artist complains that some of Kapkanets’ work put obscene language where children and the elderly would see it.
“It’s cool enough, but what kind of example he does set for the society?” he says. “Dope made people notice and be interested in modern street art, but he didn’t do it in the best and most humane way.”
Kapkanets is no longer stenciling the walls, but he says he has not given up entirely on street art. He is helping to start up a new graphic-design firm, but, without giving anything away, he says he has his eye on “a real revolution in creating street art.”
“I need to have enough capital. The big project that I plan to implement requires considerable preparation and finances, so now I’m waiting for the right opportunity to make a name for myself.”