When I notice a new painting on a wall or utility box in my neighborhood, I cannot figure out if I’ve been walking past it for two years or if it popped up overnight. But I am always pleasantly surprised.
What also surprises me, though, is how many of my Albanian and expat friends walk down these same streets without ever noticing these paintings unless I stop and point them out.
I highly recommend that rather than keeping your eyes pointed down toward the sidewalk or at your mobile phone, start looking around and appreciating the art (some spontaneous, some planned) that dot the city. And there is also, as always, a story behind most of what you see.
Artists from around the world have helped beautify Tirana
Not so long ago, graffiti and street art were unknown in Albania where art was heavily controlled during the communist era (and where painting something considered anti-establishment could result in a prison term or worse).
Granted street art in Tirana is tightly controlled by the government and not spontaneous like the Lennon Wall in Prague, but streets are still being brightened throughout the city. Not only are otherwise drab concrete buildings being covered in pastels and other hues of paint, but large murals began springing up in May 2018 when 13 street artists from Albania, Italy, Serbia, Uruguay and France came to Tirana as part of the first MurAL Fest. This first street art festival was a collaboration between the Italian art group 167/ B Street and the Tirana government.
The next year, MuralAL Fest 2019 attracted 18 urban artists from Albania, Italy, France, Argentina, Greece, Colombia, Spain, Portugal, Romania, England, the United States, Poland, and Uruguay. And again these artists helped transform more otherwise uninteresting buildings in the Albanian capital into unusual canvases. The MurAL Fest 2019 was sponsored by the Municipality of Tirana, in cooperation with the Embassy of Romania in Albania, the Alliance Française, and the Italian Institute of Culture.
(Undoubtedly, the Covid-19 pandemic interfered with any plans for another MurAL Fest this past summer.)
The two festival years of multiculturalism attracted the attention of world famous urban artists and has the potential of making Tirana a destination for those seeking unusual art expressions.
A personal connection to local street art
While serving as a Peace Corps (an American service organization) volunteer in Mat, I joined approximately 75 other volunteers who’d left their villages to come to Tirana to help paint a wall mural and the stairs leading to the Artificial Lake.
The service project took place soon after the first MurAL Fest, and we were joined by a group of Albanian youth and workers from the Parks and Recreation Agency of Tirana. Albanian artist Franko Dine designed the image for the wall mural, the pattern painted on the stairs leading up to the lake and the geometric design on 24 planters along the pedestrian walkway on the northwest side of the lake.
Franko Dine, originally from Vlore, studied at the Art Academy of Tirana and was the first urban artist hired by the city to cover buildings with art.
Because graffiti art was essentially unknown in Albania, Dine began his career by roaming the streets of Tirana in the middle of the night and painting walls in shabby neighborhoods with images of the vulnerable children, orphans, disabled and other forgotten people he encountered on the street in the middle of the night.
Before he was officially recognized by the municipality of Tirana, Dine often braved angry building owners, members of the police force and packs of stray dogs who didn’t appreciate his new art form. Ironically, many of the vulnerable and poor street people he painted were the ones who first appreciated his work and tried to stop others from damaging the paintings.
“For me, it is important to paint something that is meaningful to the people who walk past it, said Dine. “There are only about five or six urban artists in Albania. And I try to tell people that being hired by a building owner to paint a wall doesn’t necessarily mean you are a successful artist. Painting should come from the heart.”
Dine is currently working on designs about the pandemic, domestic violence and problems that occur within the home.
Surprises in small places
In addition to the building murals, street art is popping up in Tirana in the most unexpected places – in the middle of busy crosswalks, walls between occupied buildings, utility boxes, and a multitude of the other locations. One of my favorite paintings in my neighborhood that always draws my attention no matter how many times I walk past is a multi-colored rendition of a lion roaring. I don’t know why, but that is what art is supposed to do. Elicit a reaction.
Some of the art scattered around Tirana is quirky, some thoughtful, some political, some cartoonish, some expressive of important social issues…in The Block one wall even has a scene from the famous communist-era Albanian movie Tomka Dhe Shokët e Tij (Tomka and Friends).
It’s just up to you to take notice and appreciate what others are trying to say.