Streets of Tbilisi: Market Hopping and Mural Hunting

After what amounted to four days in Tbilisi, there were a couple things I was sure of. I had taken more photos here than in the rest of the Caucasus combined, and this city is so freakin’ cool that I didn’t want to omit any photo. For any of you who have (or haven’t) read previous posts, I’ve generally kept the photo count low in favor of more high-quality photos. But now that I’ve broken down and started looking at the photos I chose not to post over the past year, I’m deciding to do away with that policy. Because I can’t for the life of me remember why I chose to leave out the photos that I did.

So buckle in, because here comes a lot of photos. A lot by my standards, anyway.


Tbilisi Street Level

There’s an aesthetic and a vibe to Tbilisi that’s palpable from the moment you set foot onto the street. For me, it was right when I stepped out of Rustaveli Station after arriving from Baku. The two cities are just a night train away, but they’re so wildly different.

If Baku is Starbucks — polished, palatable, slightly impersonal, yet engaging — then Tbilisi is my hometown favorite Kafe Kerouac — grungy, dark, not 100% put together, yet cozy and comforting. As I walked down Kostava Street in downtown Tbilisi, looking for the hostel where I was to meet my brother, that was the comparison that immediately jumped to my head. The building facades leaned at weird angles and the walls were covered with peeling, flaking flyers and posters. Street art decorated every alley. Rolling foothills of the Caucasus cast shadows and loomed behind the precariously-balanced skyline.

I could spend a long time trying to weave some description about Tbilisi that might marginally convey my meaning before sounding pretentious, but that’s not what these posts are gonna be about. I’ve got a lot of photos, so here we go: Narrow alleys, steep roads, and colorful buildings.

As we incrementally explored the city over the several days we had to work with, I was constantly looking down the narrow alleys that lead away from any given street. The planning style is kind of similar to Baku (and totally different from the US), where urban homes like the ones we were passing had tunnel-esque entrances to spaces hidden by the buildings themselves. On the street sides, extravagantly-decorated doorways led into the rickety buildings. All were reminders of Tbilisi’s better times before so much conflict, and of what Tbilisi will be again.

For me, though, they were all these beautiful windows. I love doorways. Coincidentally, doorways are one thing I totally omitted in my blog thus far, particularly in Turpan. Why didn’t I post the doorway photos I spent so long accumulating there? I don’t even know. So today, writing about how vibrant and lovely and interesting Tbilisi’s doors are, I’m correcting that error.


Dry Bridge Market

There’s one particular market that we were set on seeing in some capacity. We didn’t have a name for it or much information, but knew it was in a park near a bridge. Now that I’m researching later to write this, I know that it’s the Dry Bridge Market.

Dry Bridge Market began back in the perestroika days. Perestroika was a Soviet political movement in the 1980’s, commonly associated with sweeping economic reforms laid out by Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader at the time (though he was not the one who originally conceived of them). Initially, perestroika referred to increased automation and labor efficiency, but eventually came to mean increased awareness of economic markets and the end of central planning.

In theory, perestroika was meant to allow ministries to act more independently and to make a socialist system more efficient to better meet the needs of average Soviet citizens. In practice, perestroika did succeed in decentralizing production decisions, but didn’t offer any kind of alternative to the traditional supply-demand system that perestroika essentially got rid of.

Many argue that perestroika was one of the main catalysts for the rise of nationalist movements across the various Soviet republics (Georgia included), and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. Oops!

Now, back to Dry Bridge Market.

During the perestroika days and following days of independence, things were tough. Many Georgians already had limited means of income. When Gorbachev’s reforms came through and stuck local economies in a blender, a lot of people had to get hustling.

Thus, Dry Bridge Market was born.

In its early days, this was where people would come to sell their own possessions to make ends meet. They sold, and still sell, anything and everything. Nowadays, Dry Bridge is more commercialized and you’ll find touristy trinkets, but it’s still very much a window into the old days of Tbilisi. Some vendors have huge racks of paintings, some knitted goodies, but our favorites were the ones who make their cash peddling Soviet memorabilia.

Yep, war medals and passports. Like, actual passports. In Russian. I was low on cash and reluctant to buy much, but come on. This was the last former Soviet country I was going to be in. These markets are fixtures throughout the old USSR. In Tashkent, Uzbekistan, I passed through several street markets just like this one, lined with blankets covered in war medals, passports, and even gas masks. I had to get something weird. But what?

How about super old film cameras? Or maybe Georgian art? Nah, neither of those are weird and I’ve got limited backpack space (though I had to fight the temptation to buy an old film camera every time I saw them in Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and now here). Maybe Medieval-looking axes and knives? Yeah, me neither. The TSA would love that, though.

I eventually came to find an old banner. I don’t know what it says, but it’s got a big ol’ hammer and sickle on it. It took a bit of haggling as it cost more than I had money in my wallet (which wasn’t much), but I needed something weird to bring back. My brother bought an old passport, to be tossed in a drawer until someone finds it and says, “Hey, why do you have this?”

We were both tempted, though, to combine our cash and buy the biggest map I’ve ever actually held. A map older than independent Georgia!

I’m a sucker for maps, but had to turn this guy down.

Once we left and crossed the bridge for which the market got its name, we were promptly in another market. This one was a flower market, and I don’t have any name for it. But it was nice. And once again, when I went back to edit my photos, I realized I’m not nearly as sneaky as I think I am.


Bonus Section: Street Art

I mentioned that a lot of the available wall space in Tbilisi is covered in street art. Some of it is the sort of graffiti you can find anywhere, but some is much more than that. Beautiful murals are everywhere. I don’t have enough photos or information to warrant a dedicated street art post, but what I do have deserves a mention.


Gosha

One particular local artist Gosha is especially prolific, and many of her paintings are marked by her moniker Gosha Art, unfortunately written as “goshaart.” Gosha’s projects are everywhere in Tbilisi. Her style is pretty diverse, and she’s definitely one of Tbilisi’s premier street artists.


Gagosh

Gagosh is primarily a stencil artist, though he’s known to be constantly experimenting with different mediums away from his street art endeavors. He often creates social commentaries and protests in his work, covering issues such as unemployment, social stigmas, accessibility, and environmental health.


L. Japaridze

I’ve been unable to find any information about this artist beyond the name. I found their work featured on a Tbilisi street art Facebook page, so I at least know the name is correct, but I’ve got nothing other than that. If anyone reading this has any further info, definitely drop a comment, because I love their style.


Unknowns

The rest is just as interesting and vibrant as the city itself, no doubt a reflection of Tbilisi’s long and rich heritage of being one of the cultural capitals of the Caucasus. Though I don’t have names for the majority of what we saw, it’s all wonderful. Street art has been a favorite of mine since middle school days.

Up next, we’re taking a more aerial view of Tbilisi. Stay tuned!


Pick of the Day:

Here’s a special pick of the day in honor of getting into Tbilisi. Recepti (sometimes Retsepti) was one of the leading groups in Tbilisi’s underground punk rock scene in the 80’s and 90’s. Read up on the history of Tbilisi’s underground music scene here — I got lost in this for awhile.

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