Most people have never seen the face of the man known as Russia’s Banksy. When pictured in the news, Timofey Radya always has a mask pulled across his face or a helmet pulled down, leaving only his eyes visible. I try to pick him out of the crowd on the street as I wait to meet him in Moscow. A sinewy man comes up to me and smiles. He looks like a climber — in army boots, black and white, with a waist bag — a city roamer dressed as though he’s ready to climb onto the roof at any moment. We enter a cafe in the centre of town, with Moscow the city that’s the stage for Tima’s latest project. “I never announce what I’m up to. But one thing I can say is that there’s not a street leading to the Kremlin that I don’t know,” he says, a playful glint in his otherwise serious grey gaze.
“For me, street art has always been a form of counter culture and it has absolutely nothing to do with what has been happening here in Moscow lately. Moscow is cursed. It is smashed by the pyramid of power,” he says, a reference to Russian author Vladimir Sorokin (Tima studied philosophy in his native city, Yekaterinburg), adding bitterly: “The wheels of money and power are those that destroy the city.” All art has a trigger, and for Tima the latest trigger is Victory Day. “They press it all the time. Of course, it’s easy. And this is how you make any crap look important,” he adds with regret, ordering a double espresso. “Sometimes you see bright walls. They are awkward and edgy,” Tima comments on the Moscow advertising murals commissioned by the local Department of Culture. “But there is something funny about it. Patriotic grafitti is really bad and we should be thankful for it. Because otherwise we would all be in trouble now.” Sharp but emotional about the city, Tima admits that he still loves Moscow. “This city is pure chemistry. One day its essence is like a healing spring, the next it’s sheer poison.”
“Russia is the best place to do street art. Whatever you want you can do here and it will flourish. It’s a magic feeling, being between a rock and a hard place. More tension means more inspiration”
Having worked in New York, Norway and France, Tima is nonetheless strongly connected to the country. He was born in Yekaterinburg, a city in the Urals which is the heartland of Russian heavy industry and the capital of underground heavy rock music — something Tima admits to being a fan of, even thinking of setting up his own band. Breezy tunes from Sade to Sting are playing louder and louder on the local radio while Tima’s cultural references switch from Russian philosophers to modern underground rock icons. He becomes emotional commenting on the upcoming presidential elections in Russia — “It’s a cheap circus. I voted last time but I won’t do it now” — and then takes a pause and offers an observation from one of his underground music friends: “They say it’s crap here, you should leave. They say it’s bad in Minsk, you should leave. It’s bad in Ukraine and the States. So where the fuck would you go then? Escape is just an illusion. I don’t live in the world of illusions. Russia is the best place to do street art. Whatever you want you can do here and it will flourish. It’s a magic feeling, being between a rock and a hard place. More tension means more inspiration. It helps me.”
Some of Tima’s works respond to major political events in the country, such as Stability, mocking the results of the 2012 elections and The Game, a bitter reflection on the Olympics in Sochi. “I like how the two words “political” and “poetical” sound so similar and yet mean such different things,” he tells me. Tima, however, doesn’t consider himself a political artist. “To fight power you have to be power hungry and I am not,” he explains. “I’ve been thinking lately that the state of pure freedom is one with no slaves rather than one without rulers. That’s why I want to do something that’s neither political nor poetical, something ephemeral but clear.” Although keeping his future plans a secret, he cannot hide a сheeky smile. “It’s gonna be whole new level of audacity!”
His image is of a reserved, undercover person, hiding from public attention. Most of the day he spends at home, writing. Then he heads to the studio where he works until late night with his friends. This public escape is not an attempt at alienation, though, but part of his desire to go deeper into questions of the communal and the personal, the permanent and the temporary, which have been at the heart of Tima’s street art for the last seven years. “My world is the city. I love cities, I love streets. I want to be part of it but at the same time I try to stay away from my work. When we are setting up the installation I feel that I own it. But when it’s finished it’s no longer mine, it’s ours. It doesn’t belong to me anymore.”
“Talk little but say much,” he laughs. One of Tima’s first projects was Above All, a series of one-word graffiti that appeared on the sloped roofs in Yekaterinburg in October 2012. “Words are above all. A separate word possesses some kind of a very specific feature — it stands between quiet and sound, between silence and conversation. You can say a lot with only one word.” His later works feature whole sentences — sometimes even in the form of letters to the President or people of Russia and Ukraine — but short, unconditional phrases still remain his signature style, as proved in his recent work Brighter than Us.
Tima’s first work, Front Pages, was a reflection on Yury Gagarin’s flight into space. 56 years after that event, he is himself trying to create space for art in the open. “It is a perfect place to me. Temporary and eternal, personal and common: it is all there. The universe is our home! It is not Russia, not Moscow.” These are the big dreams of a ship sailing close to the wind.