MOSCOW - We meet P183 in Winzavod, an old winery in the heart of Moscow, converted into a maze of galleries and designer boutiques. We follow his light but quick footsteps into a studio, far from the bustle of the city's trendy cafes. Visitors are asked to remove their shoes before entering the small room where chairs hang from the ceiling.
He introduces himself as Pavel, his real first name. Thats about as much as well learn, together with the fact that he is a descendant of the famous Russian poet Sergei Yesenin. When a photographer points his camera at him, he puts on his black balaclava and starts serving tea. P183 wants to remain as anonymous as possible so that he can continue his flirtations with illegality. At night he walks along the streets of Moscow armed with cans of spray paint, covering the citys walls with huge political and poetic frescoes.
He also produces guerilla art installations, which are the talk of the town: a girl hangs Christmas ornements on barbed wire, big black eyes scan passersby from behind a wall, surveillance cameras are adorned with machine guns.
In a graffiti inspired by a Soviet-era poster, a bomber hovers over a grandmother and a child holed up in a shelter. In the distance, the black buildings of the city look like thorns. Thats P183s take on the March 4 presidential election that is sending Vladimir Putin back to the Kremlin for another term.
"Russia is in a permanent state of war between different factions trying to seize power," he says. "Theres nothing ordinary people can do. Grandmothers, children, workers They have no choice. "
Pavel began drawing when he was 11, using pieces of charcoal to scribble poems on the walls of his neighborhood on the eastern outskirts of Moscow. Hes 28 today, his work has been published in Russian underground magazines born from the counterculture, and foreign media like to call him "the Russian Banksy" a reference to the anonymous rebel British street artist and activist.
"I respect Banksys work, but I dont draw inspiration from it," P183 says, distanciating himself from the now rich and famous artist.
P183 studied design at university but was left with the bitter feeling of having only learned how to turn art into something commercial. "I grew up at the crossroads between two eras, but I feel closer to my Soviet past. Today, money means everything. Good ideas are turned into financially profitable ventures. "
He chooses to exhibit his work on Moscows walls, because they are "the best place to reach people directly and create personal atmospheres." Not to mention being chase through the streets by local authorities P183s nights often end in the police station.
The police in his neighborhood know him now, and they even let him paint. But his political frescoes are quickly painted over. His installations tend to have a lifespan of several months, sometimes years. "Things get more dangerous when I get closer to the city center," he says.
He only went to jail once, when he spray-painted a colorful rainbow on a passing subway train. His romantic gesture earned him a brutal arrest.
He was thrown into a cell where he spent two days without eating, before being transferred to a mental institution. After two more days without food or water, utterly exhausted, he tried to escape through a window, clinging to the branches of a nearby tree, falling in the snow four floors below. With a broken pelvis, he couldnt move anymore. "I spent two hours on the ground, swallowing snow, before a guard found me," he recalls.
His last coup dates to before the presidential election. Moscow was seething with anger after an unprecedented wave of protests against Putin. Police patrols were everywhere. On the doors of the capitals subway, P183 glued images of riot officers armed with helmets and shields, forcing commuters to symbolically push the policemen.
"Anti-Putin protests are the best thing that has happened to Russia in recent years," Pavel says. "Those who take to the streets are not afraid of anything. Its the birth of a civil society in Russia. "
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Photo P183/Rex Features