No. 6: “The Sofia Dream Tree” (2019)

“The Sofia Dream Tree” is the sixth installation of “Project: 100 Dream Trees”, and located in Sofia, Bulgaria.

This mural was created during my participation at World of Co Artist Residency over the month of July 2019.

Project: 100 Dream Trees No. 6: “The Sofia Dream Tree” (2019)
Acrylic on wall, 6 x 2 m

Find it here: ul. “Tsar Simeon” 60, 1202 Sofia Center, Sofia 

This is a residential building situated in what used to be the Jewish neighborhood of Sofia.

Welcome to Sofia, Bulgaria!

Sofia is the capital and largest city of Bulgaria, and this region has been inhabited by people since at least 7,000 BC.

Bulgaria has been through many conquests and rulers, notably the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, which has shaped the architecture and the character of Sofia over the centuries. During World War II, Bulgaria was one of the Nazi allies, which resulted in Sofia getting bombarded by the UK and US Air Forces. After the war, it was seized by the Soviet Army. And in spite of the country’s rich, layered and interesting history, Bulgaria remains the only European country that has never changed its name.

I first set foot in Sofia on 1 July 2019, hopping off a 14-hour overnight bus ride from Budapest, and it was as if I had entered a completely different world. The vibe of Sofia felt completely different from Budapest, Paris, Barcelona, and other European cities I had visited before. The buildings and infrastructure seemed to belong to an earlier time, and things seemed more run down, laid back, messy, with graffiti sprawled on walls everywhere.

Somehow I just fell in love with this city from Day One.

How This Dream Tree Came About

During my first week as an artist-in-residence at World of Co, Lidiya, one of the coordinators, arranged a meeting for me and Martina Stefanova, founder of local arts initiative KvARTal.

We met at the edge of what used to be the Jewish neighborhood of Sofia, which is where KvARTal is based.

A little history about the old Jewish neighborhood

A few days before, I had attended the Free Sofia Tour, and learnt that during WWII, Hitler’s army wanted to march through Bulgaria as part of their route to conquer more of Europe. Bulgarian ruler Tsar Boris III was presented with two options – join the Axis Powers and let the army pass peacefully within three days, or resist and fight them for five days. Boris wanted to protect his people, so he opted for Bulgaria to become a Nazi ally.

At the time there were 50,000 Jews living in Sofia, and not long after the alliance, Hitler demanded that Boris send them to the concentration camps. Thus Boris devised a plan to intentionally keep the Jews busy, saying he needed them to work and rebuild Sofia (which was getting bombed by the UK and US Air Forces), and after they had finished their jobs, Hilter was free to have them.

Boris kept delaying their transfer as long as he could, and thanks to other interventions as well, all 50,000 Jews were protected from the concentration camps.

Shortly after WWII ended, Israel opened its doors to welcome all Jews home, and 80% of the Jews in Sofia left. Thus this neighborhood where they once lived became largely abandoned in a very short time. Property prices for this area fell dramatically, and over the years artist moved into these buildings, and set up their studios, galleries, and other art spaces.

The birth of KvARTal

About four years ago, Martina and her co-founders set up KvARTal, an initiative to connect all the arts spaces in this area, and to transform this neighborhood into Sofia’s art hub.

One of KvARTal’s projects is to bring art to the streets of this neighborhood, and through collaborations with local and international artists, murals started popping up over the last couple of years. This is a famous one by local artist Nasimo, titled “The Hug”:

The Hug mural by local street artist Nasimo

Wall-hunt

On the day I met Martina, we went wandering the streets searching for suitable and possible wall options for The Sofia Dream Tree.

She also told me she already had a wall that was pretty much confirmed, just a block from The Hug. Two years ago another artist was supposed to paint it, but he fell sick at the time and the project fell through.

As you can see, this wall is covered with graffiti, like pretty much all other walls in this neighborhood and around Sofia. Martina shared that as long as there’s a blank space on any wall, it would always get tagged – but if a mural were installed, the vandals almost always leave it alone. 

Happy coincidences

From Martina’s experience, it takes too much time to get permission from a building owner to paint their wall, and here was one that was just waiting for an artist to claim it. 

Two years ago, Martina had already gotten permission from the owner, Jordan Atanassov of Sofia Startup, and all the residents of the building, because another artist was supposed to paint it. And now here I was, looking for a wall to paint.

And when I met Jordan for the first time and showed him photos of the earlier Dream Tree murals, he smiled and said, “I love penguins.”

The first day I started painting, I visited Jordan’s apartment and saw penguin figurines, toys, household items all around the place. There was also a tote bag with penguins hanging behind the front door. Very clearly, Jordan and his girlfriend Shveta are HUGE penguin fans. It almost seemed as if this wall was somehow meant for The Sofia Dream Tree all this time…

A purple start

Jordan also shared that he’s gotten this wall repainted four times, and each time graffiti appears a few days after. So he was very happy to finally have a mural, and paid for the purple paint which gave this facade a fresh start.

I was worried that I’d return the next day and see graffiti tags on my lovely purple wall, but thankfully the vandals had left it alone.

And after another eight days, The Sofia Dream Tree was complete!

The Sofia Dream Tree: A Closer Look

My collaborators

To commemorate the origins of this mural, I’ve painted a platform of artists to represent KvARTal (with Penguin Nasimo painting his mural The Hug), and Penguin Jordan on his laptop with a bottle of vodka (he works from home as a programmer).

Multi-religious Sofia

With Bulgaria’s rich and diverse history, multiple religious buildings coexist in Sofia.

Within a radius of 300 meters in the city center, you’ll find buildings belonging to four religions: Eastern Orthodox, Islam, Judaism, and Roman Catholic.

Three of these are represented by some of the important historical landmarks that I’ve painted in The Sofia Dream Tree.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

This Eastern Orthodox cathedral is perhaps the most prominent landmark associated with Sofia. To me, it’s the equivalent of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and Hagia Sofia Museum in Istanbul. This very large, intricately designed church stands alone in the middle of a square, and many visitors stream in and out of its doors in the day time.

This was one of the most difficult landmarks I’ve ever painted, and it took me two hours to capture it on the wall:

Slightly below the Cathedral on the left, I’ve painted another religious landmark, which also took me around two hours to complete.

Sofia Synagogue

This impressive building was officially opened in 1909, and is the largest synagogue in Southeastern Europe. It can accommodate 1,300 worshippers, but due to the immigration of Jews to Israel and the secularity of the local Jewish population, the services here are normally attended by only 50-60 worshippers.

Photo Credit: Plamen Agov • studiolemontree.com, CC BY-SA 3.0

Banya Bashi Mosque

The Banya Bashi Mosque is currently the only functioning mosque in Sofia. It was completed in 1566 during the Ottoman Rule of Bulgaria that lasted nearly five centuries, and its most outstanding feature is that it was built over natural thermal spas.

Thus the mosque’s name is derived from the phrase “banya bashi”, which means “many baths”.

Photo Credit: Free Sofia Tour

Saint Sofia Church

Here’s the second oldest church in Sofia, dating to the 4th century. The city was named after this church In the 14th century.

Photo Credit: Klearchos Kapoutsis

This building was erected on the site of several earlier churches and places of worship dating back to the days when it was the necropolis of the Roman town of Serdica. You can pay a small fee to visit the museum under the church where many of these tombs and parts of the earlier churches have been preserved.

This was a fun opportunity to include some ghostly penguins into the mural.

Saint George Rotunda

The Church of Saint George is an early Christian red brick rotunda that is considered the oldest preserved building in Sofia, built by the Romans in the 4th century. It is located in the courtyard between a hotel and the Presidency, at a few meters below the modern streets, and amid remains of the ancient town of Serdica.

This landmark is famous for the frescoes inside the central dome, painted during the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries. You can see three layers of frescoes on the walls today, the earliest dating back to the 10th century. These frescoes were only uncovered and restored in the 20th century.

The Ruins of Serdika

One thing I love about Sofia are the ruins you can visit for free!

These are mainly found in the city center, which was constructed over what used to be the ancient Roman town of Serdica. Thus at the metro station Serdika, you can wander through large sections of ruins that are below the modern street level.

These ones that are outside and behind the Banya Bashi Mosque have mostly been reconstructed, but the base of the walls are original:

Buildings have different functions over time

During Ottoman Bulgaria, which lasted 500 years, some churches were converted into mosques, including the Saint Sofia Church, and the Saint George Rotunda.

These are just a small example of how the old buildings in this city have had changing functions over the course of history.

One other such building is the Sofia History Museum, which is located in what used to be the public bathhouse.

Photo Credit: Rossi Writes

Before residential buildings were fitted with baths, people would visit public bathhouses once a week to wash themselves. Bathhouses served not only as a place to take care of personal hygiene, but they were also the hubs where people gathered to exchange the latest gossip and news in town.

Today the Sofia History Museum occupies half this building, while the other half remains unused. In recent years, locals have petitioned for a spa to take over this other half, because underneath this area are natural mineral springs that produce water at a constant temperature of 37 degrees Celsius.

At the bottom left of my painting above, you’ll see a red-and-yellow wall with three flowing taps of water. These represent an area of taps that channel water from the mineral springs, located just across the road from the Sofia History Museum. The water, which constantly flows through at 37 degrees, is said to be good for your health if you drink it or wash with it.

Photo Credit: Free Sofia Tour

Thus there are always locals here with large bottles collecting the water, or washing their hair, hands and faces, brushing their teeth. I’ve also seen people drinking the water, and I’ve tried it myself, but it has a sulfuric taste so it’s not really to everyone’s liking.

Fun fact: When I painted this wall, I collected water from here in a large bottle and used that for painting.

Vitosha Mountain

And speaking of natural occurrences in Sofia, the city itself is located at the base of Vitosha Mountain.

Here’s a good view of Vitosha from the rooftop of Swimming Pool, a contemporary art gallery that used to be a residential loft with a small rooftop pool.

On weekends, many locals make a day trip to Vitosha Mountain for hiking and picnics, to leave the city behind and spend some time in nature. There are also public buses that run regularly to Vitosha, so it’s quite accessible even if you don’t have a car.

City Parks

And speaking of spending time in nature, locals don’t even have to go too far from home. Sofia has so many parks and green spaces, big and small, and these play a big part in the daily life here.

During my month in Sofia I visited only four parks in the city, mostly the ones close to the residency apartment. And they are always filled with people – children on the playgrounds, adults and teens on benches chit-chatting, people-watching, reading, studying, eating, drinking…

One Tuesday night, I stayed out late with some local artists after an exhibition opening. We went to the City Garden in the city center at 11pm, and I was surprised to see the park still bustling with (mostly) groups of older teens and young adults.

And of course, as you see above from the Dreamer Penguins on benches holding beers, Bulgarians love to drink in the park, and they can do it all the time because it’s legal to drink in the open, and even to walk around with an alcoholic beverage in your hand.

(The cute lion represents the national animal of Bulgaria, and the local currency leva means “lion” in the Bulgarian language.)

The parks I visited even have sculptures in them, like this one near my month-long home in the neighborhood Oborishte:

One evening, while exploring the city with my boyfriend Ranajay, we wandered into a Billa supermarket to get ice-cream, and chanced upon a busy section where people were ordering cooked food and salads to go. So we bought some salad, rice, and kebab sausages, and parked ourselves in the nearby park for an impromptu picnic dinner.

This was probably one of the most local experiences one could have in Sofia – eating your dinner on a park bench amid other locals. With beer, of course, if you drink.

Super Assistant Ranajay

Yup, the boyfriend was there with me for the entire month. At this time he has been traveling around for six months, having quit his job at the end of 2018.

The most difficult Dream Tree mural so far

This was my most challenging mural to date, because it was the largest I’ve painted on my own (6m long and 2m high), and it had the most textured surface I’d ever encountered in all my mural painting experience (5 Dream Tree murals and 7 other projects since 2014, which is not very extensive lol).

From the first day when I covered the graffiti with purple paint, I noticed that many “holes” were left behind where the previous wall color showed through, and going over each one of them to cover them up was a long tedious process that I wasn’t sure I’d have time for.

Plus I also needed to paint the walls in the doorway because the previous wall color stood out too much against the purple.

So my super assistant came by over two evenings to take care of these!

He was also there at the beginning when I sketched the mural design on the wall in white paint. He took on the role of the “reference sketch holder”, and when it got dark he was the “mobile phone light holder” too lol.

Here’s a sped up video of us working together:

Having him around not only saved me some time and energy, but also made the process way more fun and enjoyable.

And on the last day of painting, just moments before I declared this mural complete, I included a penguin and a whale together above the doorway he had painted, to represent our time in Sofia together, and to acknowledge his super assistance for this wall:

And of course, a photo to commemorate our collaboration:

Challenges

Like all the other Dream Tree murals before, “The Sofia Dream Tree” came with its challenges. As mentioned above, it’s the largest surface area I’ve painted, and the most textured facade I’ve painted on.

But when I started work, I quickly discovered that these were the least of my concerns, and there were more pressing matters to deal with.

1) Limited painting hours

The first day I decided to start on the wall, I arrived at 9am only to discover that the intense summer sun was shining directly on it.

Jordan told me that the wall would only be in the shadow from around 4 or 5 pm.

Crap… that meant I can only paint from 4.30pm to sunset at 9pm, and as it was already my third weekend in Sofia, it also meant that I had to be there every single day during those hours in order to finish this mural by the end of the month.

2) No place for storing my materials

In all my previous mural painting experiences, there was always a place to store painting materials while the mural was underway. Either the residency home or studio was close to the mural location, or the owner of the wall would allow me access to their building where I can temporarily stow my work items.

At first Martina told me I could leave my things at a nearby gallery where her newly opened exhibition was ongoing. She said she would be there every single day from 8am to 7pm, and if not she was probably at her apartment which was just around the corner.

Jordan also said that I could leave my things in his apartment because he worked from home and was around most of the time.

I thought, this is great, I have two options for storing my stuff – first choice, Jordan’s; second choice, Martina’s exhibition space.

And the first day was filled with drama lol

The first day I wanted to start painting at 9am and discovered the wall was in the sun, I also had another setback: the paint shop didn’t open until 12 noon.

Jordan had an 11am meeting, and said he will meet me at 1pm to buy the wall paint together, so I left my things at his place, and wandered to the gallery to see if Martina was around.

It was almost 10am, the gallery was closed, and nobody was in there. I soon realized my second choice was no longer viable because I knew Martina was very busy as artist, curator, running KvARTal’s projects… and with my very limited window for painting the wall, I couldn’t risk wasting time waiting for her to let me have access to my stuff.

Then at 1pm, Jordan wasn’t back from his meeting, and no word from him either. I remembered the Sofia Free Tour guide mentioning that Bulgarians are known for being late.

I waited an hour before he showed, then it was another hour to wait for the paint to be ready, and finally at 4.30pm I could start painting over the graffiti.

An alternative plan

That evening, as I washed the paint roller and tray in Jordan’s bathroom, I thought over this long first day’s events, and wondered if it was a wise decision to leave my work items at Jordan’s after all. Somehow I just had this nagging feeling that I couldn’t trust he would always be available at the times I needed to work.

With the purple background already painted and touching up the “holes” could be done later (plus I didn’t need a ladder for 90% of the mural), I realized I was able to carry in one large tote bag my tubes of acrylic paint, paper plate palettes, paintbrushes, water container, camera tripod, and ground sheet to and from the wall each day.

All I needed was a nearby place to get water for washing my brushes, and a toilet for the times Jordan wouldn’t be home. Then I discovered the mineral springs was just three blocks away, and on another street two blocks away there was a cafe with a toilet that was open till 9pm.

And over the next week of painting The Sofia Dream Tree, I saw I had made the best decision to carry my work items with me, and avoid dealing with others’ unpredictable schedules and wasting my precious working time.

3) Concurrently preparing works for the residency group exhibition

I was hard-pressed for time also because I was producing illustrations for the residency group exhibition. Every month at World of Co Residency, the organizers put on an exhibition to showcase what the artists have worked on during this time.

I decided to exhibit illustrations inspired by my travels for the past three months in Latvia, Lithuania and Bulgaria.

Completing 11 illustrations for the exhibition on 29 July while also painting a 12-square-meter mural was a crazy feat, because at the start of July I had only completed one illustration, and was halfway through four others. Which meant I had started six from scratch during my time in Sofia.

Thus for seven days, I created a schedule based on my hours at the wall, and somehow stuck to it. For one week, each day looked something like this: Wake up around 8am, illustrate for 4 hours, handle other administrative things, lunch at 2.30pm, ride the tram to the wall, paint mural from 4.30pm, dinner at 9.30pm, then ride the tram back home.

It was a long busy week, but with such a schedule I still managed to get six hours of sleep each night.

The Sofia Dream Tree on Bulgarian National TV

A few hours after leaving Sofia on 31 July, I received a message from a Bulgarian national TV news reporter who wanted to do an interview about “The Sofia Dream Tree”. We arranged for a Skype session the next day, and on 4 Aug, the story was aired (click on the image below to watch the video on btv’s website):

It’s in Bulgarian without English subtitles. Basically the reporter interviewed me, two organizers of World of Co Residency (Stella and Daniel), and Martina from KvARTal.

Challenges Bring New Possibilities

At this point in time, the Sofia Dream Tree was the largest wall I’ve painted, with a surface area of 12 square meters.

(The wall for No. 4: “The Kintai Dream Tree” was almost 10m long and around 2.5m high, but most of it was painted by the local art school kids, so it didn’t count as the largest mural I’ve painted by myself).

Before this, I had planned for my Dream Tree murals to be at the most 2m high and 3m wide, which I envisioned as the ideal size because I normally don’t make large works of art. At the same time, I was pretty insistent that I wanted walls which were relatively smooth, because it was easier to paint on them.

After tackling this wall, I realize that the size wasn’t really such a big issue after all. And the moment I figured out a systematic approach to painting such a textured surface, it really wasn’t as difficult as I had thought at the beginning. 

It’s funny how daunting challenges seem to be when we first encounter them, but the moment we decide to deal with them head on, we somehow find a way to manage and overcome it, and on hindsight the mountain doesn’t seem as high as we originally believed.

Six months before this in January 2019, I had only one Dream Tree in Spain that I painted in June 2018, and “Project: 100 Dream Trees” was just a mere idea in my head. A year before that, I had no clue how to live my dream of traveling the world as a traditional media artist, or that I would ever be a street artist.

How do I even get walls to paint on? How am I going to get the money to pay for such projects? Will people even be interested in my idea?

Somehow through saying yes to each challenge as it comes along, what started as a last-minute proposal for a residency in Spain 18 months ago has somehow turned into my largest body of work that will probably take another ten or so years to complete.

And there are now six Dream Tree murals in five countries.

6 Dream Trees up, 94 more to go!

Work-in-Progress Video:

Check out the time-lapse making of “The Sofia Dream Tree” on YouTube here:

 Special Thanks:

  • Ranajay Das <3
  • KvARTal
  • World of Co Artist Residency
  • Jordan Atanassov

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