Bishkek’s jungle is a human ecosystem that’s sprouted through cracks in Soviet pavement, creating a beautiful chaos out of order. And like any good jungle, this one’s teeming with wildlife — swans, peacocks, dolphins and giraffes dotting gardens and parks. OK, so there aren’t real animals lurking around every street corner — these are street art sculptures, a movement that crisscrosses the city.
Take a safari through the residential streets and you’ll see dozens and dozens of sculptures made out of old tires, cut into animal shapes and painted with cheeky grins — anything from ladybugs made of single tires to a 4-foot cartoon figure made of an entire stack.
Some of the cyber-punky neighborhoods of Bishkek look like something between an auto junkyard and a scene out of Wall-E.
It’s some sort of grassroots movement that everybody partakes in but nobody really knows its origins or inspiration. Nevertheless, it’s verifiably “a thing in our city,” one old woman tells us as she sits on a bench outside her apartment block in Microdistrict 7, a few meters away from a string of tires-turned-swans-turned-flower pots.
Why tires? The city is overrun with them. Kyrgyzstan has long been a through route for road cargo, often heading from China toward the rest of Central Asia. With its mountainous terrain, virtually no freight gets carried by rail through the country, leading to a whole lot of road freight — about 30 million tons of it a year, 60 percent of which makes its way through the capital city or the surrounding region, according to official statistics. As a result, some of the cyber-punky neighborhoods of Bishkek look like something between an auto junkyard and a scene out of Wall-E.
Make no mistake: The tire art movement explosion is no expression of environmental sustainability — more just a way of using anything that’s lying around to beautify and personalize residential space that was once communally owned and uniform. At the fall of the Soviet Union, Bishkek was a medium-size Soviet city of about 700,000 people — wide streets, imposing public squares, grand fountains, ordered apartment blocks. In the years since the centrally planned economy disintegrated, the city has increased in size by almost half (or likely more, owing to unregistered settlements) while its infrastructure has barely changed.
Some of the of upcycling approach goes beyond art: Need a roadblock? Fill an old tire with stones. Need a fence? Use an old broken window grate. These neighborhoods don’t need a progressive social movement to embody zero-waste living.
It’s all down to the body known as the TCJ (ТСЖ) — a residential community led by a “domcom” who manages the communal space of an apartment block. These organizations “control and improve” life in the blocks, says Margarita Lazutkina from the Tian Shan Policy Center at the American University of Central Asia — that includes everything from installing benches to fixing lights to investing in tire sculptures.
The woman in Microdistrict 7 tells us that her TCJ bought the swans in front of her block online for about 300 som (about $4.50) — just search for “make garden look better,” she says. Meanwhile, a couple of blocks away, a 60-something-year-old man with an unbuttoned shirt and cigarette tells us how he made his swan with his bare hands by checking out the others on his street and copying the technique, as his wife looks down proudly from an upstairs window.
He’s no Banksy, but if you’re not at least a little impressed, try taking a used tire and turning it into a swan. I dare you.
Christopher Schwartz and Meerim Schwartz assisted with this reporting.
Explore the world
This year, OZY is going Around the World, bringing you untold stories from every single country on the map, one day at a time, to introduce you to new people, new trends and new places.