Sgraffito is a mural-making technique in which two or more layers of colored plaster are applied to a wall and the surface coat, while still fresh, is scraped away to reveal the color of the coat below. This scraping is what gives the technique its name - the word comes from the Italian graffiare, which means “to scratch.” If the word’s plural form, sgraffiti, resembles the more familiar term graffiti, it’s no accident. The street art writing now done with spray paint descends from an ancient Roman technique of scraping words into walls.
Though sgraffito has a history that can be traced back to ancient civilizations, it was mostly forgotten until the middle of the 19th century, when the medium was revived in Germany. It became a common decorative element of Art Nouveau at the turn of the 20 century, perhaps most widely used in Barcelona, with designs tending toward the abstract or utilizing decorative motifs. The large, figurative sgraffito murals that were made in the Soviet Union emerged mostly in the post-war years, a period when the sgraffito became widely used throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Germany, Austria, Bulgaria and Poland were some of the centers of sgraffito production in the 20th century, and from there, the technique spread to far corners of the world in often unpredictable paths. German immigrants, for example, brought sgraffito to Israel, where it was used widely from 1950-1965, and it’s thought that an Israeli sgraffito master, Leon Kotler, taught the technique to Arte Ahora, an art collective from Corrientes, Argentina that would spread sgraffiti through the southern cone of South America starting in the late 80s.
In the Soviet Union, sgraffito became a common mode of monumental art starting in 1925, when it was introduced into the curriculum of the monumental art department at the Leningrad Higher Institute of Industrial Art. One of its most notable early Soviet practitioners was the artist Vladimir Favorskiy, who created several sgraffito works in the 1930s. It wasn’t until the death of Stalin in 1953, however, that the technique truly grained prominence, piggybacking on a boom in monumental art that accompanied the new modernist architecture of the age. The sgraffito technique also lent itself to the so-called “Severe Style” (surovy stil), a Soviet art trend that took off around the same time. Replacing the exuberance and naturalism of Stalin’s socialist realism, the Severe Style emphasized the struggle of laborers by using bolder lines to give figures a stylized stoicism. The formal limits of the sgraffito technique, which relies heavily on solid lines and the sharp contrast between solid colors, were harnessed by monumentalists to create a distinct new visual style.
Process and Materials
The process of making a sgraffito starts with preparing the wall. Soviet-style sgraffito would often utilize a lath, a mesh armature for supporting the plaster. This is known as a setka rabitsa (Rabitz lathing), after Carl Rabitz, the German inventor who invented the rabitzkonstruktion for reinforcing plaster. Traditional European sgraffito masters would forgo a lath, directly applying a base coat of plaster, known as rinzaffo in Italian.
Next, anywhere from two to six layers of colored plaster were applied, generally with the darker colors below and lighter colors above. Renaissance-style sgraffiti would traditionally only use two coats, a dark coat known as arriciato, made by adding black pigment to slaked lime and sand, and a lighter surface coat known as intonaco, made from pulverized travertine mixed with fine sand. In another traditional dichromatic technique from Chios, Greece, black volcanic sand provided the color of the dark undercoat while lime whitewash provided the surface coat.
Soviet-era “recipes” for sgraffito plaster called for hydraulic lime (1 part), with an additive of portland cement (0.1-0.15 part) in order to increase strength and water-resistance. Next, an aggregate such as quartz sand or crushed marble (3 parts) was added as filler, ensuring that the size of the grains was no larger than 1mm in order to maintain the fine consistency of the plaster necessary for sgraffito. Last came the pigments (0.1-0.5 parts) that give each layer its contrasting color. Common mineral pigments included mumiya (mummy brown) for red, tsemyanka (brick dust) for pink, okhra (ochre) for yellow and umbra (umber) for brown. Color palettes for sgraffito compositions often tended toward earth tones of deep red, orange, yellow, and brown, because these mineral pigments react best with the alkaline lime mortar.
After the lime putty was prepared in a wooden box, basin or bucket, it was gathered with a scoop (kovsh) onto a plastering tool called a hawk (sokol), a square sheet of aluminum with a wooden handle underneath. From here, the artist applied the plaster to the wall with a trowel (masterok), smoothing it out with a tool called a float (terka). The base coat, around 8mm thick, would be allowed to dry, and then the surface coats, no more than 5mm thick, would be added on top. Surface coats wouldn’t necessarily need to be applied over the whole wall, but could instead be selectively applied to the areas called for by the design. Because the surface coats of plaster set after five or six hours, a large wall mural generally couldn’t be managed in one day, but would be gradually assembled out of daily allotments, generally from 1 to 3 square meters a day.
For the design, an initial sketch (eskiz) would be prepared on drawing paper for approval, and then drawn at a 1:1 scale on thick paper for what muralists called a cartoon (karton). Colors would be painted in or marked in the appropriate areas, and this would be used to order the appropriate pigments and calculate the necessary quantities. Next, the design would be moved onto tracing paper (kal’ka) to make a kind of stencil that muralists call a sinopia. From the sinopia, the design can be transferred to the wall in two ways. In one method, the artist uses pins to make incisions through the sinopia, leaving a constellation of pricks in the plaster. In another method, known to art nouveau muralists as “pouncing” (priporokh), pricks are made only to the sinopia itself, and then a dark pigment such as charcoal powder is dusted over the tracing paper to leave an outline in the plaster beneath. Soviet-era practitioners would do this by wrapping a piece of chalk or leftover pigment in folds of gauze, which they would then lightly tap on the stencil.
In the final stage, artists use a variety of carving scalpels to scrape away the appropriate areas of plaster to reveal the colors underneath. Initial line incisions could be made with a scalpel or penknife, and then larger areas could be scraped with a special tool called a skoblilka, made from steel wire or even umbrella tines. Artists would generally work in the warmer months of spring or summer, not just for their own personal comfort but also so that the fresh plaster wouldn’t solidify in colder temperatures. To make incisions easier, Soviet artists would eventually learn to make their designs more angular, using zig zags and straight lines so that they could use larger tools and work faster. Technical limitations in composition, pigmentation and installation are part of what give Almaty sgraffiti their unique style.
Sgraffiti in Almaty
In Almaty today, we know of sixteen surviving sgraffiti, with four other sgraffiti documented but destroyed. There are dozens more in other parts of Kazakhstan. A pioneer of sgraffito in Kazakhstan was Yevgeniy Sidorkin, an artist better known for his graphic art and book illustrations. Because he worked mostly in pencil and etching, Sidorkin’s monochromatic style transferred well to the simple medium of sgraffito. His earliest sgraffito (and perhaps the first ever in Kazakhstan) was made in 1961 on the side of the Microdistrict #2 Trade and Social Center. It has survived to the modern day, though it appears that at some point the original pigmented plaster was painted over. A few years later, in 1965, Sidorkin would complete two more large sgraffito projects, one a diptych on the Palace of Sport, the other a large composition in the lobby of the Tselinniy Cinema. Both would be seemingly destroyed in the early 2000s during building renovations, replaced with poor reproductions.
Besides the reproduction at the Tselinniy cinema, no major sgraffito murals have been produced in Kazakhstan since at least the late 1980s. The collapse of the Soviet economy devastated the monumental art system, which relied on state commissions, and the Oner Art Combine that produced many of Kazakhstan’s sgraffiti was closed down. Many of Kazakhstan’s great sgraffito artists, like Yevgeniy Sidorkin, passed away. Others, like the prolific Aleksandr Simakov, moved out of the country, as did most of the ispolnitely, the multigenerational artist families like the Vagazovs and the Kochs that helped install the sgraffiti. Kazakh sgraffito, it seemed, was dead.
In a remarkable turn of events, the original Sidorkin sgraffito at the Tselinniy Cinema was discovered to be intact when workers removed drywall panels during a 2018 renovation to reveal the sgraffito hidden underneath. The discovery was a major story in the Kazakhstani press, and even made it as far as The Guardian in the UK. An exhibition at the new Tselinniy Cultural Arts Center later that year highlighted the historical importance of the sgraffito and of the combined heritage of Soviet modernist architecture and monumental art. Interest in street art in general has greatly increased in the last several years as well, with the successful Mural Fest installing large murals on blank walls around Almaty, and it seems that now the conditions may be in place for a sgraffito revival.
If you like Monumental Almaty, check out our other project, Walking Almaty.