Rapper Vladimir 518 on graffiti, architecture and hip hop

Vladimir 518

The music of Vladimir 518 has been a staple of the Czech hip hop scene since it started in the 1990s. Now he has taken his music to a unique performance called Spam that uses cutting-edge video arts to honour architect Karel Prager. Prager was the mind behind some of the most marvelled at and most despised structures in Prague, including the National Theatre’s New Scene building, where the show was held. At the beginning of a wide-ranging interview I asked him why he had chosen the controversial designer as the theme for this latest production.

“Because I have a different opinion, I like these buildings. I also used to really hate this kind of architecture from the 60s, 70s, 80s, but slowly I realised that it’s different, that the movement all around the world was like this. It was an expressive method of architecture of the time, like Archigram in London and the Metabolists in Japan. So these kinds of buildings in the Czech Republic are just a reaction to these movements in the world. So I think Karel Prager is not a communist architect like people think. He was different.”

The National Theatre’s New Scene building
But you’re primarily a hip hop artist, and you’re involved in other kinds of artistic endeavours. Are you also a fan or architecture?

“Yeah of course. Because when I was 15 or 16 I started doing graffiti. And you walk the streets and look at the graffiti of the other writers, so I started looking at the architecture at that time. Because it’s similar somehow. So at that time I really hated all these kinds of buildings from the 60s and 70s, but slowly I realised I liked them.”

Is that one of the reasons why a graffiti artist gets in to graffiti, as a kind of protest against architecture, at least in the case of the Czech Republic?

“Yeah, it’s possible, but it’s not the main thing. We started just shortly after the revolution, and the city was absolutely grey, you know, just full of dust, no colours. So the graffiti looked like something from Mars.”

So when I first came to Prague in the late 90s and the city was covered in graffiti, you were one of the ones making it that way?

“Yeah, I was the king of those days. But I quit, because it’s too hard to do it.”

What is the philosophy behind putting graffiti all over Prague, other than bringing a bit of colour?

Vladimir 518
“Communication. The most important thing in graffiti is communication with the other writers. And developing the styles of the letters, that’s the best, I love it.”

Is the graffiti community in Prague big?

“Yeah, it’s quite big. Because we felt the strong influence of Berlin, and the Berlin graffiti scene is the biggest in the world, even bigger than London or New York. So I think Prague is the biggest in Central Europe.”

Hip hop: “Czech hip hop” sounds somehow like an oxymoron – it seems hard to imagine what it could be like if you don’t know. What does it come out of, or how is it unique?

“I think good rap is just a mirror of the society and all the problems of society. So we made our own version of hip hop.”

But do you feel like it’s different from American hip hop in some way, or is it a copy?

“I don’t think so. Some guys are copying what they see in the USA, but I think we are really trying to speak and express what we feel, and it’s different than what US rappers can feel because we are not so rich and we can’t earn so much money from it, you know? So it’s not about the money, for example.”

But the thought behind it comes from this very hard ghetto life of American cities, do you think that Czechs can really relate to that in some way, and if so, how?

“I think it’s the same as with graffiti. In Iraq there is also some kind of graffiti…”

Vladimir 518's graffiti,  photo: www.phatbeatz.cz
In ancient Rome there was graffiti…

“Yeah, of course, so it’s different all the time in every place. The form is somehow the same, but the content is different. In Iraq they write political ideas on the walls, in the Czech Republic we’re writing our names, but the style, how it looks and how the writers think is different than in London or Los Angeles, it’s always different. So it’s something like a virus, I think. A virus can get a new face in a new place.”

You’ve been involved in hip hop since the early nineties I believe, you were among the first people in the Czech Republic to really start working with it. How can you describe what the scene looked like then and how it looks now?

“I started with graffiti in ‘94 and with rap in ’97, and when I compare those days with today it’s absolutely different. In those days, the hip hop scene was really underground, with just a few people – like 100 people – involved. The concerts were in squats and underground clubs and just for a few people. The scene was slowly growing and now it’s maybe part of the mainstream. But it’s also more colourful: you can find underground projects, alternative projects, really artistic projects, and then you can find classic hip hop stuff and commercial stuff. So, it’s bigger.”

Can you make a living off of it?

Vladimir 518
“Yeah. I only do my own stuff, my art, it’s not just the hip hop. But hip hop is the main thing in my life.”

Before I came to Prague, I had the impression of a city of classical music…

“Yeah, I think your opinion has changed since then, hasn’t it?”

Well, in seeing this show tonight I’m starting to see all of the things Prague can be. But you do have any relationship to classical music or to traditional Czech music? Where do your musical interests spread?

“I listen to all kinds of music, classical music also, and Czech classical music is great I think, like Dvořák and Janáček and others. When I was 14 or 15 I was a metalhead, and then it changed slowly into listening to hip hop. But I also like contemporary, experimental, electronic music, classical music, jazz, funky… anything. Good music. I don’t listen for certain styles of music, but good music.”

Why Vladimir “518”?

“It comes from the classic names of graffiti writers at the beginning of graffiti in New York. The first writer was Taki 183, he was absolutely the first, and the others – the first generation – always had a name and the street number of a house. So 518 was my house number. It’s just for me to be able to keep the energy of by beginnings, and that’s graffiti and the street, and doing pieces on the street.”

So do you still sometimes grab a spray can in the middle of the night and go out and do some graffiti?

“Sometimes. I can’t say I’m an active writer, but sometimes I do some graffiti."