We had expected to meet Istanbul’s best known graffiti artist in the corner of some dimly-lit, inconspicuous café. Perhaps one in the city’s more artistic neighborhoods like Cihangir or Kadikoy –where most of the graffiti is.
Instead we met at Starbucks, in Istanbul’s wealthy and graffiti-less Bebek district. The place was posh, three stories tall with a wooden terrace protruding right over the waters of the Bosphorus. Even though it was late in the evening, the coffee house was packed with young, gentrified couples — hardly the kind of place to maintain a shadowy profile. But it turned out the man we were after is no “Banksy.” His identity was known to anybody who could use Google. His commercial success depends on it.
Dunc “Turbo” Dindas sat waiting for us at one of the deck’s corner tables, flanked by a young, attractive woman named Roxanne who introduced herself as his manager. Turbo was almost twice her age – heavy set, with ruffled brown hair and a pair of thick round glasses.
“Everybody knows Turbo” Roxanne announced shortly into our conversation. She said it matter of factly, to which the graffiti artist grinned sheepishly. He has reason to feel accomplished. At 43 years old, Turbo has fashioned himself as the go-to source for commercial graffiti work in Turkey. Advertisements, pamphlets, logos, and even wall decorations in corporate offices. He’s the man sought out by major companies like Coca Cola andAdidas to insert graffiti drawings in their Turkish ad campaigns — the
hired-hand who can paint an appeal to a young and trendy consumer base. His colorful characters, his aliens and Doctor Suess-like animals, are used to make products appear fun and playful. His signature graffiti style – a mixture of New York, Subway, and Bubble lettering – can give ad campaigns an edgy, “street” feel. Over the past two years, companies including Bellona, Pepsi, andSamsung (links to youtube videos) have hired him to digitally insert playful 2D drawings into their television commercials. It’s a slick animation trick, and allows inanimate objects like soda bottles and washer-driers to look like they have a life of their own, interacting with the human actors in commercials. This is why the ad agencies keep calling. Turbo is the artist who can make a conservatively-financed corporation look hip.
It didn’t happen overnight. Turbo is what one might call a first-mover. While the artist now fields the commercial proposals of his choosing, his reputation in the Turkish graffiti world was a long time coming. In fact, Turbo first had to create the market to which he now owes his entrepreneurial success. The process took him over 30 years.
Before Turbo, graffiti didn’t exist in Turkey.
The year was 1984, and Istanbul’s walls were prime for the taking. Besides a few scrawled signatures, the city had yet to witness the kind of elaborate subway art that was exploding in the United States. Things were about to change. That year, a young and rebellious Turbo got his hands upon the cult classic American film, Beat Street, which details the story of an aspiring rap and graffiti artist from the South Bronx.
“It opened a whole new world for me” Turbo said.
Inspired by the bravado and creativity of the film’s graffiti art, Turbo decided he would become the first to bomb Istanbul’s walls. But it wasn’t so easy back then. At the time, spray paint in Istanbul was of terrible quality, and there were only two colors available in the city’s furniture stores – black and white. He admits his first pieces were “pretty embarrassing.”
Even so, graffiti writing became his obsession. Turbo began using paint markers to put up his name up everywhere he could – street corners, underpasses, tunnels, stairs. Most days, he would leave home with two markers in his backpack, and only return that evening with less than half of one left. Only religious and educational buildings were spared. He became the consummate graffiti “writer” – the
term used for artists who paint their name to spread their brand awareness. After a few years it worked. People started taking notice, and other graffiti writers entered the scene. Some of these new comers were so irritated by the omnipresence of Turbo’s tags that they started writing his name backwards in protest.
But there were some others who took notice as well. The police. In 1989, Turbo was caught while putting up an illegal piece with a graffiti collective he had founded, the “Zombie Boys Posse.” It wasn’t the painting that bothered them; the police thought he was putting up political propaganda. They thought the ‘P’ at the end of the tag meant “party.” The misunderstanding ended with a judge handing Turbo a five year prison sentence.
Lucky for him, Turbo didn’t end up taking the Midnight Express. He was put on parole, on the condition that he not paint graffiti during the 5 year sentence he was supposed to serve. He could only wait 2.
“I’m so full of graffiti. I just couldn’t help it” he laughed. He did, however, change the name of his collective to avoid future run-ins. The group adopted the label S2K, or Shot to Kill, as it remains today. Turbo also learned some handy tricks about putting up illegal works. “If you have friends in the police, you can tip them not to walk by a certain wall that night” he hinted.
Turbo’s passion goes deeper than just graffiti. In the late 1980’s, the artist led the charge in importing another cultural phenomenon: hip hop. While Public Enemy and NWA were just starting to turn heads in the United States, Turbo became the first hip hop writer for Blue Jean magazine – then the only youth publication in Turkey. He had profound influence there, and began receiving demos and submissions from Turkish groups trying to break into the scene. In 1989, Turbo compiled the demos into the first hip hop album released in Turkey, on a limited run of 5,000 copies. Included on the CD was his own rap group, “Statik.” The album was an instant success, jump-starting the rap industry in Turkey and bringing even further attention to the inter-connected graffiti scene. Turbo was heading a cultural revolution.
He held his influential position at Blue Jean for almost two decades, until 2007, at which point he finally declared his “mission was over.” He felt he was no longer needed to spread awareness anymore; hip hop and graffiti had both developed into well-established scenes of their own, with thousands of artists, and hundreds of thousands of fans.
Turbo told us that “real” graffiti will always stay out on the streets, but 30 years after he first tagged his name in Istanbul’s alleyways, graffiti has become mainstream in Turkey. Istanbul now has an annual festival, graffiti galleries, and even a dedicated shop — called the Donut Store — where artists can go to buy high quality spray paints in any color they dream of. Turbo believes the time has come for a new generation of artists to take up the mantle.
In the meantime, the veteran is leveraging his success — turning out a handsome profit on the graffiti scene and “Turbo” brand-name he spent so long promoting. He has an Adidas sponsorship, and turns out pieces for major brand names like Coca Cola. Turbo also does work in corporate office decoration, and set design for major productions. He doesn’t believe the corporate freelancing means he’s sold out– If he didn’t take up the contracts, he says someone else would. Besides, being a hired hand doesn’t prevent him from still getting his kicks from time to time. When we asked him if he ever goes out and puts up illegal pieces anymore, for old times’ sake, he looked at us coyly. “Turbo doesn’t do that anymore…but maybe if he were to use a different name…”