A core member of leading Czech hip hop group Peneři strýčka Homeboye, Vladimír 518 has got to be the hardest working man in local urban culture: As well as being a rapper, the 32-year-old is a graffiti artist, label boss, comic book author, publisher and even architectural commentator.
As a young teen growing up on the outskirts of Prague, then a heavy metal fan and known as Vladimír Brož, he took his fledgling creative steps with the production of a Xeroxed fanzine called Skeleton. But then, with the fall of the communist system, colorful, Western-style graffiti began to appear in the capital, and the youngster had nothing short of a Damascene moment.
“The moment I saw graffiti for the very first time it changed my life completely,” Vladimír 518 told Czech Position. “I was totally addicted to it.” That obsession was to continue for a whole decade, during which time he moved into what was then the capital’s best-known squat, Ladronka, and took odd jobs to make ends meet.
The beefy street artist remembers with fondness the 1990s, when he says he and his peers (“big rebels”) enjoyed greater freedom than their counterparts in many other European cities. “When I look back on all the things we got up — be it graffiti, fights, drinking, smoking joints on Wenceslas Square, whatever — nobody ever said, ‘you can’t do that.’ It never happened.” While the police did arrest him six times for making graffiti, he only found himself in the dock once, escaping with community service.
The way he tells it, it seems illicitly spray painting huge murals on Prague’s factories, bridges, and metro cars was simply where it was at for talented young people of his generation. “A lot of my friends are architects today, and many are really excellent graphic designers,” Vladimír 518 says. “Loads of them went into music, too. Actually, all my Czech music acquaintances — rappers, producers, or DJs — used to do graffiti.”
The latter include rapper Orion (Michal Opletal), founder of Peneři strýčka Homeboye (PSH), one of the most popular and critically respected hip hop groups the Czech Republic has produced. When Orion invited Vladimír 518 to work up some rhymes and join the outfit in 1998, it was another turning point for the artist.
PSH’s success with “Repertoár” (2001) and “Rap’N’Roll” (2006) led 518 to devote most of his energies to music, with graffiti — which he says cannot really be done “part time” — taking a back seat. That said, he still shakes a few cans occasionally and has been involved in two books mapping the scene in the Czech Republic: “In Graffiti We Trust,” on which he acted as consultant; and “2666: Praha Odyssey,” which he co-authored and published.
Today, Vladimír 518 spends a great deal of his time running Bigg Boss (motto: “Every man is the son of his works”). Primarily a music label, with 20 or so titles in its catalog to date, it is also a website, production company, and publishing house for books and the artist’s own comics. In fact, Bigg Boss, whose offices are at artist David Černý’s Meet Factory independent arts complex, serves both as an umbrella organization for Vladimír 518’s multifarious activities and something of a focal point for the Czech hip hop community.
The rap’s star popularity among young Czechs (the glossy video for the 2010 PSH single “Můj rap, můj svět” — “My Rap, My World” — recently passed the 1 million views mark on YouTube) was reflected in his appearance in advertisements for the Green Party ahead of last year’s general elections. Otherwise, his politics are a mix of young conservative (for instance, he is not in favor of artists living on grants) and something of an anarchist, DIY approach inspired by his squat years.
As well as taking care of Bigg Boss business, the industrious 518 somehow finds the hours in the day for other, perhaps more surprising, endeavors. Through a multimedia show named Spam (recently reprised at a Czech architecture festival in Vienna), the rapper has almost single-handedly sparked a reappraisal of the work of controversial vommunist-era architect Karel Prager, designer of the former Federal Assembly just off the top of Prague’s Wenceslas Square.
“That period of architecture interested me hugely, but everything I read about it was negative. That motivated me to express my opinion, because that architecture really gave me a lot and helped change my view of the world,” says Vladimír 518, adding that his deep interest in the urban landscape is a direct result of his years doing graffiti. Despite no formal training in architecture, he has become something of a go-to guy for the Czech media on the subject of Prager and his often derided contemporaries.
Sound and vision
In 2008, Vladimír 518 raised his profile further with a well-received debut solo album called “Gorila Vs. Architect,” accompanied by a tour that achieved the synthesis of sound and visuals he says he had always been working toward. Right now, he is deciding on a release date for its follow-up, which will feature what its maker calls “guests people wouldn’t expect,” including the group Tata Bojs (whose new single he also appears on), Jan P. Muchow of Ecstasy of St. Theresa and old-school showbiz trooper Jiří Korn (62).
In the meantime, Bigg Boss has just released a new PSH video compilation DVD, the group will be appearing at venues around the Czech Republic and Slovakia in the next couple of months, and Vladimír 518 (the name was his last graffiti tag, kept as a reminder of his roots) is busy designing the sleeve of the latest album by rock band J.A.R. and readying a coffee-table book about Czech subcultures “from black metal heads to skateboarders.”
“What I learned from graffiti is that it has to be all or nothing,” he says. “From that time I’ve had one outlook on my work, and that is that whatever I do, I’ve got to feel 100 percent with all my heart that that’s what I really have to do it. Otherwise, I’m just not going to do it.”
Ian Willoughby is a Prague-based freelance writer