When Darin Reyes, a 21-year-old graphic designer and artist in Los Angeles, learned that Carter Sexton in Valley Village, California was going to do a show celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Beatles coming to America, he chose to do a record sleeve project on their 1968 song "Back in the USSR."
A Beatles fan since high school, Darin loves their music for being timeless and always sounding fresh. "Back in the USSR" was especially intriguing to him since it was a parody about something that never happened: the Beatles did not perform in the USSR while they were together because they were perceived to be too western.
"'Back in the USSR' is a very interesting song," says Darin. "While the Beach Boys were singing about California girls, the Beatles turned the idea around and sang about a country most westerners wouldn't dream of singing about."
Darin approached the puzzle posed by the parody by combining his skills in graphic design and art. His use of the Red October font and 1960s European style of graphic design made a reference to the context and time period of the song. "On the other side, from an artistic perspective, 'Back in the USSR' is a very visual song," says Darin. "It refers to an airplane travel from one location to another. In that way, it expresses communication, which is the essence of art."
As the American son of a Guatemalan mother and an El Salvadorian father, Darin can also relate to the global character of the song. Written by a British band while they were in India, "Back in the USSR" reflects in a way Darin's family history of moving from place to place. Now U.S. citizens, his parents were initially illegal immigrants in this country. They did not fly with an airplane from Miami Beach, as the lyrics of the song go, but instead had to walk through a desert in Mexico and jump trains before getting to California.
"The Beatles could have written 'Back in the USSR' only if they had left home and had a taste of other countries to compare to. It's about going back and forth from culture to culture, not being afraid of new beginnings, and having the drive to search for a better life... or at least a good time," concludes Darin.
According to Darin, better opportunities were not as common in a place like the USSR, where everything was controlled by the government and artistic expression was suppressed. He thinks that artists from other countries could identify with being controlled emotionally or by social standards, but, he explains, "being censored by the government is a unique and terrifying situation."
For the 46-year-old Los Angeles artist, Alexey Steele, USSR is not a record sleeve, but lived experience. Born in Kiev, Ukraine in the family of Leonid Steele, one of the masters of socialist realism in the USSR, he grew up and got his education in Moscow.
"Back in the USSR" brings Alexey nostalgia for his childhood, people's thirst for freedom, money not being an issue in human relations, and support of neighbors.
Although Alexey believed then that the Beatles performed on the tarmac of Vnukovo airport in Moscow, he explains their ban from the USSR with the social function of art in society: "Art is inherently dangerous -- its very nature undermines group power. True art would always speak against any establishment, and, therefore, would always be perceived as threat by it."
For Alexey, the Beatles song seems even more relevant now. It gives him a standpoint for evaluation. "'Back in the USSR' is also a warning," says Alexey. "Today cultural authority in many places resembles the totalitarian system of the Soviet Union because it assumes that there is one righteous mode of the day, while we live in a philosophically plural world."
Alexey further explains that the Beatles rose above their own ideologies, contributing more to the breakdown of the USSR than President Ronald Reagan did. "The Beatles were more powerful as artists than they imagined. Their music talked directly to people's desire to create outside of prescribed boundaries and be free, which is translatable across all languages."
USSR does not exist anymore, but Alexey would probably like to go back there in time just to see whether another option for national development was possible. However, he doesn't want to go "back in the USSR," which was "built on the deaths of millions during the socialist revolution and in the gulags," or to see the 1984-like Orwellian world emerging today.
For Alexey, understanding what being back in the USSR really means is possible thanks to his current position as an artist in the U.S., which gives him a cross-reference of the American experience with the Soviet experience. "People eventually didn't take monopolization of power in the USSR. They are not going to take it in any form, whether state or corporate, whether in the U.S. or anywhere in the world. Art speaks the truth of tomorrow. We see things are changing."
Alexey believes that change is possible when more people embrace their own judgments of reality and stop accepting ideologies that are passed onto them. That's why, according to him, "Back in the USSR" is true art -- "it is bigger than any superimposed social structure and connects humans on everyday level."
Looking at real characters instead of worshiping "mainstream fake heroes" preserves Alexey as an artist from becoming a tool of any propaganda. His so-called novorealism style represents a rebellion of spirit against the forces of corrupt and commercialized power, connecting him to like-minded artists.
"This is the greatest feeling behind the words of the 'Back in the USSR' song," concludes Alexey. "We, artists, live a song, and everyone who is open enough to hear it can live a song. We can turn our world into a song. That's what it is all about -- turning the world into the greatest art work of all time."