- Associated Press - Friday, January 29, 2016

STARO ZHELEZARE, Bulgaria (AP) - A sleepy village in central Bulgaria is harnessing the power of celebrities, hoping for an economic revival through art.

Outdoor murals in the village of Staro Zhelezare feature local people alongside celebrities on their homes. Homeowners are depicted with personalities including Pope Francis, Queen Elizabeth II, Albert Einstein, the Dalai Lama, Angela Merkel, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Barack Obama and Fidel Castro. Even a Bulgarian is up on the wall: former strongman Todor Zhivkov.

The man behind the project is local artist Ventsislav Piryankov, who now lives and works in Poland, where he created an art school. Last summer, Piryankov and his students came to the village for what they called the “First Mural Festival,” creating an outdoor art gallery with Banksy-style graffiti on the walls.

Living standards are low in the poorest member of the 28-nation European Union and the 400 residents of Staro Zhelezare struggle to make ends meet. Before the murals, the village had been best known for a nearby prehistoric stone circle. Now, its cash-strapped residents hope the art project will attract more tourists.

“This is something good for the people of our village,” says Minka Plyuvkova, who works in the library.

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