My mom was pretty shocked by the abundance of graffiti in the Balkans. Granted, there was a lot – and while many walls were covered in nothing more than teenagers’ signatures, I was fascinated by the content of a lot of the other street art. While walking the streets of Zagreb, Sarajevo, and Serbia, especially, I was reminded of an interview I did with Alexis Zimberg in October. Zimberg completed her Masters degree at Georgetown and wrote her thesis about street art in former Soviet countries; in the interview, she and I talked about the politics of street art in eastern Europe. I thought of something she said:
“Everybody has access to a marker or paint or a spray can, and they can write something on the walls. This makes it a very democratic art form and way of speaking. This means that people can say whatever they want – even if that person is racist or anti-Semitic or dislikes Putin or hates war. These people don’t always have a voice in mainstream media. Anytime there’s a power struggle that’s not getting an outlet, I think it come out in the streets.”
Below I’ve added photos of some of my favorite graffiti, though I have many more examples – photographs of graffiti with messages that are political or incoherent or violent; beautiful drawings; messages in all kinds of languages and different alphabets; and examples of graffiti that has been drawn over, either by the state or by those who disapprove of the message.
In the United States, especially in a suburban context, graffiti gets a bad rap. Only thugs or hooligans take a can of spraypaint to the walls of a public space, people think. But it is much different in eastern Europe than in the United States; in eastern Europe, because of the different relationship between the people and the media, the push to reclaim public space and use street art as a form of political speech is often stronger.
(By the end of the trip, my mom acknowledged that there was a lot of street art – but she didn’t sound so upset to say so. This is great progress.)