Directly translated, Belgrade (‘Beo-Grad’) means ‘white city’. A place with a name such as this takes on a whole new meaning in the context of street art, where the symbol of the city as a blank canvas galvanises its artists to paint. Jelena Popović Djordjevic writes about the booming street art scene in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia.
Belgrade is considered one of the oldest settlements in Europe, competing with the likes of Rome and Athens in age. Yet its geographical location and strategic position have seen it as the battle ground for over 115 wars and the city has been razed to the ground 44 times. Following its liberation from German forces in World War II, Russian soldiers marked houses and buildings without mines with words “provereno – min njet” (checked – no mines). This method was to save lives, and many believe it to be the inspiration for the first real graffiti of the city.
European graffiti appeared first in Paris and Berlin, two taste-making cities that were to exert a significant influence on the Belgrade graffiti scene. Fantastic Boys or RCC (Rap City Crew) hail as the first Belgrade-based graffiti crew who inspired the work of Miša (later known as Jens) – the longest serving artist of Belgrade having created his first work in 1988. In this birth period, graffiti served to make humorous comment on local culture – clumsily written band names decorated the streets and, most pervasive of all, football club slogans appeared thrown up by their supporters. The early 80’s brought a refurbishment initiative to upgrade Belgrade’s well-tagged facades with planned murals. This initiative was the making of many artists with some of their murals still visible to this day. These works were not illegal or anonymous, but they significantly contributed to the popularity of street art.
History interrupts once more at the beginning of the 1990’s. The disintegration of Yugoslavia, bloody civil wars, unprecedented migration and general hysteria led to the retreat of artists in every sense. Previously mentioned Miša (aka Jens) relocated to Paris and only returned to Belgrade in 1994, taking his Parisian influence with him. His first graffiti “STUFF” became popular (it appears in several music videos) and is in some sense the first graffiti in this region to receive media attention, hence inspiring others to recreate trends in the Belgrade graffiti scene. By 1995 a serious graffiti scene in Belgrade was reborn: its epicentre being in Belgrade’s Blok 45. The New Belgrade Blok 45 was home to Jens and Cobes, who formed the Anonymous Graffiti Crew in 1996. Under the influence of early 90’s Parisian graffiti artists, their work was formed of simple lettering and forms in characteristic silver with a black frame. Using few colours meant cheap painting and the popularity of this style rose.
Going into the 21st century, magazines and movies became increasingly available and gradually the difference between “legal” and “illegal” graffiti was clarified. Legal graffiti was often considered of higher artistic value and attracted more attention. The Belgrade crew HALLEY ZONE rose to this high quality legal graffiti work, and subsequently went on to form the BGILLEGAL crew in 2000 – one of the most notorious crews present on the Belgrade graffiti scene. From this, the Anti-fascist youth (AFO) crew was born who characteristically used socialist and antifascist symbolism in their works. Illegal graffiti grew and trolley buses were considered by some as a substitute for the subway that was never built in Belgrade. Nevertheless, legal graffiti was growing in popularity. One paint spot – Bulevar vojvode Mišića – became a sort of “Hall of Fame” painted only by acclaimed artists and only works of the highest quality survived there.
In 2003, Belgrade’s summer festival (BELEF) began supporting graffiti jams, a tradition continued from the 1980’s when the festival “Belgrade Summer” (BELEF’s predecessor) brought a great number of new murals to the city. Among the most successful festivals were the ones in 2008 and 2009 when artists such as REMED, Mark Jenkins, Black Le Rat, BLU and M City left their marks in Belgrade.
Today, thanks to the internet, graffiti culture can be considered as (almost) global. New art, products and technology are accessible in (almost) all places and available to (almost) all people – reactions are practically instant and the language is universally understandable. The famous portrait of the actor Robin Williams painted in Karađorđeva Street only a few hours after his suicide travelled around the world with incredible speed, mostly through social media but also through reputable news agencies.
Another new trend in Belgrade and around the world is the commercialisation of graffiti. On the one hand, this commercialisation threatens the idea of subversive provocation – but on the other hand, it allows the artists to earn from their work. Some artists create to order, others sell their works to galleries and commonly these payments will support their future work, lifestyle and non-commercial projects. The end justifies the means. Nevertheless, the dominant trend is global connectivity – this is supported by increasingly numerous festivals and exhibitions dedicated to street art.
The wall is the perfect place for communication. Today we leave our marks on Twitter, Facebook and other digital walls. However, these digital walls lack one dimension – space – that imbues the marks with a certain kind of magic. By combining the physical and digital forms of communication we are allowed in to the unique world of street art in Belgrade, and we can inspire communities to experience art on the streets of this city, alongside the visible scars of its past.