Balkan Street Messages — A Journal of Contravene and Everyday
Author: Catherine Peppers
As a prologue to viewing some examples of contemporary graffiti and urban street murals in the Balkans, let us briefly review some current definitions of this visual art form, its origins and dynamic proliferation across the world.
Some writers like to distinguish between graffiti and street art since the former could comprise any marking of public or private property, often unauthorized, whereas street art (murals) by now has in many cases attained endorsement by local authorities and also popular recognition as an art form. However, whether graffiti and street art enjoy legal status or not varies widely from country to country and community to community and is often still considered a highly subjective and potentially controversial matter. In any case, the creation of art in the streets has proliferated globally over the last decades and some critics in the art world are talking about this form of visual communication as the one major new - even revolutionary - art form of the second half of the 20th century.
Today, when we are discussing graffiti, we are generally referring to a phenomenon which originated as an underground, “counterculture” movement in the 1960s in cities such as Philadelphia and New York City and spread like wildfire to other metropolitan centers across the world.
There is now a wide range of graffiti (street art): from simple “tags“ marking individual or gang territory in a neighborhood, to street art as a platform for voicing social protest and countercultural views to commissioned urban murals for community renewal and commercially successful street art festivals.
Slogans, political cartoons, urban scrawl – an array of sometimes striking images meet the eye.
Durres, Albania is an interesting destination for art lovers …this coastal town is home to a number of murals. Many of them are located in the old town, behind the largest amphitheatre of the Balkans. Inscriptions date some of the murals to an international street art festival held in 2014 (“ Ass. Culturale Eccletica 1. Biennale Di Durazzo”), others have been painted by home owners.
These murals embellish the neighborhood and attract tourists who like to come here for a “mural walk”, visiting the nearby amphitheatre, art gallery, museum and promenade along the sea as well. The day I was touring the old town, a Canadian street artist was creating a new masterpiece on a wall and let me watch him practice his craft. He had been allowed to do so by the owner of a shop. When the work of art was done, the shop owner came out to admire it and said this was a great improvement over former scribbles someone had left there!
Interestingly, the Canadian street artist explained that the tags he had painted could be deciphered by other members of the street art scene - they were a kind of code.
Canadian street artist creating a new work of art.
In Zagreb, an Art Park Art Project, initiated in 2016, has targeted green spaces in the city and revitalized them by creating attractive murals which invite people to enjoy the parks. The latest mural makeover transformed the neglected walls of Opatovina Park into an interactive art space evoking joy and color. These pictures give an idea of the positive effect the artistic makeover has had:
Beyoglu District (Istanbul, Turkey)
An innovative urban arts project sponsored by the local mayor, involving artists as well as university students, has recently (2020) inauguratd a “mural steps” art work. Only a few streets from crowded, noisy Istiklal Avenue, long descending steps await us, with painted images depicting the iconic Galata Tower and a famous 17th century Ottoman aviator. Pedestrians, shoppers, tourists all like to drop by here after a busy day to soak in the art.
To conclude, graffiti and street art are here to stay in Balkan urban centers, offering innovative visual experiences to locals and tourists alike. For sure, we will see even more creative mural projects in future!
A Ukrainian artist painted the steps together with art students
Beyoglu, the “Bohemian” District of Istanbul, has become a Mecca for Street
Wandering about the old town of Xanthi, Greece, we encounter long stretches of whitewashed walls exploited by artists to make their views known. Urban scrawl greets us next to personal messages, and declarations of love.
Urban Scrawl and Declaration of Love – Graffiti in the Old Town of Xanthi, Greece
Some contemporary writers are discussing “graffiti and the dialectics of the city” in an attempt to explain the rise of this art form in the context of the modern metropolis. They maintain that graffiti by its very nature – arising in urban centers and using the city as its canvas – always reflects global politics. Often emerging in situations of economic inequality and rapid social change, street art is held to express and embody the experience of those swept up by these dynamics. It is held to be a medium for voices of social change and protest and not primarily a reflection of neighborhood decay and communities out of control.
When, however, municipalities and art museums sanction and endorse street art, when murals by popular street artists fetch exorbitant prices, can the “outsider qualities” of this art form be preserved, or must we be talking about the increasing “gentrification of graffiti” ?
Surely, this is an ongoing debate…Whatever our point of view, wherever we live, many of us would agree that graffiti in our cities is often original, thought-provoking, visually arresting.
Regarding southeastern Europe, how have artists been inspired by this “revolutionary” form of visual communication? Here as elsewhere, diversity is key when dealing with contemporary street art in communities throughout the Balkans.
About the author:
Catherine Peppers was born in Washington, DC, USA and grew up in the UK and Germany. Her father was a businessman who worked for an international company and he wanted for his children to appreciate all the opportunities of growing up in a foreign culture. She attended college in the USA, one of her professors was Russian poet Josef Brodsky, who inspired interest in the role of art in dissidence movements throughout Eastern Europe. Later, she earned a degree in psychology at Mainz University and was involved in several projects (in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Germany) aiding refugee families during the war in ex-Yugoslavia. She went on to become a freelance writer on arts and crafts, history, environmental issues, and sometimes supervises art therapy projects with refugees.
Among her favourites hobbies are visits to art galleries, fashion fairs, festivals – film festivals, food festivals (especially in Berlin), “Film noir”. She enjoys African dance, painting, and nature (bird watching).