Tapping into Sarajevo’s Graffiti Scene

I’m completely out of my element–and it shows. I’m scouring the streets looking for signs of vandalism, stopping to scrutinize scribbles–most of which mean nothing–with the hope that I will find a political message or something relevant to some academic theory.

At a park near my neighborhood: "You are all victims of Capitalism"

At a park near my neighborhood: “All are victims of Capitalism”


The first picture is an apartment building that was hit by mortar rounds during the war. Someone came along and added the sarcastic (and misspelt) statement, "beautiful facade!" The second picture is a building I pass everyday where someone recently wrote "death to nationalism."

An apartment building that was hit by mortar rounds during the war. Someone came along and added the sarcastic (and misspelled) statement, “beautiful facade!”

Other foreigners I pass on the street are on their way to go site-seeing or clubbing. I’m crouching behind dumpsters and stairwells taking pictures of crude drawings and catch phrases.

Most of my colleagues are requesting interviews with professors, scholars, politicians, and activists. I’m texting figures who call themselves things like Sicko, TruStyle, or Plimp.

My roommates are carefully crafting emails with formal greetings, introductions, and explanations about the program’s privacy policy to assure their interview participants that their identities will be protected and their perspectives properly quoted. I’m sending Facebook messages and getting responses like: “is there any money in that,” and “what u need and want.” (Yep, not even a question mark at the end).

I did get in contact with a somewhat prominent conceptual artist in Sarajevo, who completely blew me off by saying the war has been over for 20 years. He sent me a second email later with a link to a YouTube video of the song “Happy Xmas (War is Over).”

But I’m doing well. “Well”=2 weeks into a 4 week project I realize I need to reconfigure a few things. Like my thesis. And the material I read. And how I choose to organize my paper. And what kind of graffiti I’m looking for now.


"tagging" and style-writing, two newer and more prominent forms of graffiti

“tagging”,  style-writing, and messages

I met a local graffiti artist who opened my mind to thinking about graffiti in a new way–a way that happened to redefine my project. He doesn’t write political graffiti, but he is well-versed in graffiti’s history and understands its political implications. He told me that first, graffiti is vandalism (which isn’t an insult to his work, he said, because “vandalism” is a challenge to the system– something he takes pride in). Second, graffiti is freedom. It is a way to take ownership of public space and to show the government that people have personal sovereignty. In the U.S., we see graffiti and think “this is a bad area;” but this artist said that he sees graffiti and thinks “this city is alive.”

If graffiti indicates life, then yes, Sarajevo is very much alive. This is especially powerful to realize at the end of a semester dedicated to studying the war here 20 years ago. There is something painfully, beautifully ironic about seeing signs of life scrawled between bullet holes and shell-pocked spaces. It shows that people here survived and that they kept their city alive by leaving traces of their existence on its walls.

Let’s not romanticize graffiti too much–I’m not talking about awe-inspiring murals that will spark world peace or win a prize of some sort. My project is about basic writing, whether with spray-paint, stencils, markers, or a sharp object used to scratch a surface. Writing which says provocative political statements, random names, jokes, memories of the war or just advertisements and notices like “don’t put trash here.” But still, I’m learning that graffiti says much more than just the words.


"Kenan, I love you"

“Kenan, I love you”


"We want nonpartisan government" on a trashcan.

“We want nonpartisan government” on a trashcan.

In Defense and Pursuit of Graffiti

The Independent Study Project (ISP) takes place during a month long period at the end of the semester. This opportunity to do independently-designed fieldwork abroad as an undergraduate student is the reason I chose the SIT program. It’s also the reason I’m sharing an apartment with 2 other students in Sarajevo, spending my days wandering the streets to look for graffiti instead of sitting in classes. How does this qualify as “research?”

I walked into my first ISP meeting with the idea that I would come to Sarajevo to look at post-Dayton “democracy” (emphasis on the quote marks) in Bosnia to determine if this country should continue to be the paradigm for American intervention and nation building. The driving force behind my curiosity was the suspicion that democracy here is not what Americans believe it to be, and that Bosnia is in fact a poor example to use when justifying other interventions– as diplomats tend to do. After listening to an explanation much like this, my adviser (a Polish scholar who lives in Sarajevo and is doing her own research in Srebrenica) was quick to tell me that everyone already knows democracy in Bosnia is a myth.

“Well, people in America don’t seem to know that…our politicians keep mentioning Bosnia as a good thing and saying we should do it–”

“That’s absurd, I’ve never heard anyone use Bosnia as a positive example of anything.”

She then went on to tell me how many authors from various places have written books about Bosnia as a “failed state” and other depressing things. Basically, I would be writing more of the same if I chose this topic, which I could have done on Whitman campus instead of coming all the way to the Balkans.

Feeling discouraged, I said before leaving, “there is one other thing I have in mind.”

I told her that I’ve noticed a lot of graffiti during this semester. “I could do something with that.”

“I love it.”

That’s great. But how do I take graffiti and turn it into an academic topic?  Graffiti in relation to Peace and Conflict Studies is an underdeveloped subject, which means I’m pretty much on my own here. It’s exciting! But also confusing. Every adviser who reads my project proposal comes away with a different idea about what I’m doing. When people I try to interview ask me what I’m doing, I say, “uhm, uh, well…I’m looking at graffiti.” If this doesn’t seem to make sense, I add, “and uh…what it indicates about post-conflict social dynamics in Sarajevo–ethnic tensions, sentiments toward the international community, things like that.” There, that sounds academic. Ish.

And then people ask me how I plan on researching graffiti. What am I going to read? Who am I even supposed to talk to? Where should I go?… I don’t know, go down an alley, read whatever is written there, talk to anyone who writes it…sounds straight-forward. Some of my friends have taken the liberty of offering their opinion, “oh, so it’s bulls***.”

🙂      [this is the passive-aggressive smile I’ve been using]

Fine, here it is: my best effort in defense of graffiti.

Graffiti is important to consider as a political tool because it is universally accessible, unlike many things in the political arena, and it is a way that citizens directly engage in politics. Unlike academia, graffiti is available to people without a high level of education; in cases where graffiti is an image rather than words, it is even accessible to anyone illiterate. This makes graffiti an instrument of marginalized locals— from those who are impoverished or uneducated to those who lack official status as citizens. A particularly striking feature of graffiti is that it can be used to rewrite mainstream narratives quite literally: authors can deface state-sanctioned monuments and establishments with a can of spray paint. They can confront a version of the truth erected by the government and “vandalize” it with their own words. Graffiti is also a paradoxical approach to politics for it ruins the quality of public space in order to create an alternative record. For those who use it wisely, graffiti is empowering.

My spontaneous decision to research graffiti is ironic in a way. I came here pursuing a heavily academic and traditional topic. I came to investigate the political system, to view it from the top-down. But now I’m abandoning all the methods I’ve been using and the sort of topic I’ve been training to research in order to investigate politics from the opposite end.




Behind the Scenes with the “Villain”

evil serb from movie wtf

Villain from the movie “Abduction”

I’m eating lunch and watching the movie “Abduction” on TV with my host mom. Neither of us has seen the movie before and when we finally find out that the villain is a Serb we turn to each other and laugh.
“You always have these evil Serbs or Russians in your American movies,” she comments, clearly amused but confused.
I never noticed that Serbs had any role at all in American media before I decided to come here. Maybe the “Serb” villains are portrayed so much like “Russian” villains that I didn’t realize they were supposed to be different. (Are they supposed to be?)
If the only impression you have of Serbia and its people is President Milošević and the 1990’s, then maybe the “evil Serb” motif seems fitting. But after I have been living in Serbia for about 3 months and trying to block out any outside interpretation of this country aside from my own,  this Hollywood conception of a Serb seemed ridiculous. Unfortunately, an overwhelming majority of scholarly work portrays Serbs in a similar way (this is a topic a friend of mine is researching), which means this negative image is not just silly or harmless.
It was startling to see the image of the “evil Serb” when just the day before I had been telling someone how I love living in Belgrade because I view people in Serbia in such a contrasting way. People in Serbia (and Bosnia and Kosovo) are natural when they interact with each other. They do not flash superficial smiles or lie and say “I’m good!” just to be “polite” the way so many people in the U. S. do. This doesn’t mean they’re rude or unwelcoming, they’re just open. There is nothing awkward about approaching strangers to ask for help (even just a cigarette), commenting on something someone has, or starting a conversation and inviting someone to come along with you wherever you’re heading. If someone is struggling to carry a large bag onto the bus, someone else might run up and help them hoist it up, and every time an elderly woman gets on the bus someone immediately offers their seat to her. People acknowledge each other’s existence and it feels like they actually share the city instead of bustling along looking at the ground or straight ahead, locked into the individualistic mindset. People make use of public space by sitting and talking/smoking/drinking/playing music wherever they feel like it, even in the middle of the night–and why not? The city is FOR them, they may as well live in it instead of hiding in their “private property” to lead “private” lives.
People here are not enslaved by the boring, everyday routine that drains so many Americans of their humanity. They keep themselves from blending into the background or becoming constrained by menial tasks, even if it’s their job. For example, waiters are quick to make jokes or remarks, even stating their opinion if they find your order unusual or if they think you look tired.
People don’t tell you their opinion out of self-righteousness or anything like that; they tell you what they think because they want to suggest whatever it looks like you need.

Sometimes they go out of their way to make sure you appreciate simple things with them. When I was sitting on the bus pulling into Sarajevo, the man sitting behind me saw me peering into the darkness through the window to my right. “You should look left,” he suggested, or else I would have missed the thousands of twinkling lights that dotted the hills surrounding the city, almost as if the stars had fallen and nestled there.