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.




Across the Road–Memories from Srebrenica

How did I come to find myself alone in the remains of a battery factory with chips of the floor missing where bullets fell and the only sound that of turning pages in a book echoing around me?
I’m here because about six thousand refugees found themselves in the same place nearly a decade ago. They were victims of ethnic cleansing in eastern Bosnia seeking protection in and around the town of Srebrenica–an area that the UN declared a “safe zone” at the time. When refugees came to the factory, which had already been abandoned and re-inhabited by NATO forces, Dutch soldiers told them who could enter and who could not because there was not enough space for everyone escaping the Bosnian Serb army. Soon after, however, it didn’t matter who was granted their protection because General Ratko Mladić confronted the NATO forces with an ultimatum: they could step out of the way and survive, or they could die with the people huddled inside the factory.

Across the road from the factory is the Srebrenica genocide memorial and graveyard for victims of the massacre. It is estimated that more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed in less than a week in July 1995. Six thousand of their bodies have been found and 1,000 are currently waiting on the shelves of a facility in the city of Tuzla so that they can be identified before joining those which are already buried across from the factory. The other thousand are presumed to be in mass graves yet to be discovered.
On our way to the Srebrenica memorial we stopped at a gas station that is rumored to be built on top of a mass grave. Apparently, there is a monetary reward for locals who share any information they know regarding this rumor or the location of missing bodies. No one has spoken.
Across from the gas station is a small Orthodox church. Next to the church is a blasted, burned, and abandoned house. If the Bosniak family who lived there survived the war and came back, it would be clear to them who the town “belongs”  to now. One woman did come back. Her entire family was killed, but she returned to her home–located just behind the church. She is petitioning to have the town move the church away from her property.


Houses abandoned and destroyed in an ethnically cleansed town on the way to the Srebrenica memorial.
This seemingly godforsaken corner of Bosnia became infamous for the tragedy it witnessed. For the Clinton administration, it was a source of guilt–how could 8,000 civilians die in three days while the international community watched? The story goes that the Dutch commander stationed there sent  a request for airstrikes to counter the Bosnian Serb army, but he submitted his request using the incorrect paperwork and was consequently ignored by the UN. Regardless of whether the mistake was so trivial, international diplomats have been trying to make up for it ever since. Claiming that we could not allow Srebrenica to happen ever again, the United States took responsibility for the rest of the conflict in Bosnia as well as the war in Kosovo. Srebrenica’s name continues to echo in assemblies when international organizations like the UN turn their attention towards potential genocides in other regions.
Some American journalists and politicians pat our country on the back, touting, “See? We like Muslims, we saved Muslims in Bosnia,” as if to redeem the War on Terror. Angelina Jolie was so moved by the genocide and other tragedies of the war in Bosnia that she directed a film set during the conflict and co-hosted a global conference this year addressing rape as a weapon of war.
But when I enter that factory across the road from the memorial, I can see that the international community is far more invested in displaying the dead bodies that justify intervention than it is in displaying the lives that existed before the war or the suffering that those bodies experienced before they were thrown into mass graves. I can see this because of the difference between the rows and rows of blinding white grave stones and the dim, icy building I enter.

The factory, now labeled “Srebrenica Genocide Memorial Room,” is lit only by natural light seeping through the windows and holes in the walls. The pictures hanging between graffiti and broken pipes are deteriorating. One of them is so damaged I can’t even see what it depicts, but like the rest of them, it is most likely a picture of refugees scouring for food in the trash NATO troops left behind or women and children mourning as they are taken from the safe haven and the men in their families as the Dutch soldiers surrender the factory. The small paper captions taped to the pictures are torn and curling from the moisture in the air. Consistent mistakes in spelling and grammar make it clear that someone from the local community took time to put this exhibit together, not a professional curator from the outside world. Awkwardly placed in the middle of the factory is a display of photographs of men who died in the Srebrenica massacre accompanied by personal belongings that were exhumed with their bodies. Marbles, a lighter, a watch, a pair of glasses…behind the glass protecting these objects there are cobwebs and mold.

Further down the road is a room full of TVs playing footage from the war and trials at the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Unlike the Memorial Room, this room is clean and its contents well-kept. Again, I wonder, why are the tributes to dead bodies and the men who decided their fate so carefully tended to while the memories of individuals, their lives, and those who survived growing mold and disintegrating? Are we commemorating tragedy to the point where we obsess over “cold-blooded hatred” and death rather than honoring the lives lost? The victims of Srebrenica are not numbers for the history books or white pillars standing in meticulous rows, even if that’s all we see left of them. That should not be all that we see left of them.
Our group returns to the factory to use the bathroom before leaving, and I decide to flip through the visitor’s book in the front entrance. Everyone else trickles out of the building while I stand there filtering through poems and prayers written in various languages. A prayer signed “from Palestine;” a signature from a group of Japanese students; half a page written in Arabic; but more than anything, written over and over in English and Bosnian: “never forget Srebrenica.” Someone wrote this and then added “never forgive.” I suddenly realize that the only sound I can hear is the swoosh of pages turning, cutting the cold silence. How strange it is to find myself reading a book alone in a battery factory tucked between the hills of eastern Bosnia. Why is such a thing possible?


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