The brilliant illustrator of fantasy and firey allegory, BLU, championed the cause of the Rog Factory squat in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 2016 with a centrally framed handgun in pink and red. In that heated moment the community of artists and activists had fended off developers, construction thugs, and even some kind of fascists attacking them or trying to chase them from the property.
The encroachment of private capital on community spaces often provokes a rallying cry of artists like BLU, a never-ending battle to preserve human-scale projects that are full of idiosyncrasy, warmth, and democratic ideals – they may say. “Autonomous spaces across Slovenia and Europe are being cleared at an alarming rate,” says the Rog site, “and in their place, there are polished facades that hide a lack of imagination.”
As with all graffiti/street art/murals, we accept the fact that part of their definition implies ephemerality – but nevertheless, city dwellers also do become attached to it sometimes. Over time an artists’ work on the street, even if originally done illegally, can implicate itself into our lives, becoming part of our daily experience of a city, effectively defining it in some way.
That’s why the loss of this painting is worth noting – and why locals decided to let it go in style with a festive paint party. When gentrifiers floated the idea of preserving the work, BLU resisted vehemently, says photographer/ethnographer Martha Cooper, who documented the wall this summer. She tells us of a more jovial way concocted to bid “adijo” to BLU.
“So with Blu’s blessing,” she says, “some artists organized an effort to fire homemade bazooka paint guns to cover the mural. They had 7 guns and several hundred bullets filled with different colors of paint all greased up and ready to fire.” A splattered goodbye that again echoed the militancy that some feel about defending their squatter rights.
The plan was abandoned finally however due to a strong presence of security – and possibly because using guns, however playfully, could be misinterpreted and end badly, but we are surmising. After all, BLU’s “gun” was full of creative ways to dismantle the patriarchy, including an ode to Woody Guthrie’s guitar, and later on Pete Seeger’s banjo; an admonition to use art powerfully in a battle for people.
“I have photos of the gun mural which is composed of peaceful ‘weapons,’” Martha tells us. “There is an inscription on the guitar which says, ‘This machine kills fascists.’”
As the summer wound down, we heard from Sandi Abram, the Ljubljana Street Art Festival director. “The municipality has begun the demolition of the Rog Factory front facade, which means Blu’s mural will also be demolished probably by the end of the week.”
Luckily for all of us, documentarians like Ms. Cooper have preserved it beautifully for posterity.
The Ljubljana Street Art Festival 2021 took place as a cultural festival this year in the capital of Slovenia with painting, lectures, panels, special events, and guests like street artists Escif, public installation artist Epos 257, cultural instigator/commentator Good Guy Boris, and global graffiti/street art documentarian and photographer since the 1970s, Martha Cooper.
A unique event during this year’s festival included graffiti and street artists of various hand styles and influences crushing walls in monochrome. “The Left Over Graffiti Jam will give a chance to empty the leftover spray cans and hand the walls over to new generations to add to the layers of paint and subculture,” said the program’s description.
Based on the format of a graffiti jam, artists were invited to a series of walls to create while friends and fans set up impromptu picnics, parties, and took photos. The primary link between them all was their limited paint palette of whites, greys, and black paint that was allegedly “left over”. A historic place for many, this time the Hall of Fame was largely given over to new artists, aspiring writers, the new kids on the block. Whether it is still appropriately called a subculture or just “culture”, there is no doubt that the scene thrives on fresh blood and fresh paint.
The result brought more direct comparisons between styles and mastery – enabled by forcing artists to basically use the same materials for public expression. As an audience, you get a true sense of the writer’s personal style and poles of gravitational pull.
Luckily for us, Ms. Cooper shares her exclusive photos of the event here with BSA readers, while we speak with Sandi Abram, a co-founder of the festival with Anja Zver and Miha Erjavec.
A scholar and historian, Mr. Abram also gives us some context of graffiti here in the Balkans and helps us to position the significance of this festival.
BSA: Is there a history of the practice of graffiti and street art in Slovenia and specifically in Ljubljana? Or is it relatively new?
Sandi Abram: In Ljubljana, graffiti have a long history, beginning with World War II. During World War II, the territory of present-day Slovenia was occupied by German, Italian and Hungarian troops. The occupation of Ljubljana dates back to April 1941. The city was divided between Germany and Italy with barbed wire, roadblocks, military bunkers, machine gun nests and minefields.
In response to these events, the Liberation Front was formed. From 1942 to 1945, graffiti was used by individuals, various organizations and authorities as means of expression and as a reflection of socio-political events.
Soon after the occupation of Ljubljana, the so-called resistance graffiti by activists of the Liberation Front appeared on the walls. The first mass graffiti appeared in the shape of the letter V, short for “victory”, as a message to the occupiers that they would be defeated. Other symbols included the acronym for the Liberation Front (“OF”) or the stylized Triglav mountain (Slovenia’s highest mountain). The activists used numerous techniques to leave their mark on the occupied city, such as paste-ups, sgraffito, acid on shop windows, stencils, etc. I refer to these forms of expression as street art before street art; the techniques and strategies were a creative way to confront hegemony, a weapon of the weak, if I use the expression of anthropologist James C. Scott.
From this period, we also know of the so-called collaborator’s graffiti in the form of posters of Mussolini and the Italian king, leaflets also appeared on the streets occasionally. A particularly famous symbol of collaboration was the black hand with which the secret military units confronted the Liberation Army activists.
After the liberation of Ljubljana, post-war graffiti glorified leaders (e.g. Tito, Kardelj, Stalin) and the army (e.g., “Long live the Liberation Army!”). The symbols of communism (sickle and hammer) and praise for the Soviet Union (USSR) as representatives of the revolution and military allies were very common.
Graffiti as a predominantly leftist medium reappeared in socialist Ljubljana in the early 1980s as part of the punk movement, alternative subcultures, and sub political groups. This was also the time of coexistence between political graffiti and more sophisticated subcultural graffiti. On the one hand, punks sprayed “Johnny Rotten Square” to reappropriate space. On the other hand, fine arts students used graffiti as an alternative medium to paint canvases and the interior walls of underground cultural venues.
Finally, after a group of activists and independent artists occupied the former barracks of the Yugoslav People’s Army, today known as Metelkova, in the early 1990s, the first public and legal wall slowly emerged as a field of experimentation for new generations of budding writers. Today, the Metelkova City Autonomous Cultural Zone represents a cultural, artistic, social and intellectual hub where one also finds the Hall of Fame.
In the early 1990s, local artists incorporating the medium of graffiti started to emerge, an example being Strip Core. In more recent history, graffiti crews have left an important mark in the local public space, including ZEK Crew, Egotrip, 1107 Klan, Animals, and writers such as Vixen, Whem, Lo Milo, Rone84, and Planet Rick. Contemporary street artists who emerged from this scene include names like Danilo Milovanović, The Miha Artnak, Nataša Berk, Veli & Amos, Evgen Čopi Gorišek, Sad1.
BSA: We have talked previously about how your festival focuses on content, not on bringing in a dozen big-name artists just for the sake of having big names on your line-up. Why is this important to you?
Sandi Abram: Through LJSAF, we bring together international and local artists and scholars. The Programme Committee, which included me, Anja Zver, and Miha Erjavec, designed the festival events to encourage visitors to read the streets and participate in various activities.
For instance, the mission of the alternative tours and the street art conference is to interpret heterogeneous urban spaces, to explain the actors in the public space, the artistic and creative inspirations, the social struggles, to recognize and decipher ideologies of intolerance. So it is not only about producing the “text” (a mural as a thing-in-itself) but also sensitizing the public about the “context” of street art, i.e. the micro-location in the urban space. It is hard to understand a city if you do not “read” the screams on the walls – already the philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre said that graffiti best illustrates the contradictions of contemporary society. They point out what is tolerated, what disappears.
Content co-creation is another important dimension of LJSAF. The festival events not only showcase young, emerging generations of street artists and scholars, they also provide a space, a productive crossroads for them to meet and collaborate. And for us, that is exactly the purpose of the festival’s art residencies, exhibitions, and graffiti jams. In short, street art is not only about big names, but a broad stream of unknown and underground creative minds joining forces.
“The festival events not only showcase young, emerging generations of street artists and scholars, they also provide a space, a productive crossroads for them to meet and collaborate.”
We’ve had the privilege to travel to many cities and cultures over the last decade and a half, from Russian to Chinese to North African to Tahitian and Norwegian, to witness the affecting power of street art on cities, communities, and everyday people. Regardless of the street author’s intent, however earnest or carefully considered, we’re often surprised by the variety of interpretations that can arise from a singular work of art or intervention.
This new mural by the Spanish conceptual artist and social philosopher Escif for this year’s Ljubljana Street Art Festival (LJSAF), begun in Slovenia’s capital in 2019, is just far enough removed from the obvious to have triggered myriad interpretations. In the race for capturing imagination, adoration, and vilification, his seemingly simple, if unconventional, mural has scored a stunning trifecta.
Our reporter on the ground, the renowned photographer and ethnologist Martha Cooper, one of the few who have stayed active on the graffiti and street art scene continuously for the last five decades, tells us that she keeps thinking that we are witnessing a more pronounced movement toward work like this on the global stage. Describing how the unique curation by festival director Sandi Abram and the program directors Anja Zver and Miha Erjavec strikes a balance, Cooper says they chose what may appear as a quirky selection of artists to participate, “with an emphasis more on conceptual, political work than on aesthetics.”
“I’m wondering if this is a general street art trend or maybe just more prevalent in Eastern Europe,” she says. A veteran of the last decade’s evolution of street art festivals that may now appear as baldly commercial or trite “revitalization” efforts by moribund city councils, Ms. Cooper is fascinated by unusual festivals such as Ljubljana’s. It may be due to Abram’s pursuit of a Ph.D. in anthropology, but Cooper observes that her Slovenian experience was of a program “thoughtfully curated with some interesting and innovative twists.” Since this year’s festival theme centered on the preservation and documentation of street art, Cooper was an honored guest and speaker as well.
With a borrowed bear from a local school child’s wall painting, Escif created a re-contextualization of the original furry friend. Enlarging it to fill the wall of a two-story building and attaching a stolen slogan from a nearby graffitied wall, Escif declared that “ograja mora past” (the fence must fall). The reactions haven’t stopped since. Depending on the opiner, the deceptively simple mural is addressing the contentious issue of immigration with Croatia, the historical memories Slovenians have of Hitler, or the increasingly impeded flow of wildlife along historical natural routes through Europe.
When Sandi took Martha to shoot the original bear painting, Mojca, a teacher in Vodmat Kindergarten, shared a sense of optimism she had by witnessing the resounding waves of impact that rippled outward from the original project. “The goal of the project was for the children to develop the heterogeneous language of art. If by painting this bear we have impacted society and the environment, then we have accomplished more than we could have ever imagined.”
The thoughtful and resolute Escif, as ever, developed and delivered a manifesto on his piece, “The Fences Must Fall”, where he states that “Painting a big wall in a big city is a firm and decisive position” for an artist.
“I set out to find the truth that children paint on the walls of kindergartens. I cruised around the city streets, looking for the truth that crazy people spray paint on the walls. As I matched the truths of crazy people and children, of the walls of the former with the walls of the latter, the idea for the mural was born. An angry bear roaring ‘the fences must fall’.”
He continues, “As a foreigner, ignorant of the local reality, I couldn’t quite grasp what this mural was all about. Fortunately, it seems that the locals came to wise insights. Some seemed annoyed by the content. Others seemed happy and read it in a variety of ways. They spoke of the bears in Slovenia that the government wants to control. Of the cruelty of the border fence with Croatia, where refugees are harmed trying to cross it. Of the wild animals that can’t cross that fence either, locked in with no way to migrate. Of the fences that the government puts up to protect the National Assembly from protests. Of the problem of the privatisation of natural resources. And of many other fences that should be coming down everywhere.”
The simplicity of the design and placement are undoubtedly what makes it most magnetic; If you don’t understand the slogan, you want to. If you do understand it, you may crave the opportunity to respond.
“I found Escif’s wall much more interesting after I understood the story behind it,” says Cooper.
We spoke to directors Abram and Zver about the goals of this year’s festival and why they chose Escif to paint one of the larger, higher-profile walls of the Ljubljana 2021. We discussed how it became a somewhat emblematic piece that was at once surprisingly provocative and also caused dialogue in the streets. “To paraphrase what Escif said about his mural in Ljubljana: painting a mural is a political act, a responsibility, and a commitment,” they say.
“This is also true for the entire production of LJSAF – it is a commitment that requires the recognition that the festival is not a stable and fixed entity, but a heterogeneous and fluid mosaic of events, people, and creativity, operating at a micro and macro level. This is similar to Michel Foucault’s definition of heterotopias – a multiplicity of fragmentary spaces in a single place that allows for spontaneity. LJSAF is also about the experience as the essence of festivals – being part of the festival crowd means mingling with other creative bodies and forging new vectors of collaboration.”
Escif appears pleased with the effect as well, perhaps occupying the ideal role of an artist working in public space today in a meaningful way.
“The etymological root of the word ‘politics’ is anything that directs, conditions, or modifies life in cities,” he says. “So painting a big wall in a big city is a big political act, as it directs, conditions, and modifies the urban landscape. Consequently, it also directs, conditions and modifies the lives of the citizens.”
In many cases, we’d have to agree that well-placed graffiti can have a similar effect.
To read more about the history of Slovenia under Italian and German occupation during World Ward II and barbed wire fences click on the links below: