Interview 05 May 15

Graffiti Artists Mark 20th Anniversary of Bosnia War

American street artist Caleb Neelon worked with young Bosnians of various ethnicities to create a graffiti project called ‘Peace Murals’ to mark 20 years since the end of the conflict.

Denis Dzidic
Peace Mural in Mostar. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Neelon was inspired to start his career in graffiti as a teenager when he saw murals sprayed on the wall that once divided Berlin, another city emerging from years of conflict.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina last month, he worked on three major outdoor artworks with the theme of peace alongside 40 students - one in the divided Bosniak-Croat city of Mostar, the others in Sarajevo and nearby Serb-dominated Eastern Sarajevo.

Neelon described Bosnia and Herzegovina as a "beautiful place with a great natural landscape, good food and friendly people" - but said it was impossible to overlook its troubled recent past.

"Certainly as an American, there are some things about Bosnia that hit you immediately. The obvious ones are of course the holes left from mortars and bullets in what looks like every other building," he said.

"It's far from the first time I have seen war damage, but when you come from a country where there is no such damage and come to a country where there is, it's the first thing you will notice, you cannot help it - even if the damage was from 20-plus years ago. It made me think of how strange it is as an American to from a country so familiar with guns but so unfamiliar with the holes they leave," he added.

Neelon was also struck by the visible manifestations of division created by the separate systems between the two Bosnian political entities, the Bosniak-Croat Federation and the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska.

"The Bosnian police patrolling the downhill side of the road to Trebevic Mountain and the Serbian patrolling the uphill side. The taxi drivers between the two stopping to take the taxi light off their roof and put it inside the car. I wonder if this is really going to work or lead to the best society over the long term?" the artist mused.

Thirty-seven-year-old Neelon is the editor of art magazine Juxtapoz and has authored or collaborated on more than a dozen books, among them ‘The History of American Graffiti’.

His visit was organized by the United States embassy in Sarajevo in cooperation with a local NGO, Motus Adulescenti, to mark the 20th anniversary of the peace deal that ended the war which left 100,000 dead and more than two million displaced.

Although the title of the murals was peace and the group of young artists he worked with were of different ethnicities, Neelon says he did not force the subject.

"I got to know the group but to be honest I never asked who was what, because while I am curious to learn about people's life experiences, I also wanted the painting to be a place where the participants could just be in the moment and have fun painting something big and colourful," he explained.

Peace Mural in Sarajevo. Photo courtesy of the artist.

"I also come from a culture in America where multicultural diversity is normal and asking about someone's religious or ancestral background is often an awkward question. Many Americans only know pieces of where their ancestors came from, or why. I think Americans have a natural respect for the possibility that their ancestors might have wanted to forget and move on from the situation they left," he added.

But he said that the work that the group did together, and the message on the murals, is close to his personal definition of peace.

"Peace is people working hard and playing hard together for a common cause, whether it is building roads and buildings, taking care of those who need care, or partying in the streets," he said.

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