Bos/Hrv/SrpShqip 27 Jul 15 Seeds of Street Art Sprout in Banja Luka

Banja Luka’s street art scene is small and under pressure, but local artists are trying to make graffiti and murals more acceptable both to the authorities and the community. 

Sonja Terzic
Stefan Mihajlovic from Banjaluka next to his grafiti presenting Bruce Lee | Photo courtesy of the author

The artistic works of 24-year-old Stefan Mihajlovic in Banja Luka are a rare symbol of the city’s far from developed urban culture.

In Haniste, a safe distance from the city centre, with the permission of his neighbours, he has been decorating walls for years with large-scale portraits of international and local stars.

However, murals of the famous Yugoslav actor Bata Stojkovic, the reggae icon Bob Marley or the cartoon character Goofy are more the exception than the rule in the capital of Republika Srpska, the mainly Serbian entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The regulations against illegal graffiti are harsh. But Stefan doesn’t mind, saying he feels the need to express himself.

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Mihajlovic says the police came several times while he was working, and sometimes he had to pay fines, but things changed after he won over his neighbours.

“Once, when the police came as I was working, a grandmother in the building shouted from the window: ‘Leave that child alone, don’t touch him!’” he recalled.

“I don’t have any problems now,” he added.

Things do not run so smoothly for street artists who lack Mihaljovic’s powers of persuasion.

It is difficult to persuade the city authorities of the merits of murals being daubed on walls in the centre of town.

Participants in the regional street art festival, Graffiti Jam, which has taken place in Banja Luka since 2011, worked on canvases for years before getting a green light last year to paint one wall in the city centre.

As a result, the centre of Banja Luka got its first legal mural - and most locals have come to appreciate their new ornament, the creation of Artez from Belgrade and Lonac from Zagreb.

The mural, called “Find Your Way to Fly Away,” was declared the best of its kind last November in the international selection on the website Streetartnews.

This breakthrough suggests that urban culture is slowly but steadily infiltrating the Banjaluka mainstream.

The beginnings of murals, graffiti and other types of street art in Banja Luka date back to the unfinished building of the Palace Hotel in the city centre.

This is where Mihajlovic years ago learned his first moves with spray paint along with other youngsters, when he was a teen with dreadlocks.

Although the hotel is unfinished to this day, its walls are now covered with graffiti invisible to passers-by. 

While many of the street artists since went on to explore new hobbies, Mihajlovic has remained true to his vocation.

“It happened overnight that I started painting murals in Haniste. The walls were already covered with graffiti, so I thought – ‘Why not redecorate them?’” he recalled.

“It is better to see some nice, concrete work with a particular topic than some nonsensical scribbles,” he explained.

At first he had to deal with the animosity of his neighbours but they warmed to his choice of motifs in the end.

“I paint international music stars but also local ones. I won the support of the older generation with the graffiti of Bata Stojkovic because while old women have not heard about Bob Marley, they certainly know who Bata Stojkovic is,” he explained.

Today, Mihaljovic is more serious looking and a shaved head has replaced the old dreadlocks.

But he still has the same urge to create. Apart from some minor fines that he had to pay when some neighbours reported him, problems with police disappeared long ago.

“I work in a discreet way; I do not stand out compared to other people that deal with graffiti art in Banjaluka,” he said.

“Even police officers compliment me on my work,” he added.

Members of the art group called Flaster also say that they have never had problems over the messages their works expressed.

Their art project has exerted enormous influence on public perceptions of street art.

Their mural, “Find Your Way to Fly Away,” shows a surreal-looing balloon surrounded by motifs from nature – fish and a rooster on top. Two hands stretch out from the balloon and cross fingers in front, symbolizing a person thinking about something. 

The mural "Find your way to fly" in Banjaluka | Courtesy of Flaster 
The mural "Find your way to fly" in Banjaluka | Courtesy of Flaster 

The mural is what the artists from Flaster had hoped to create for a long time.

The group, formed in 2010 by art graduates, decided to establish a street art festival.

As they never got permission from the city to paint on the walls, the artists decorated canvases as well as the inner courtyard of the student campus.

Graffiti Jam in Banjaluka

Flaster Graffiti Jam was founded as a memorial event for the late Tamara Cvetkovic, pioneer of the street art in Banjaluka who tragically lost her life in an avalanche on Mt Jahorina in 2010.In her honour, the organizers gathered some of the best artists from the region to work together and have a good time at concerts within the festival.

Visitors decided themselves how much they wanted to pay for the entrance fee and from that income the artists obtained materials for work.That was their only source of financing then and today it is not so different: the entire festival spends around 3,000 marks (1,500 euro). It is not nearly enough, but organizers do not let this stop them. 

In the meantime, with the support of the Museum of Contemporary Arts of Banjaluka, the authorities accepted the idea of a couple of artists painting a mural in the city centre which, besides the approval of citizens, would also get international recognition.

“This cooperation opened up a new dimension for what we had fought for, to change the whole conception of ‘street art’ and give graffiti the etiquette of art work, which it already is,” Monika Ponjavic, a member of Flaster, said, explaining that this was how Banjaluka got its first legal public mural.

Grafiti Jam, which was first organized in 2011, meanwhile became a platform for exchange between street artists, and joint work on various materials – from walls to canvases or boards.

Change in the cultural climate:

Members of Flaster founded the festival to popularize this art genre among the general audience, not only because of its importance to Banjaluka but also to introduce artists from the city and the region to a more international audience.

“Proportionally, the city has too few artists compared to its size and the number of artists is falling,” Ponjavic said.

She feels Banjaluka has fallen into a mood of lethargy and melancholy and that artists are not trying to create, or have simply disappeared.

However, Ponjavic says the climate is changing for better with recent developments.

“Street art in Banjaluka does not exist, or if it exists, it is art reduced to a level of an individual that can be found in traces in the city,” she explained. 

“Regrettably, Flaster is currently the only visible manifestation of this, while all the others shut down, if they ever existed.

“Here we are talking exclusively about graffiti art. We cannot even talk about other kinds of street art,” she stressed.

The sites of the grafitti created on the student campus by participants in the Graffiti Jam have became places where young couples, dancers, artists and photographers spend their time, members of Flaster say.

Mirko Komljenović Mirkan, member of the “Anti–cultural Theatre Alija Sirotanovic”, says the city needs more graffiti like those in Borik and Haniste because they make the town look more beautiful and complete. But not every doodle on a wall can be considered art, he said.

“I would like to see more graffiti with strong messages in Banjaluka but the city authorities have no understanding for this kind of art,” he complained.

“I know that a discussion exists whether Banjaluka should finally get a wall for graffiti - but no such wall is even in sight,” he added.

“I recently participated in drawing a provocative graffiti on the building of the ruling party. The police did not take that as art and reacted in record time and the façade was repainted,” Komljenovic recalled.

Davorin Tomic, a journalist of the daily newspaper Press RS, agrees that Banjaluka should have more graffiti in the busy parts of town, noting the examples of other cities.

“The mural in Borik is great and I think we should have more of that in the city,” he said.

“I don’t know if the problem is that we don’t have enough activists who wish to express themselves in this way but what I know is that it is hard get a permit to paint legally on a public surface,” he added.

“This attitude of the local authorities towards street art persuades young artists to give up, or work illegally, which is then more of vandalism than art,” Tomic continued.

Following video presents excerpts from the third Grafiti Jam:

Mihajlovic, from Haniste, says that by drawing graffiti he satisfies his own need to express himself and be recognized in his community.

“People have started to know me for my work and this is satisfying. I have had offers to do political graffiti, and wartime generals, but I wasn’t interested in this,” he added.

“That’s not art, and that kind of work also usually gets repainted. Not a single one of my of my works was ever painted over.”

Mihaljovic spent time living in Greece, Spain and Canada, where he got an impression that street art is much more present and supported.

“My wish is that a some kind of a community could be formed here in Banjaluka that draws and lives this kind of life, and I hope that the time will come when this art genre finally gets the place it deserves in our society,” Mihajlovic concluded.

High art or vandalism?:

Lana Pavlovic, curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Republika Srpska, sees graffiti as form of true artistic expression and as a part of the urban culture of a city.

Its effect on an audience can be equal to that of any other visual artwork because people reflect on its messages, she says.

However, she says negative approaches towards this art has always existed among the authorities, “From Belgrade to New York, as well as in Banjaluka”.

The reason for this, she says, is that graffiti are often connected to worthless doodles that are either offensive or personal, which she sees as vandalism.

“The positive side of graffiti is that they can give new life to certain things, or a new perspective to the public surfaces.

“In relation to that, graffiti and murals should be created as a means of decorating facades…of creativity, and of raising awareness among people about modern currents,” Pavlovic added.

I the struggle over murals, which has existed since the Eighties, the real breakthrough was made by the Flaster group with their festival, she noted.

“Local street artists are mostly painters and designers who really love their job, and whose art sends messages... That is why the Museum decided to support them in 2013,” she said.

The exhibition of canvases painted by street artists, according to Pavlovic, made the public realize that these artists are not delinquents but skilled painters and designers.

“In Banjaluka, just like in any city, good places can be found for quality graffiti. It can look very interesting in the sense that it decorates space and facades. Now we have several quality examples,” she concluded.

This article is funded under the Invisible Art project, supported by the Prince Claus Fund.

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