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The ongoing battle for Serbia’s national identity is vividly inscribed on the walls of its capital, Belgrade. This city’s facades serve as a dynamic canvas, displaying a turbulent and often contentious narrative of Serbia’s recent history. Murals and slogans, ubiquitous throughout the urban landscape, range from depictions of warlords, rock stars and poets to vociferous declarations of kinship with Russia and territorial claims over neighboring Kosovo.

The streets of Belgrade witness a relentless cycle of graffiti being defaced and then restored by those with opposing political views, a testament to the perpetual struggle articulated through paint.

Hana Suica, a researcher penning a book on this phenomenon, describes this as “a battlefield — a permanent war in which some come to desecrate the works, while others come to repaint.”

Belgrade’s oldest mural, dating back to 1984, depicts a student in jeans, holding a red notebook. Created by Cedomir Vasic, an art professor, and his students, it commemorates Josip Broz Tito’s birthday, the socialist leader of former Yugoslavia. Vasic’s arrest following its creation underlines the perceived threat of such public artworks at the time.

The late 1980s saw a shift, with artists from across Yugoslavia invited to create murals for the Non-Aligned Movement’s ninth congress. Many of these works have since become integral to Belgrade’s cityscape. The tumultuous 1990s, marked by Yugoslavia’s disintegration, NATO bombings, and Milosevic’s fall, again saw the city’s walls turn into a canvas for political and personal expression. In 2014, Grupa JNA, a punk group, began painting monochrome portraits of left-leaning cultural figures to celebrate Belgrade’s Partizan sports clubs. Art historian Ljiljana Radosevic remarks, “They wanted to show that you can be a fan and not be a horrible person, that you can contribute to the culture of Belgrade and Serbia.” This artistic trend was later co-opted by far-right factions to glorify figures like Ratko Mladic, a militia leader convicted of war crimes. These murals often become sites of conflict, sometimes guarded by football hooligans and targeted by human rights activists.

One mural proclaims Kosovo is the heart of Serbia, set against the Serbian flag’s red, blue and white hues. This piece resonates with the recent tensions in the region, particularly following a confrontation at a monastery near the Kosovo border. These public artworks, found in diverse settings from affluent neighborhoods to motorway sidings and concrete apartment blocks, pulse with the city’s collective sentiments.

In this context, Suica notes, “Walls become political; there has always been, to varying degrees, politics in graffiti.” In recent times, following major events, the frequency of such expressions has surged. Varied figures, from Putin to Trump, are immortalized on these walls. Notably, a mural depicting combatants from the Wagner group and Russian soldiers who perished in Ukraine stands out. Another significant mural features Zoran Dindic, the assassinated Serbian prime minister, set against a sky-blue backdrop. His divisive legacy, as a progressive visionary and the figure who surrendered Milosevic to The Hague, is reflected in the repeated vandalism of his mural. Radosevic concludes, “You may only see drawings, but all graffiti here is political.” This statement encapsulates the profound impact of these visual narratives in Belgrade, where every stroke of paint is imbued with historical and political significance.

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