Graffiti dating back to the 1940s survive on walls of towns and villages from Ljubljana to the Istrian peninsula. Who wrote them and why? How did they make it this long? Helena Konda and Eric Ušić, who research these slogans, discuss the creation, meaning, and persistence of 1940s political graffiti.
Featuring the songs
- “Pusti bit yo” by Dem Crew
- “Mi volimo soul (Zdenka Kovačiček Tribute)” by Soundcheck Regaz
- “Calma” by Eric Ušić
Support the Podcast
Become a monthly patron on Patreon:
Make a one-time contribution via PayPal/credit card:
Episode Transcript (and More)
Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.
Get the Podcast in Your Inbox ›
PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your guide Peter Korchnak.
[AMBIENT SOUND – STREET TRAFFIC]
There’s something very peculiar at the entrance of the residential building at Dunajska Cesta, or Vienna Road, number 59 in Ljubljana.
You might miss it between a pet food store and a bottle shop, as I did even though I knew what I was looking for and where and even as I was looking right at it. Many local residents don’t know about it, either.
Flanking the door, underneath layers of urban ages and graffiti tags, there are two inscriptions, each consisting of a single word, written vertically in all caps with what may have once been red paint but is now faded and dirty and barely decipherable.
On the right: TITO, T-I-T-O. On the left: STALIN. That’s right, S-T-A-L-I-N, Stalin.
What am I even looking at? Who wrote these and when? How do these words exist on this wall in 2021?
Before I get to all the answers: as always, this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia is brought to you by…you. Thank you to everyone who has signed up to support me and Remembering Yugoslavia on Patreon or donated on the website via PayPal.
Today I welcome new patrons Damir.
If you like the show and wish to support its production, join these generous people at Patreon.com/RememberingYugoslavia or donate one time at PayPal.me/RememberingYU, that’s PayPal dot me slash remembering why-you.
[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – PIANO]
HELENA KONDA: As a child, I was witnessing punk in Slovenia. It was a very nice movement, I mean, nice. For me, it was picturesque, it was interesting. And that’s the time when I first saw graffiti, peace and stuff like that, anarchy. That was my first introduction to graffiti. At that time, there weren’t many of them, they were really removed very quickly.
PETER KORCHNAK: Helena Konda is a lifelong Ljubljana resident and the author of the book Graffiti in Ljubljana: History, Graffiti Artists, City, published in Slovenian in 2017.
HELENA KONDA: And in the 80s and the 90s the hip hop movement came, and it made graffiti more popular, and also, at that time, political graffiti, there was an explosion of graffiti, especially in Ljubljana, but also in other cities, in other towns.
PETER KORCHNAK: It was her involvement in the local street art scene that inspired Helena to explore the history of graffiti in Ljubljana. In the late 90s, early aughts, she led a variety of art workshops among which the graffiti writing one was the most popular. At the time, the local government permitted and even occasionally financed the creation of street art around the city.
The street art and graffiti you see in Ljubljana today continues a tradition dating back to World War II.
HELENA KONDA: The explosion of [the] graffiti movement was in 1941 and especially 42, during [the] Italian occupation.
PETER KORCHNAK: In the Second World War, today’s Slovenia was divided among Germany, Italy, and Hungary. Ljubljana was in the Italian territory and the center of resistance to the occupation.
One method the resistance distributed its messages, in Ljubljana and some larger towns, was writing on walls.
HELENA KONDA: There are still some survivors, some people who did graffiti, who were able to personally tell me what they were doing. People organized, there were usually formations of three activists together, two were on the watch and one was painting, quickly doing the signs. So they’re really organized. It was a guerrilla tactic.
And they were so efficient, with this street art, proto street art they were doing, the Italians they were really believing that they were on the brink of Partisan attack. So at one point, the whole city transformed into an avant garde theater.
PETER KORCHNAK: So what were these resistance fighters writing?
HELENA KONDA: I looked into the archives, there were fantastic photos. There is not a lot of photos, because it was forbidden to do photos then, too. I mean, the graffiti is so fragile, even though it’s [a] very violent intervention into the public space. And it gets lost sometimes in a few minutes, sometimes in a few years. But it’s not something that it’s preserved in normal circumstances.
I made a categorization. The first were graffiti that are neutral. For example, during the occupation, there were a lot of signs changed, and they were making fun of the signs. They were transforming Italian words into funny Slovene words.
Next category was resistance graffiti. That was the largest group, but also the quickest to disappear. Mostly just OF, the letters of the resistance organization. There were “Long Live the Liberation,” and “Long Live Stalin,” “Tito,” or “Red Army.” It was like advertising of the resistance movements and ideas, or maybe just “Down with Fascism, Up with Communism,” stuff like that.
Those graffiti that were made as a sign of activists, they were at first removed by the soldiers, Italian soldiers in the morning. And later there was a decree that the owner of the building has to remove graffiti by 11 o’clock or else they would get punished, and punishments got really severe then. So they were really systematic by [sic] the removing of graffiti.
PETER KORCHNAK: The other side was using walls for propaganda, too.
HELENA KONDA: There were also collaborationist graffiti, but they were not really using graffiti so much, they were more scratching it down and using posters.
And also one category is the graffiti of the occupation side, because they were writing, for example, “We’ll kill Stalin,” or, well, stuff like that, but there were really not a lot of them.
There were graffiti that were made when the liberations of towns happened. So the towns were covered with graffiti, but they were made with chalk. So it was washed down in a few days or weeks, at least. As a celebration, it was an organized event. It was during the parades of Partisans coming to town.
And the special group is those postwar graffiti on the liberated places. Because they were basically written in the time of fragile peace. Nobody was shooting at them, they didn’t have to run for their lives.
OF, the Liberation Front, became the government basically. So they still use this medium, technique but it was now [the] hegemonic point of view. It wasn’t a deficit of communication. So they used graffiti for support of government actions. I mean, they just painted over the old graffiti.
[BACKGROUND AMBIENT NOISE – STREET TRAFFIC]
PETER KORCHNAK: After the war, the city underwent a rebuilding effort, it expanded and grew, and the writings on walls were no longer of use. After Slovenia became independent, Vienna replaced Tito as the name of the Road where STALIN and TITO remain the only graffiti in Ljubljana to survive since the 1940s. So how is it possible the duo made it this far?
HELENA KONDA: Graffiti has always been seen as on the brink of vandalism. It’s either street propaganda or vandalism. So that’s not something that you preserve. It’s not a monument.
I think it stayed there because people who live there aren’t against it. Because there’s a lot of revisionist[s] in Slovenia, a lot of people who don’t share fond memories on that period. And they would like to eliminate the memory of that time of the resistance with the Partisans and everything. So I think that it stayed there, because people who live there haven’t been against that. But it doesn’t look that it will be restorated [sic].
Get the Podcast in Your Inbox ›
“Pusti bit yo” by Dem Crew
PETER KORCHNAK: That was “Pusti bit,” a 2011 track by Dem Crew, a defunct hip hop collective from Istria region. As with the two songs I’ll play later, “Mi volimo soul” by Soundcheck Regaz and “Calma,” the vocals were courtesy of my next guest, Rikki Ooh AKA Eric Ušić, soon to be PhD. It was he, along with Mitja Velikonja, who pointed me to the graffiti on Dunajska cesta after his lecture at the University of Ljubljana on the subject of his dissertation, the 1940s political graffiti in Istria.
“If you think that’s amazing,” Eric told me about STALIN TITO, “come to Vodnjan,” his home town, “and I’ll show you graffiti.”
And so a few days later, I meet Eric in this medieval town 10 kilometers north of Pula for a tour of more STALINs and TITOs on walls I ever imagined.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – VODNJAN PROMO VIDEO]
Born in 1992, Eric grew up in Vodnjan—
ERIC UŠIĆ: —where I live all my life. Vodnjan was always my base, even now, I mean, when I’m doing this research around Istria, Vodnjan is the perfect base for me to stay and to roam around the region.
[SOUNDBITE – VODNJAN PROMO VIDEO]
PETER KORCHNAK: Population 6,100, Vodnjan, or Dignano in Italian, has been a hub of olive oil production for centuries, dating back to Roman times. The town’s other agricultural product is rosé wine. Vodnjan’s importance as an agricultural center declined in the mid-19th century when the Pula shipyard was built. Together with most of western Istria, Vodnjan was included in Italy after the First and in Yugoslavia after the Second World War.
ERIC UŠIĆ: My family background is mixed up. My mother is from Bosnia and Herzegovina, my father is half Italian, half Croatian. My grandmother was Italian and this Italian cultural background influenced me the most, since I finished Italian elementary and high school in Vodnjan and then in Pula, and I grew up in a bilingual context as a bilingual person. So for me, Italian and Croatian are my mother tongues.
PETER KORCHNAK: Eric leads us through cobblestoned streets, squeezed among houses from assorted periods spanning centuries, from the Venetian Gothic and Renaissance to more recent Baroque remodels and additions.
On a January weekday morning (that’s January 2020), we walk mostly in shade, under winding paths of clear blue sky and an occasional wash of slanted sun rays.
The inland town doesn’t get the foot traffic of coastal Rovinj or Poreč and so the streets are nearly deserted, giving it an impression of a sleepy place. “It’s more or less like this all year,” Eric says. “Tourists arrive in the morning, walk around, buy a bottle of olive oil, and head for the next stop.”
During the tour, Eric greets passersby, effortlessly switching between Croatian and Italian. Italians comprise some 17 percent of Vodnjan’s population, one of the highest concentrations in Istria.
I’m curious how Eric became interested in 1940s graffiti.
ERIC UŠIĆ: Yes, the hip hop subculture had a very strong influence on my perception of the social environment and social relations, as well as, I don’t know, a way to express myself. As you know, graffiti are a constitutive part of the hip hop subculture. Let’s say, it’s the main visual element.
So I was involved in two bands, and beside making music and writing lyrics and rapping, we did some hip hop programs and manifestations here in Vodnjan on a local level. The focus was both on the rap music part but mostly on breakdance and graffiti writing. And I grew up with a very close friend of mine who is a graffiti writer still today and he’s still writing around and I was often with him going during the night bombing or drawing some pieces.
I developed slowly this perception of space by graffiti writers. I think that I borrowed from them even if I never wrote myself. I tried sometimes but I got used to writing lyrics instead of writing on the walls, so I chose the paper.
PETER KORCHNAK: How did you go from rapping to studying 1940s graffiti?
ERIC UŠIĆ: Actually, the situation is very simple, because I just turned up from one graffiti expression to another one, from a subcultural to a political one. And for me, it seems logical.
I mean I saw them before I started to do this, let’s say, systematic research about them. But, as I like to say, I never noticed them. I mean, I never stopped and said, “Okay, what are these writings? And what are they communicating? Who wrote them? When, why, how?”
So I started four or five years ago, asking some questions about these writings and started to dig a little bit in literature, but I simply found nothing. I mean, nothing concrete about these political graffiti.
And then I simply started to notice them more and more and more.
PETER KORCHNAK: Istria was a contested region in the first half of the 20th century. Until World War I, the peninsula was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. After World War I, Istria was awarded to Italy.
From the 1920s on, the Mussolini government implemented something called border fascism here, which entailed forcible italianization of the Slavic population and radical anti-Slavic policies, including closures of schools, prohibitions of Croatian and Slovene languages as well as executions of local socialists and communists. A large Italian immigration from the Apennine Peninsula also took place in this interwar period.
In absence of any method of precisely dating them, slogan semantics are significant, Eric explains. What the writing says can help place it in a particular period and a particular political goal.
In World War Two, the Yugoslav communists helped organize the local resistance movement. The Partisan graffiti was a means of symbolic struggle, Eric says. It helped visualize the resistance movement, complementing newspapers and theater as mass media and propaganda tools.
ERIC UŠIĆ: So these graffiti that I’m researching, they can be actually divided in three categories.
So we have the Partisan graffiti, so graffiti that were written by Partisans or by resistance activists that were writing antifascist messages on the wall[s], trying to mobilize people signalizing [sic] their presence in towns, villages, and in the territory in general. Trying to provoke the fascist local government, since the fascist too had their own visual projections of their ideology and government.
PETER KORCHNAK: They’d write slogans like the first one Eric shows me on Trgovačka ulica (Market Street). VIVA LA ARMATA ROSSA (Long Live the Red Army), with “VIVA” abbreviated into two overlapping letters V forming an odd W.
Like this one, the vast majority of graffiti are made using red paint. Black was used sometimes as well and there are a few rare ones in white or blue paint. Basically whatever paint the writers could find, around the house or in ship yards or even home-made paints made from a mix of earth, lime, and water.
[COMMERCIAL INTERLUDE JINGLE]
PETER KORCHNAK: Hi there, it’s me, Peter Korchnak, the creator and producer of Remembering Yugoslavia, with a snapshot of the making of the podcast.
I interview people across the Balkans and beyond, do a great deal of research, writing, recording, editing, and when possible traveling to the region to bring you the stories of this podcast two to four times a month.
It is your support that makes this reporting possible; it is you who helps keep alive the memory of the country that no longer exists.
Ensure I can cover the next important story by supporting me on Patreon. Please go to Patreon.com/RememberingYugoslavia to become a monthly supporter now. Or donate one time at PayPal.me/RememberingYU, that’s PayPal dot me slash remembering why-you.
Alright, back to the graffiti.
[COMMERCIAL INTERLUDE JINGLE]
PETER KORCHNAK: After Italy capitulated in 1943, Tito’s nascent government proclaimed their plan to include Istria in postwar Yugoslavia. It was in this period that the writing of slogans on walls, parole, intensified.
ERIC UŠIĆ: The second group is the liberation part of graffiti, so graffiti that were written during the liberation phase by local activists or by Partisans coming through the liberated territory.
PETER KORCHNAK: Including VIVA DIGNANO LIBERATA (Long Live Liberated Vodnjan) or another Italian inscription that says—
ERIC UŠIĆ: So DIGNANO—this town, Vodnjan, the name in Italian is Dignano— A DATO 206 COMBATENTI ALL’ESERCITO DE TITO, so this town gave 206 fighters to Tito’s army—
PETER KORCHNAK: —followed by fragments Eric surmises completed the inscription with “to place Istria in Yugoslavia.”
Another frequent slogan on Vodnjan’s walls anticipating Istria’s postwar demarcation as a Yugoslav territory, with further westward expansion, is TRIESTE BELGRADO (Trieste Belgrade) or, elsewhere around Istria, “Trieste Is Ours.”
Indeed, because authors had little time and space to do the work, most graffiti are short and punchy.
It was after the war that graffiti writing truly exploded in Istria. The victorious allies negotiated various plans of Istria’s territorial division. In March 1946, they sent a commission of experts to Istria to assess the situation on the ground and recommend where the border between Italy and the newly-formed socialist Yugoslavia should be.
ERIC UŠIĆ: The third and final phase of graffiti writing was the post war, so the immediate post war period. And that was a very massive project of writing on the walls around not only Istria but Slovenian littoral, too, Trieste, and Rijeka, since this region was disputed between Italy and Yugoslavia.
The local communist organization and various pro-Yugoslav subjects, but mainly the communist organizations, organized massive propaganda activity of writing pro-Yugoslav graffiti on the walls across Istria. And the majority of these graffiti that survived until today were made exactly in this context.
PETER KORCHNAK: The Interallied Commission’s route through Istria was unknown, so locals who wanted for Istria to be included in socialist Yugoslavia rather than post-fascist Italy hedged their bets and flooded the most likely routes with slogans. Hundreds of thousands of graffiti expressing a pro-Yugoslav orientation welcomed the Commission wherever they went.
On Castello Street, a thoroughfare in central Vodnjan, most houses bear some graffiti. SIEMPRE CON TITO (Always with Tito). VOGLIAMO VIVERE EN JUGOSLAVIA (We Want to Live in Yugoslavia). VIVA TITO, right across the street from a church no less.
ERIC UŠIĆ: If we talk about postwar graffiti the main goal was, on one hand, to declare our position to be pro-Yugoslav. So, WE WANT TO LIVE IN YUGOSLAVIA; WE WANT TITO; TITO IS OURS…
The most common, let’s say, subject on the wall, it’s the claim for Yugoslavia, so, let’s say, a call for annexation for Yugoslavia, annexation or a Yugoslav solution of the region.
There is, I think, a nice nice slogan, that somehow is a condensation of all these feelings and aspirations and ideological discourses that says, IT IS NOT TITO THAT WANTS ISTRIA, IT’S ISTRIA THAT WANTS TITO. So, we are the ones who want to live in Yugoslavia, or they are writing saying, we fought so we can live in Yugoslavia.
PETER KORCHNAK: It’s impossible to say how much the slogans influenced the Commission but Istria ended up in Yugoslavia, so there you go.
Slogans around Vodnjan are written almost exclusively in Italian. Elsewhere around the peninsula, as another population movement got underway, this time of more than 200,000 Italians back to their mainland, including most of Eric’s grandmother’s family, and as the Yugoslav nationalist fervor increased, the language of the slogans shifted from Italian to Croatian.
Another shift was from communist graffiti associated with the Soviet Union, like hammer-and-sickles and STALINs, to Yugoslav oriented ones, like red stars and TITOs. Hammer-sickles and Stalins were also more likely to be eliminated during socialism for being too closely connected with the Soviets and then, after 1991, with communism. Symbols are indeed worth a thousand words.
On Pian Street, perhaps the biggest graffito in Vodnjan says, in Italian, WE WANT THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THE ATLANTIC CHARTER TO BE RESPECTED. The 1941 document, which outlined the American and British vision of postwar Europe, included provisions prohibiting territorial expansion and changes against the will of area residents. Beneath the slogan are a red star and a hammer-sickle, now partly obscured behind a downspout. And, between two shuttered windows, also in Italian, ALWAYS WITH TITO.
The three-story house with a back yard is for sale, Eric says. He’d love to have a 100,000 euros handy to buy it and establish a museum of Istrian antifascism. The exhibition would start at the building’s facade, before you even enter the museum.
“Mi volimo soul (Zdenka Kovačiček Tribute)” by Soundcheck Regaz
ERIC UŠIĆ: It’s interesting to see how are they created. So to notice some aesthetical [sic], technical, and stylistic nuances of their writers, because there are some examples where you can see that the writer was probably an Italian trying to write in Croatian or a Croatian or Slovene trying to write in Italian. It’s saying much about the cultural, social context and social dynamics of the period.
PETER KORCHNAK: Like Helena in Ljubljana, Eric got a chance to speak with actual graffiti writers around Istria.
ERIC UŠIĆ: It was not an easy task to find people who wrote graffiti. First because, as it is for modern sub-cultural graffiti and political graffiti, for many of them, you can’t find the author, especially when you go around the town, you see a writing and how do you know who wrote it? That’s the same with the wartime and postwar graffiti, that there were hundreds of people writing them and I mean, you can’t know who wrote each one of them. And it’s very difficult to start. Whom do you ask? And how do you even find someone who saw someone writing and not who actually wrote something on the wall?
PETER KORCHNAK: But Eric got lucky. A friend’s grandfather turned out to be a parole writer. Then a man he met on one of his field trips introduced Eric to a neighbor who had written some of the slogans in that town. And when the local paper Glas Istre interviewed Eric about his research, he had them include his phone number in the three-page spread, which prompted a phone call from a man whose mother-in-law had been a resistance activist.
ERIC UŠIĆ: And unfortunately, two of my interviewees died during the first lockdown, but not they were not affected by corona but the time did its part.
When I asked them about how it was to write on the walls, they wanted to talk about some bigger issues. For them, these writing[s] on the walls were only some fragments of all these, let’s say, collective and individual experiences during the war. Even if I insisted to talk about graffiti, they wanted to talk about, I don’t know, Tito, Stalin, Hitler, the fascists. And so let’s say bigger narratives. And there [sic] were somehow amazed by my interest in this writings on the walls.
And I was especially insisting to see if they can share with me some of this war wartime experiences because these types of war experiences are not present in historiography. Usually we can find some experiences by Partisans, by journalists, by intellectuals, by artists, but by experiences by people who actually risked their own life to write WE WANT TITO, or LONG LIVE STALIN, or, I don’t know, DEATH TO FASCISM FREEDOM TO THE PEOPLE, to write that on the walls of their villages and towns and to risk their life because they found some written testimonies in some documents where people were shot while they were writing, people were arrested and so on.
So I think this courage and hazardous activity is actually fascinating because it shows how the resistance movement fought not only with weapons but with words.
And I often try to imagine myself in this wartime context, waking up in the morning, going out on the street and suddenly seeing, I don’t know, 20 red graffiti saying LONG LIVE TITO and DEATH TO FASCISM. And I think that it’s an impressive experience.
PETER KORCHNAK: The graffiti, Eric says, were a way of documenting lived experience and social memory. They were a political practice that visualized ideology in the built environment. In the post-Yugoslav context, corresponding practices included the renaming of streets, the damaging or destroying of monuments, and yes, the writing of new graffiti.
If Vodnjan is pretty much an open-air museum of these painted slogans, I wonder how many 1940s graffiti there are in all of Istria.
ERIC UŠIĆ: In two years, I visited more than 200 cities, towns, villages in Istria, and in 125 locations, in general, I found 1,251 surviving graffiti.
And then I divided them into the, let’s say, readable ones, so the graffiti that are mostly intact and understandable, that’s the majority of them, there are almost 700 of them. And in them I include red stars and flags; the red star or the hammer and the sickle is a symbol that is, I think, very, very clear and whose meaning is and context, background is very clear.
PETER KORCHNAK: There are 95 full graffiti in Vodnjan alone, almost 14 percent of the Istrian total.
ERIC UŠIĆ: And there are fragments, so graffiti where you can see only a word for example, LONG LIVE, but there is no continuation, so you simply can’t deduce what was the full message.
PETER KORCHNAK: 36 of 241 fragmented graffiti, or 15 percent, are in Vodnjan.
ERIC UŠIĆ: And then there are the graffiti that are only traces or faded so much that you simply can’t understand the message. But you can understand that they are graffiti from the period since they are mostly located near fully understandable graffiti or only fragmented graffiti.
PETER KORCHNAK: These are letters or fragments of letters faded into various tints of pink or black, gradients blending into the gray or tan plaster clinging to the historic homes, or simply interrupted by broken plaster or repairs done to buildings. Damaged graffiti can be difficult to decipher but Eric documents and tries to decode the fragments too.
Even as these graffiti succumb to the Tooth of Time, as the local expression goes, the fact that hundreds still remain 70-75 years since they were first created fills me with awe and prompts my most important question.
ERIC UŠIĆ: I often ask not only how this graffiti survived until today, but how did many graffiti about Stalin survived 1948, the rupture between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and its repercussions. So many of these graffiti, so glorifying Stalin, are still present until today. So they survived these two, let’s say, the first rupture in 1948 and the second rupture in the 90s.
The survival of these graffiti is actually a question that I don’t even know how to— even if there is a possible answer.
I think one of the answer[s] could be that many people moved away after World War Two, and many of these graffiti that still survive until today are located on empty houses, or ruins, or simply objects that are not very much in use. But many of them are located on houses where people still live today. So that’s, I think, plausible only, in part, not as a full answer.
The crucial point is that these graffiti are located on private property. The local government and municipalities can’t simply say to someone, “Okay, you have to erase this writing.” And that’s why no one is even interfering with these facades and so on.
PETER KORCHNAK: All that said, more than the historical context, Eric is interested in how people perceive and interpret these slogans, how they interact with the graffiti, how these writings activate their mental maps, how they perceive space and how that perception changes once the graffiti enters their consciousness.
On the one hand, these slogans are painted in large letters. They were meant to be seen and read from afar, so you often have to step back to see them. On the other hand, most are painted above ground floor windows and doorways: that’s where the space was and that’s where they’re harder to see in the course of everyday life as well as harder to remove.
It is this lived experience of the graffiti that, too, goes a long way toward explaining their longevity.
ERIC UŠIĆ: It is possible that people living in the streets where these graffiti are present or in towns wherever they are present, we are used to many different, let’s say, expressions on the walls of our cities, towns. You get used to the writings on the walls. And I think that people through time, as they get habituated to this quantity of graffiti, they start to simply don’t [sic] bother about what is written on the walls. So people just get used to some of these writings and they simply didn’t notice them after a while.
And I had some experiences during my fieldwork where I talked with some persons living in a house on whose facade is written, I don’t know, Tito, Stalin, Yugoslavia, and so on. And they were actually amazed that I noticed that. Many of them told me, “Oh, I forgot that it’s here,” or even, “I never noticed this writing until you asked me.”
As the sociologist Georg Simmel would say there, there is this blase feeling where you are simply not noticing things around you, let’s say because you are focused on your own habits and everyday life and you just go, go, go and don’t look too much around you and leave all these sensations for specific situations.
They don’t spend their time thinking about them. And when I talk with them, they need a little bit just to focus and to say, “Okay, you mean, okay, this, ŽIVIO TITO, I know what are these writing.” So I think that this, as I told before, this graffiti are, let’s say, a visual part of their communities.
PETER KORCHNAK: Near Vodnjan’s main square we run into three boys, aged perhaps ten or twelve, bouncing a football off of buildings. After we chit-chat a bit, Eric points to the ISTRIA WANTS TITO graffito on a nearby house and asks the boys if they know what it is. They actually can’t see it, so I approach the wall and outline the letters with my hand. Finally their eyes refocus and they exclaim with recognition and tell us all about other similar writings they’ve seen in adjacent streets. Just like Eric’s perception of his town changed, theirs did too and they started to notice something they hadn’t noticed before.
Most people just walk by these graffiti without paying any attention to them, Eric says. Indeed, of over 5,000 photos on Instagram with the hashtag #vodnjan, only a handful show the slogans and even then only in the background or off to the side.
ERIC UŠIĆ: How did these graffiti survive? I think that’s actually a very complex research question that I simply cannot address in this dissertation because it requires to take a broader methodological setup. And I think that it goes even to, I don’t know, metaphysics or something. So to try to explain how these graffiti survived, how this spirit of Yugoslavia survived all this long…
“Calma” by Eric Ušić
PETER KORCHNAK: The Glas Istre article helped Eric’s Vodnjan neighbors understand what he’s doing staring at walls all the time. But of course not everyone reads the paper. So how do people react to your field research?
ERIC UŠIĆ: The first reaction is amazement, they say, “Ah, you are doing this,” and they usually start to laugh because they found somehow funny that someone is going around and photographing these writings.
But as we start to talk, these people are usually critical mostly toward the post Yugoslav processes of the transition, because somehow these graffiti are some triggers of retrospection and critical reflection toward the broader social and political context in which they are situated right now.
So, first step is a look backwards, “Aha, yes, these graffiti were written during World War Two, in the aftermath of World War Two.” Then they usually start to talk about Yugoslavia. And then soon they change their focus toward the current situation in Croatia and make some comparations [sic] and usually start to criticize political and social processes.
For some of them, they inscribe some nostalgic meanings and feelings into [the] graffiti. Some of them were perceiving them only as historical artefacts and historical traces so wanted to talk more about their historical backgrounds.
What I think it’s important to say that people with whom I talked that there were many of them who actually said, “I don’t hate no one, I don’t hate Serbs, I don’t hate Bosnians, I am tolerant towards anyone if they are good persons,” and so on. So I think that these graffiti are not only symbols from the past, but tools for, let’s say, our critical reflection of both the past and the present, but even, let’s say, some symbols of what it was to live in a multicultural country as Yugoslavia was.
I am trying actually to investigate how this rupture with the fall of— dissolution of Yugoslavia affected their meaning. So what is their meaning today?
PETER KORCHNAK: Ultimately, these graffiti are indeed an open-air archive of certain historical periods and how those events are interpreted today. In these writings on walls you can read history, you can explore memory, you can trace ethnic, national, and linguistic developments, you see in them a reflection of political and even economic landscapes. They are—
ERIC UŠIĆ: —documents that we can read, decipher, and draw some conclusions from them, not only about the historical context of their production, but about the current state of affairs culturally, politically and so on, even economically.
We have the touristic part of Istria, that is more touristified, where the facades are more let’s say clean quotation marks clean from graffiti in general. And then we have some isolated towns, villages where when I entered them to research at my my first thought is, “Oh my god, this looks like the postwar period with this border issue was 10 years ago and not 80 years ago.” So I think that these graffiti are very indicative even for this socioeconomic development of the region where we can see some disparities.
PETER KORCHNAK: As for trying to preserve these artefacts…
ERIC UŠIĆ: I think that some of them can be preserved as historical documents, even if now it’s a little bit tricky, I think, to define their value in this current ethnonationalist context. I mean, how can you say that some pro-Yugoslav graffiti have to be preserved in this context, when even when antifascist monuments cannot survive the neofascist and nationalist interventions?
PETER KORCHNAK: Eric leaves the best of the tour for last.
PETER KORCHNAK: Ooh, look at this one, look at this one.
ERIC UŠIĆ: Hammer-sickle, red star, this is it.
PETER KORCHNAK: This is it.
PETER KORCHNAK: At the end of Pian Street, I am left speechless despite having seen countless slogans by now. Spanning nearly the height of a door standing next to it, the graffito comprises a large five-pointed star, above VIVA STALIN, and a hammer-sickle at the bottom. It’s well done, likely with a stencil, and its simplicity packs an unexpected punch.
ERIC UŠIĆ: No, this one is really incredible.
PETER KORCHNAK: Here it is untouched but for evidence of the building’s electric circuits having been replaced a few years ago. Whoever did the work was careful to work around the graffito.
ERIC UŠIĆ: It’s like Walter Benjamin when he writes about the aura of the artistic piece, of a piece of art. When you see it, you are close to it and you can feel it, and you can’t reproduce it. It has a unique aura, and that’s it, you see this, and wow.
This is, I would say, quite subversive, to have this here.
PETER KORCHNAK: It was subversive before 1948; it was subversive after the Tito-Stalin split; it was subversive throughout the socialist period; it was subversive in the 90s; and it’s subversive now.
In the time we stand before the graffito, I go from feeling outrage at seeing these communist symbols and the name of communism’s greatest villain flaunting their presence in a European Union country, to feeling odd fascination underscored with goosebumps. I simply cannot look away.
But I must go and so finally, I bid Eric farewell. And as the thoughts of subversion swirl through my soul, I drive to see more of the place that makes me whole.
Get the Podcast in Your Inbox ›
PETER KORCHNAK: I see the wall writings from the 1940s in other Istrian towns.
In the hilltop town of Buje, between Josip Broz Tito Square and Garibaldi Street, both Tito and Stalin continue to live long lives on walls of centuries-old houses.
In Raša, or Arsia in Italian, a mining colony the Italians built in the 30s, dozens of graffiti remain. A local man told Eric the graffiti like LONG LIVE TITO or WE WANT TO LIVE IN YUGOSLAVIA were from the 90s and expressed people’s allegiance to Tito and their desire to remain in Yugoslavia. Thus the slogans created in the 1940s made sense back then, during the creation of Yugoslavia, and they made sense in the period of Yugoslavia’s dissolution. This is how a 75-year old narrative can be reactivated for new political goals.
It is in Krapan, a village up a one-lane road from Raša, that I see the ultimate writing on the wall. On an apartment building, above a ground floor window, uneven capital letters, the red paint chipping here, smeared over with cement there, proclaim, OVDJE JE JUGOSLAVIA (Here is Yugoslavia). And so the dream I had as a boy, to go to Yugoslavia, the dream never fulfilled because my family wasn’t allowed to travel there and when we were the country was no more, the dream comes back to life—and true. Finally, even though the country no longer exists, I am in Yugoslavia.
Get the Podcast in Your Inbox ›
PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:
MITJA VELIKONJA: We find this strong nostalgic current also in other places of the Western world. Nostalgia is one of the ideological currents also elsewhere.
PETER KORCHNAK: On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, a true delight: a wide-ranging interview with Mitja Velikonja, a professor at the University of Ljubljana, who dedicates himself to the study of nostalgia and cultural memory of Yugoslavia and Yugoslav socialism.
Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.
Get the Podcast in Your Inbox ›
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, photos of graffiti, and the transcript of this episode in the show notes at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
If you like this podcast, tell your friends and share on social media. And if you’re feeling subversive, become a monthly supporter on Patreon.
Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. Additional music by Nosens, Puh, and Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons. Music by Dem Crew, Soundcheck Regaz, and Eric Ušić played with permission and eternal gratitude.
I am Peter Korchňak.
January 8, 2022 at 09:19
This was great. We’re here, visiting Vodjnan for eight weeks this winter, and were wondering about the fabulous old graffiti. Thank you.