Professor Mitja Velikonja discusses his recent book which centers around the presence of political graffiti in East Central Europe.

On Wednesday afternoon, I attended a book launch centered around the book Post-Socialist Political Graffiti in the Balkans and Central Europe by Mitja Velikonja. Professor Velikonja is the head of cultural studies at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia. The book examines graffiti in the post-socialist Balkans and Central Europe and discusses for whom and by whom graffiti is made as well as varying types of political graffiti. 

The launch began with an introduction by Columbia University Lecturer Aleksandar Boskovic, who is also the co-director of the East Central European Cultural Center. He spoke about the various awards and prestige attached to the book including the Highest Scientific Achievement Award which Professor Velikonja will receive in December by the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia. Boskovic also commented on how the book opens up a new chapter of interdisciplinary science: graffitology. 

Professor Velikonja expanded on his inspiration for discussing graffiti by giving some background information on himself. He first acknowledged this “rare privilege” he had to be in the midpoint between two major cultural shifts. He described how he has lived through two different political states: multiculturalism and socialism in Yugoslavia and nationalism and neoliberalism in post-Yugoslavia. The word “privilege” seemed like an overstatement, however, Professor Velikonja argued that by being in the middle of these two changes, he could see and experience things personally. And, as audience members would soon learn, having context is an important aspect of understanding political graffiti. 

Professor Velikonja then went on to describe what it means to create political graffiti while showing us various pictures of graffiti he has encountered. He would first show us an image of graffiti, translate the message if it needed translating, and then provide the context to truly understand the message. During this portion of the book launch, Professor Velikonja made a distinction between the types of graffiti: aesthetic graffiti and political graffiti. Artists who perform aesthetic graffiti typically have more knowledge and practice and thus make more aesthetically pleasing and culturally “good” graffiti. Political graffiti is created by activists who usually do not have a profound knowledge of technique and their work reads as less aesthetic but still strong in the message. Having said that, all graffiti, Professor Velikonja argued, is somewhat political given that all graffiti is illegal. He discussed how graffiti writers take this freedom that no one gives them and that in itself is somewhat political and explained that “graffiti is outside the walls, not inside”. 

The idea of graffiti being outside the walls refers to the historical rejection of graffiti as art, with “the walls” referring to walls in an art gallery. He related graffiti to something like tattoos as both were seen as too profane and weren’t as widely accepted as “art” until recently. Another reason graffiti remains on the outside and rejects commodification is because of its defining qualities. Professor Velikonja discussed how political graffiti is meant to be demolished as that is part of its statement. Political graffiti is always related to current events and, without context, it is harder to understand the message. Graffiti on the side of a parliament building, for example, will not provide the same impact as it would in an art gallery. Additionally, graffiti can have a lifespan of mere few hours as it might be destroyed by enforcement or sometimes even by other graffiti artists. A short lifespan differs from typical art in the sense that art is usually made to last.

Having never been to a book launch and knowing little about culture in Central Europe (let alone about its graffiti), I came in not knowing what to expect, eagerly awaiting the start. I never considered graffiti to be an art form, but I came away from the talk understanding graffiti’s importance in activism, especially in politically tense climates. While Professor Velikonja did comment on the structure of his book, I had many unknowns about his book, pushing me to want to read the book and more about the subject. Although I cannot speak to how the event may have been formatted if it were in-person, I found the book launch to be most similar to a lecture or presentation. Professor Velikonja gave us sufficient information on the types of graffiti and his philosophies on the topic, equipping us with the knowledge needed to truly understand his book. I encourage all to watch his entire book launch here.

Belgrade via Wikimedia Commons