A street art tour of Zagreb

Daryl Mersom discovers the ephemeral art of the city streets
Street Art
©Daryl Mersom
By Daryl Mersom |
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While the urban fabric of Zagreb hasn’t changed all that much in the last ten or twenty years, large-scale art pieces are adding flourishes of colour to the city centre.

Graffiti is as old as civilisation itself. Ancient Romans etched bawdy words onto the basilicas of Pompeii. More artistically, perhaps, in Ancient Greece, rejected lovers often inscribed poems on the doorways of their affection.

Zagreb’s sooty facades are strewn with unartistic graffiti: simplistic tags and scrawls declaring loyalty to Dinamo ‘The Bad Blue Boys’ (the local football team), are everywhere. Depending on where you sit, it’s a blatant form of territory marking, or an attack on public space as a form of art or protest.

Unlike many capital cities still figuring that one out, Zagreb is beginning to embrace street art. Taking a laissez-faire approach to the scourge of scribbles, the city is also making big strides towards outdoor-art enlightenment.

Zagreb’s cultural institutions have sought urban artists to decorate their exterior walls – prolific OKO has painted large murals at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Modern Gallery. More interestingly, the municipal authorities' decision to give over the wall of Dolac (the symbolic heart of Zagreb, and a highly-visible public space) to a popular graphic-artist, suggests that Zagreb is beginning to view street art as a legitimate attraction.

Walking off the blue tram at the far-west Ljubljanica, past rows of blue trams parked up for the night, the scene evokes that nightmarish feeling when you doze off on a train and find yourself at the last stop on the line.

The quiet neighbourhood is a long way from Branimir, the finest display of urban art in the city according to the tour guides. The south side of Branimirova ulica (the street connecting the bus and train stations) is the obvious place to start any street art tour of Zagreb, with its scattering of large murals running parallel to the train tracks. But Branimir is ‘no hall of fame’ says Slaven Kosanović, the prolific street artist who goes by Lunar. And he should know: Lunar has been leaving his mark on the city since ’89.

Slaven lives and works in Zagreb’s residential west, drafting out the cartoon cats and colourful, brash fonts that appear all over the capital. ‘Flying Roots’ on Desinićka ulica is a prime example of his work: a cartoon cat sits at the top of a busy tree, with angel wings and bubble-like leaves.

The largest scale art work he can do is currently restricted to the size of the only empty wall in his bedroom. There is a cat made from cardboard, wearing a half-painted Hawaiian shirt on the wall, and on the desktop behind him, a mood board consisting largely of Magnum, P.I. striking poses.  

Slaven is right about Branimir: the faded walls are disappointing these days. Aside from a small number of very good pieces, much of the work has been painted over and spoiled. The earliest known work to appear on Branimir was by the abstract artist Julije Knifer who dealt in bold, black geometric shapes. In 1999, Slaven worked with art director and fortuitously-named Branimir Sabljic to bring artists from Croatia and Germany together to repaint it. The wall’s last big transformation was back in 2009 when it became the ‘Museum of Street Art.’ Nearly a decade on, a lot of this work needs touching up.

To better understand the city’s urban art scene, visit some of Zagreb’s lesser-known neighbourhoods. Slaven suggests a vintage piece by the artist Dario (DWCDP) on Nova Cesta, one of the few remaining works after the city was whitewashed for the 1987 Universiade, the student Olympics held previously in Rome, Tokyo and Moscow.

For thought-provoking pieces in the city centre, try the 3D turtle painted beneath the red parasols of Dolac market in the Old Town by French artist Étien’. Like the whale at Place Gradec, it is a brilliant example of anamorphosis: both become three dimensional when viewed from the correct angle.

Behind the Westin Hotel, on Pierottijeva, are a few fantastic pieces by Lonac, another of the city’s best-known street artists. Originally commissioned for the Ohoho Festival, works include ‘Medika Diving’ which integrates an existing pipe on the wall into the piece as a bright green snorkel, named after AKC Medika, the gloriously shabby community-centre-cum-concert space adjacent to the piece. ‘Technicolor Dream,’ is a vast blue dream-like collaboration with Chez 186, another stalwart of the local scene, also responsible for the square of abstract interweaving colours that float between these murals.

From Medika, head south on foot or by tram to the Museum of Contemporary Art, found beneath Novi Zagreb’s giant socialist slabs of concrete. It’s worth the visit alone to see a part of Zagreb so unlike the Austro-Hungarian centre.

The collection includes contemporary Croatian works, plus big international names like Getulio Alviani, Max Bill and Marina Abramović, and life-size spiral slides by Carsten Höller like the ones he installed in the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall.

Outside of the 14,500 square metre space, the walls are covered in animals by OKO, an artist who has transformed Zagreb into her own ‘confessional booth’, sharing intimate details on the walls of the city. Her all-seeing eyes appear in all manner of places across Zagreb and have adorned everything from warehouse skateparks to vintage bicycles.

OKO’s art has ‘stayed on the street’ because it is here that she feels the freest to express herself. Away from the galleries and museums, the sooty parade of Habsburg architecture and socialist-era structures are an increasingly sanctioned space for subversive and hugely creative artists to turn into their own personal canvas. Tucked behind market-places, splayed over high-rises, or hidden beneath the bins, the streets are where you’ll find the best of Zagreb’s alternative art scene.

Images courtesy of Lunar, Étien’, and the author.

RECOMMENDED: a walk around Novi Zagreb’s giant socialist slabs of concrete

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