COVID-19, MY COMRADE: Central-European Graffiti and Street-Art Responses to Pandemic

Written and photographed by Mitja Velikonja, Professor of Cultural Studies, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia

In the beginning is the scream. We scream, is a dramatic opening of the contemporary classic Change the World Without Taking Power, written by the radical theorist John Holloway in 2002. And lots of screaming can be heard lately, in difficult times of global COVID-19 pandemic. As a researcher of urban cultures and radical politics I’m particularly interested in “sprayed screams,” in the silent language of voices, cries and, yes, screams coming from the walls: in contemporary political graffiti and street art, reacting to the disease and even more to governmental medical, social and economic measures against it. 

And the reaction was immediate and furious! Fieldwork I could conduct this summer in Central Europe — in Northern Italy, Vienna, in few places in Croatia and in my home country Slovenia — was limited and much less systematic than the real fieldwork I’ve being doing for the last twenty years and which results are included in my last book. Still I could take photos of a few dozen very powerful images. Due to circumstance, I had to rely also on footage I got from my friends, colleagues and “graffiti hunters” from practically all continents. Stencils, stickers, “usual” two-dimensional graffiti, murals, cut-outs, paste-ups, posters, different inscriptions etc. — so the whole range of illegal visual urban creativity “screamed” the firm political opinions of street activists. [See this page for examples from Southern California and New York City.] Compared to non-political, subcultural graffiti they were aesthetically weaker, which was compensated by even stronger, more persuasive messages. Due to lockdown — most of the stores were closed — some were not even sprayed, but made with paint for metals, wood or walls, using a usual brush. 

Although it is difficult to make generalizations about such a vast and widespread phenomenon, two features of political graffiti come to the fore. They are much in line with the art theorist Boris Groys’s distinction between critical and activist art in the text On Art Activism (2014): the former offers critiques of social reality, while the latter suggests its transformation.

The first group of political graffiti provides a merciless critique of the present situation: about how power deals with the crisis, what moves it makes. Most of this production is counter-hegemonic, strongly opposed to governments which are in three out of four strongly right-wing oriented countries — namely, Slovenia, Croatia and Austria. The oppositional character of this graffiti is not something self-evident, since in the last few years, this urban visual creativity turned from being the weapon of the weak, if I may borrow useful concept of the anthropologist James C. Scott, against the power, to becoming increasingly also in favor of those in power, a weapon of the strong. In short: right-wing graffiti are starting to battle the left-wing ones on the walls of contemporary cities and towns. If the work of art is valuable only insofar as it is vibrated by the reflexes of the future, as once wrote André Breton, then pandemic-related graffiti tells us that the future is already here and now: in a dystopic today of the new European order, with robot guards patrolling the border, with total control just around the corner, as already brilliantly anticipated in the dark prophetic song Fortress Europe by the alter hip-hop/drum’n’bass band Asian Dub Foundation back in 2002.

Critical thinkers like Giorgio Agamben in his book from few months ago A che punto siamo? L’epidemia come politica (What point are we are? The pandemic as politics) and anonymous street-artists agree that powers use the pandemic to create controlled, supervised and strictly regulated humanity. Graffiti like Fascism under the mask of corona (Photo 1) or Fascism under the mask of democracy explain these processes in few precise words.

Photo 1

Overreactions of the government were accompanied with interventions like Fake pandemic, you fools!!! or NWO corona-fraud. Widespread corruption in purchases of medical means and equipment was commented on: Stop the government who only knows how to steal or Minister provided us with morterators. Governmental ethical and political measures were understood in Orwellian terms: we are facing nothing but Covid-1984, as graffiti in the few cities I’ve been explain in a concise way (Photo 2).

Photo 2

In the emerging concept of the “Security State,” every citizen might be a threat, a suspect, a potential “internal enemy.” Some other graffiti suggest that cyber control will take place even in the bedroom — hence calls to Stop cell-phone control. Even deeper went graffiti Homo homini corona (A man is a corona to another man), exposing horizontality of surveillance and exercise of power à la Michel Foucault (Photo 3).

Photo 3

Another one depicted corona virus on a leash of the government, eating Freedom (Photo 4). 

Photo 4

For activists with spraypaint in their hands it was clear who and what was the real disease (Government = corona; Government = virus!; Janša [Prime Minister of Slovenia] = virus! and Janša is a virus of the terror; Corona = political power; State is the virus!!!) (Photo 5).

Photo 5

A few of them were even ironic, like Death to measures, freedom to the virus!  On the other side, there were those thanking medical staff and rescuers. Although one of the frenetic mantras of the last half year was all of us are in the same boat or that we are all equally affected — the wrongheaded notion that catastrophe levels class differences — graffiti warned that It is easy to isolate yourself if you live in a castle or If I stay home, I’ll remain without home. A solution to the housing problem seems clear: Give me the apartment, and I will quarantine myself.

The second common feature of pandemic-related political graffiti and street art was definitively activist, emancipative: proposing global and local horizontal solidarity and accelerating concrete utopias of a different, more just world. Stop the panic! and Virus is propaganda, you intimidated the ignorant were the first graffiti reactions to the pandemic I noticed in many places. They were soon joined by Quarantine the police; No to the police state!; Quarantine the government; Quarantine elites; Quarantine the army; usually accompanied with anarchist signs. From the early stages of the disease, graffiti announced that There will be revolt after the corona! which is now actually happening in Slovenia (Photo 6).

Photo 6

With even braver words: Put your masks on, that’s revolution! (Photo 7) or Comrade covid undresses the system.

Photo 7

A radical change is necessary for those who need it most: so, some graffiti called for Rent strike! and suggested to Open hotels to homeless people or Send homeless people to empty apartments!

In both cases, critical or activist, the Covid-19 pandemic served as a catalyst which exposed how power works, “the unbearable lightness” of its totalitarian, post-human concepts of rule, but also what comes next, what’s the alternative. The pandemic only made the political situation in Central Europe much, much clearer: in the words of graffiti exposing greed and corruption of power, There’s basically no ideology anymore — The struggle for power is struggle for money and Stop the government that knows only how to steal. Graffiti screamed what was until now only murmured: that there is in fact only one fight — although internally very diverse — against the ruling power that uses the epidemic as a pretext for their own profit, as in many catastrophes before (wars, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, economic crises and previous epidemics). Against the “barbarism with a human face,” as Slavoj Žižek wrote in his book Pandemic! a few months ago, against “ruthless survivalist measures enforced with regret and even sympathy, but legitimized by expert opinions.”

As once done by Francisco Goya’s series of prints The Disasters of War, these corona-related graffiti, stickers and stencils boldly and uncompromisingly reveal The Disasters of Pandemic, incapacities and corruption of today’s governments to face this problem and its silent ambitions to abandon the fundaments of constitutional democracy and social life in general as we know it in the name of — as it seems — a permanent state of emergency. They demand “social distance” and not just “physical distance”: isolation of people and immobilization of society that can be digitally controlled.  Like in the case of Sophocles’ Thebes, plague is only a symptom of much deeper problems. Agamben calls these bio-security processes of strengthening power without any borders or limitations “The Great Transformation.” The brutal honesty of these spray-painted screams from the walls only confirm that in the 21st century it is impossible to imagine art “without weighing the threat of which it is a prime example,” as French  aesthetic philosopher Paul Virilio wrote in his influential essay A Pitiless Art (2000). In different Central European cities, graffiti, banners and posters criticizing the new biopolitical reality, “sanitary terror” justifying apocalyptic discourse, joined others which were supporting simultaneous social struggles in the United States, the Black Lives Matter movement and similar initiatives, and called for justice for George Floyd (many of them included his last words I can’t breathe…) (Photos 8 and 9).

Photo 8
Photo 9

An activist poster entitled Take off your mask sarcastically explained that They kill us with corona virus and with bombs to our heads (… and in many other wonderful ways!) (Photo 10).

Photo 10

Other sprayed political messages included themes of climate crisis and pollution, class exploitation and growing economic inequalities, racism, gender and sexual discrimination, unemployment, chauvinism, the Siamese twins of fake news & hate speech, demolition of the welfare state, and violence against the refugees trying to cross borders of the “First World.” Activists with spray-cans in their hands take the situation about this “medical disease” seriously: but they expect that power would react against all these widespread, deeply rooted and even much more destructive and lethal “social diseases” in an equally serious manner, with the same zeal. Their radical message can be summarized in the lucid words of one of the stencils: We will not go back to normality because the normality is a problem! (Photo 11) Building global, bottom-up alternatives is an inevitable next step.

Photo 11

Dr. Mitja Velikonja is a Professor for Cultural Studies and head of the Center for Cultural and Religious Studies at University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. The main areas of his research include Central-European and Balkan political ideologies, subcultures and graffiti culture, collective memory and post-socialist nostalgia. His last monographs in English are Post-Socialist Political Graffiti in the Balkans and Central Europe (Routledge; 2019), Rock’n’Retro – New Yugoslavism in Contemporary Slovenian Music (Sophia; 2013), Titostalgia – A Study of Nostalgia for Josip Broz (Peace Institute; 2008), Eurosis – A Critique of the New Eurocentrism (Peace Institute; 2005) and Religious Separation and Political Intolerance in Bosnia-Herzegovina (TAMU Press; 2003). A frequent lecturer and visiting professor, he was last at the Remarque Institute of the New York University (2018) and Yale University (2019–2020). 

His forthcoming book, The Chosen Few: Aesthetics and Ideology in Football-Fan Graffiti and Street Art will be published by DoppelHouse Press in September 2021.