How Mostar became the largest street art gallery in the Balkans.

“Can you send me the prices of the spray and paints by Monday? My colleague Tomi will then call you about the details.” Marina Djapic, alias Marina Mimoza, had many phone calls like this over the summer. She is the founder of the Street Arts Festival Mostar (SAFMO), which was held for the 11th time at the beginning of September.

Marina, 35, along with six colleagues from all over Mostar – formally united via the Rezon Association for the Advancement of Urban Culture, Contemporary and Public Art – can finally breathe a sigh of relief after a year of work on this edition of the festival. Mostar is now bedecked with new murals and graffiti by international and local artists, with the number of outdoor artworks created in the past 11 years of SAFMO totaling at almost two hundred.

Inspired by Banksy

It all started in 2011 when Marina saw a documentary film directed by street-art superstar Banksy, and it left a strong impression on her.

“It started spontaneously out of a desire to be actively involved in the cultural life of the city, to revitalize public spaces through art and to create a street art scene in Mostar,” she recalls. “From the beginning, enthusiasm and solidarity were the foundation from which the festival emerged.”

She describes how, over time, a core group of people from different generations and professions came together to foster the idea and mission of the festival.

Painting Over the Gray

Alex Senna, a street artist from Sao Paulo – considered the “capital” of street art in Brazil – arrived in Mostar for the first time this year as an invited guest. His murals can be seen in a couple dozen cities on three continents. They are mainly black and white, but he believes that “nothing is like that in real life.”

“I didn’t know much about Mostar and this part of the world,” Senna says. Taking part in SAFMO was “a great opportunity for me to see people, the culture and the country. It is a great honor to leave a piece of me in the city. I hope it tells a story that people can connect to.”

Senna’s artwork in Mostar is, in his words, “like a play; like a game between child and shadow, and at the same time it is like a kid in his individuality. Sometimes we put kids in a place they don’t like, but this is different: the kid is the protagonist of their own story and the kid has that connection, this communication with the shadow which is part of itself.”

A few hundred meters away, HNRX, an artist from Innsbruck, Austria, is carefully mixing the paints that will soon decorate the wall of a four-story building.

When he arrived, HNRX says he started walking the streets to get a better feel for Mostar. His work is a “mix of different abstract shapes and organic samples like lemons, plants, glass,” he says. “For me, it is just a playground to play around, it has no specific meaning. It means it is in between surreal and abstract work.”

Ljubica Zovko, a 60-year-old from Mostar, enthusiastically follows everything that happens in her neighborhood. She caught the street art bug when she saw the first painted buildings in the early years of the festival that takes place in a city still dotted with buildings ruined in the war of 1992-1994.

In previous festivals, she’s painted two walls in her neighborhood in a mostly-Croat part of the city. After getting approval from the festival committee, she showed her proposals to the neighbors. “I won them over and they gave their consent to paint the walls,” she says, smiling, adding that in the end the locals were “delighted.”

In the wake of the war, “everything was monotonous, destroyed and gray, and now you can see that it is being revived. A lot of tourists come to our street now to take photos near the mural,” Ljubica says, looking around for HNRX to ask his advice on how to paint the edges of her unfinished mural.

In the blazing heat of August, the artists, some perched on cranes several meters above ground, are the object of curious residents’ gaze. The locals cheer them on, offering them food and drinks. Passersby stop, take photos, and post images of the artistic novelties on social networks.

Conversations Over Coffee on the Wall

Outside the main festival this year, artists in more traditional forms showed their work, while local artists decorated the neglected walls of the old Yugoslav People’s Army barracks with murals and graffiti. At a children’s corner, young festival visitors together with their parents learned about the basics of wall painting. Performers from across the Western Balkan region gave concerts.

This year also featured the attendance of Mostar’s mayor at the “Coffee on the wall” event, where city residents can get acquainted with urban culture and discuss urban art. Mayor Mario Kordic said he shared the festival’s vision: “To live together with the city, use open areas, hang out outdoors.”

The mayor said the festival could count on the full support of City Hall. “We are going to paint Mostar to be beautiful, colorful, full of murals, pictures and positive messages,” Kordic said, adding that he had spoken with the organizers about ways to set up a permanent space “where young people could socialize and display their creative abilities.”

Such a vision carries special weight in a city devastated by fighting between Croat and Bosniak forces in the early 1990s that left political and social rifts that remain all too visible. Even after local elections were finally held in 2020 after 12 years of delay due to infighting between the main political parties,Mostar is widely seen as a city divided into eastern and Bosniak versus western and Croat sides.

Looking ahead, SAFMO founder Djapic says the goal is to embed the local community even more closely into the annual festival.

A Third Mostar Rises

One piece of graffiti making a statement on the side of a never-completed bank in the center of Mostar, slated to soon become the local Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina government building, reads Zavadi pa vladaj – “Divide and conquer.”

For Mostar poet and journalist Marko Tomas, “The Street Arts Festival is only one of the manifestations, manifestations of the so-called a common, third Mostar, which does not ignore but does not accept the political divisions of the unique whole tissue that every city is.”

The festival, he goes on, “is a manifestation of resistance to the imposed political reality.”

Photographer Sead Sasivarevic took many of the photos that accompany this article. He believes that the festival has the potential to turn Mostar into an open museum of street art, enriched with the work of renowned urban artists. Once a banker in Sarajevo, during the coronavirus pandemic he moved to the Mostar suburb of Blagaj to set up a sustainable farming project; he served as official photographer of the Street Arts Festival this year.

“Maybe we are not aware of its importance, but Mostar can become a city that people will visit precisely because of that. This is in the same category as works like the Old Bridge, art in a public space that is accessible to everyone,” Sasivarevic says, referring to the city’s most famous monument – the 16th-century bridge over the Neretva River that was destroyed during the siege in 1993 and later reconstructed.

Djapic believes that the young people gathered around the idea of SAFMO this year advanced and strengthened the festival, and the positive vibes that participating artists said they picked up in Mostar will roll over into future editions.

“There are a lot of plans for the coming years, but let’s take a rest first. And just to let you know, we haven’t given up yet on bringing Banksy to Mostar,” Djapic says, smiling, by the cold waters of the Neretva, in one of the warmest and most exotic cities of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Dragan Stanimirovic is the Current Affairs producer at Al Jazeera Balkans, a post he has held since 2012. In a journalism career of more than 25 years, he has reported for media in Bosnia, Australia, and the Western Balkans region.

Portrait of Marina Mimoza by Stanislava Borovac. Rezon group photo by Ilda Kero. All other photos by Sead Sasivarevic.