The thin, long-haired young man stopped his skateboard and spoke with Julie while I photographed a red mural that was painted on an abandoned building by the river. “You should go to Metelkova,” he said. He handed us a glossy postcard of the Slovenian Ethnographic Museum. “It’s only 15 minute walk. ” Then he looked at me, “There is lots of graffiti there.”
That got my attention. I love street art if it is intelligent. Graffiti and murals tell stories. They can say more about a culture – and its less promoted counterculture – than any museum or tour. Plus … I love photographing those colors and the contrast of bright paint scrawled on pompous or boringly functional buildings.
The next morning, our geeky tourist maps in hand, we set off north along the maze of streets and eventually found what Ljubljana locals describe as a “City within a City”, rows of art-covered walls and sculpture and graffiti sprawling across several blocks and unmistakably our destination.
Metelkova is one of the largest squats in Europe. It is a sprawl of old army barracks and a former prison that were taken over as housing after Slovenian Independence in 1991 when artists moved in to the vacant buildings and started their own community. The city did not – and still does not – like them. They are tolerated however – perhaps because people here seem to hold the area as a special place which may be a product of the decades of socialism under Tito and the spirit of a brand new democracy.
They have turned their entire community into a creative haven for alternative artists. Today, over twenty years after moving into those abandoned buildings, they still squat and live there live there rent and tax free. Metelkova has become accepted enough now by the government that it was even recently granted a cultural heritage designation so the buildings can’t be demolished and the squat is protected.
The squatter/artists don’t get full city services and meet once a week to make decisions in the community. Residents run seven night clubs that attract thousands of young people who flock to the area to party and drink illegally sold alcohol in the alternative night culture. A popular hostel has been created out of an old prison, with artists decorating each room. The city turns a blind eye, but it doesn’t promote the neighborhood, either, so only a few visitors wandered through while we were there.
I can’t help but compare the squat at Metelkova with the shanties in Capetown or the slums of Mumbai or even the tent encampments in Seattle. I’ve seen these settlements all over the world. Different names, but fundamentally the same. People take over a space to live because they don’t have an alternative. They move to the city to work, and then must live near work where there is not housing or they can’t afford daily transportation into the city. So they set up wherever they can. They play cat and mouse with the government, who needs their cheap labor but doesn’t want them to get too comfortable or demand too many services.
When I biked through India in 2011, I visited a slum in Mumbai as a guest of an NGO. This slum was built over a water-main pipe – city property sandwiched on a narrow strip of unoccupied space in a long line through the city. This slum had existed for years and was home now to three generations of families. Despite its stability, it was always at risk of being displaced by the government, and received few city services beyond those non profits funded for clean water, sanitation and healthcare. Weeks after I visited this slum, the government evicted hundreds of families and flooded out more when they broke the water main.
Here are some photos of some of the murals and “graffiti” that I really liked in Melakova …