Larger than life

Football, Looking at Art, Death

From a wall in Belgrade, Serbia, Mirko Petković (aka Čelzi) gives the world an eternal middle finger. A fan of FC Partizan, one of Serbia's most popular football clubs, in the late 1990s Čelzi earned a reputation among the club’s supporters for openly opposing Agency Grobari, a fan subgroup created by the club’s management to formally organize the supporters and commercialize the team's memorabilia. Not long after he died of drug overdose in 2008, a work of graffiti immortalizing Čelzi appeared in his home neighborhood: Banovo Brdo.

“I’m usually approached by a group of friends of the person who died,” says Derok, a 30-year-old graffiti artist based in Belgrade. “They select a photo, decorative symbols and compose an inscription. They also choose and prepare the location by cleaning up and scaffolding.” Derok was the first in Serbia to paint graffiti obituaries of football fans. He did Čelzi's. 

Since the early 2000s, a time of renaissance for graffiti art in Belgrade, Derok claims to have painted over 60 obituaries, regardless of the fan’s club affiliation and cause of death. His style recalls newspaper obituaries: black and white busts with personalized messages. One graffiti obituary can cost up to RSD 60,000 (US$530), about one and half times the average monthly salary in Serbia. 

Dead football fans are also often honored at the stadium with massive synchronized chants and displays of banners to pay tribute to them. It’s a symptom of the strong ties that exist among Serbian football fans, otherwise mostly renowned, both nationally and internationally, for their violence and involvement in criminal activities. “Media always focus on the negative and take stuff out of context,” explains 26-year-old Partizan Belgrade fan Nikola, “They’re only interested in spinning individual incidents. There are never any articles about how hundreds of others were just peacefully enjoying the football match.”

As a result of football fans’ reputation, many people object when a graffiti obituary appears on a wall of their neighborhood. “There are pressures from many sides: the police and sometimes people from the local community,” explains 35-year-old Lortek, a renowned artist whose graffiti is colorful, with neat typography and intricate details. 

But there are rarely open protests against graffiti obituaries. No one wants to mess with football supporters, even less when they’re dead. So commemorative graffiti is an increasingly common feature in Serbian urban landscapes, marking cities and neighborhoods by football club affiliation. Even fans from other sports have embraced the practice: last November,  portraits of 25-year-old basketball supporter Marko Ivković appeared on the walls of Zemun, his native neighborhood in Belgrade, after he had been stabbed to death in Istanbul, Turkey, before a Euroleague basketball match.

“May it be that Derok paints you an obituary,” is often said among Serbian football fans. As the 2014/2015 Serbian Superliga draws to its end, hopefully that wish will not come true.

Photos and text by Sandra Stojanović and Valentina Brković.