The wolves of Luník IX: How street art is influencing Slovakia’s infamous neighbourhood8 min read
Luník IX is a borough in the district of Košice II, Slovakia, comprising numerous Soviet-era housing blocks and facilities. The reputation of Luník IX is internationally recognised as the largest slum in Europe. From papal visits all the way from Vatican City to the virtual congregations of TikTok users, Luník IX has captured global attention due to the alarming living conditions, which contrasts heavily with the often-attractive perceptions of life in modern Europe.
A history of Luník IX
In the 1970s, construction began in the Myslava area with the aim to provide housing for around 2,500 people, particularly families. The acronym ‘ABC’ was used denoting the targeted demographics for the project, ‘Armáda’ (army), ‘Bezpečnosť (security/police), and ‘Cigáni’ (Roma) At the time, Košice had the largest concentration of Roma in Czechoslovakia and the housing policy under Communism had the motive of scattering Roma populations. This social engineering attempt ultimately failed as segregation practices began to emerge within the complex, such as separate kindergartens for Roma and non-Roma children. Throughout the 1980s, non-Roma gradually moved out of the borough whilst Košice’s Roma from the city centre began to relocate to Luník IX in 1995 as a result of a housing resolution policy implemented by the city council aimed at “rent defaulters, homeless people and inadaptable citizens.” Currently, the borough is estimated to house up to 7,000 people in very overcrowded living conditions.
In more recent years, Luník IX has garnered international interest with several documentaries being produced chronicling its socio-economic issues. Additionally, the borough has been a subject of discussion and exploration on social media, from featuring on the r/urbanhell subreddit to YouTube. An example of one such video is popular Youtuber Bald and Bankrupt’s vlog offering a more ethnographic insight as he parties with the locals in “Europe’s biggest slum.”
The rise of newer social media platforms such as TikTok has allowed users to highlight the existence of the district, whether it be insider content, or featuring in the aesthetically dark and eerie photo montages of “depressing” places to live.
Street art in Luník IX and the wider Košice
Urban art and graffiti are a common occurrence throughout the spaces and walls of Luník IX. There lacks documentation on the existence and production of graffiti or street art in Luník IX prior to the more established projects. However, greater emphasis on the area has meant that art in the region can be shared and discussed more openly, one example being a children’s mural at the local nursery school created by pupils. In addition to this, the urban spaces have experienced commissioned work by street artists, as well as displays and messages from activists in support of Roma integration.
Several installations in Luník IX have been commissioned by Street Art Communication (SAC), a community organisation established in 2008 and Slovakia’s largest urban art gallery in Košice. The city’s acquired status of European Capital of Culture in 2013 also served as a catalyst for improving its reputation with the aid of projects such as SPOTs. The artists affiliated with SAC hail globally, drawing upon a wide array of sociological, environmental, philosophical, and even humorous themes.
The artwork that inspired the writing of this article and subsequent headline was created by Sasha Kurmaz, a Ukrainian street artist, and Viktor Feher, SAC creative director in Košice. Kurmaz’s work focuses on the more challenging side of social life, taking a keen interest in documenting hardships in Europe beyond, which arguably makes Luník IX the perfect candidate and canvas for his work.
His message “Kto chce s vlkmi žiť, musí s vlkmi vyť” is written in bold, white, capital letters across the roof of one of the housing blocks. This text is a Slovak translation of a well-known idiom essentially translating to “Whoever wants to live with wolves must howl with wolves.” Though popular, the origins of this saying are not quite known; Kurmaz, however, believes the folklore underpinning the quote will resonate with the wider community of Košice and further afield.
Kurmaz has stated the “wolves” in question may be open to interpretation. Does this refer to the cultural preservation of the Roma community, or does this point to the wider Slovak communities’ position on assimilation? Given its location, the quote could be applied to the well-documented regional oppression and marginalisation of the Roma people over the years. In Slovakia, Roma are the second-largest minority, making up 10% of the population, but experience acute disproportionality in terms of labour engagement, education, police brutality, and socioeconomics.
When Košice won the title of European Capital of Culture, the decision was met with both celebration and confusion. The criticism lay in the hypocrisy in which the city is promoted and the realities that lie within, or the “Two Košices,” according to Natalie Beard. In Luník IX, the unemployment rate is 97%; a statistic that does not compliment the image the city intends to promote.
Looking at the context, this piece can not only be viewed in isolation, but must also be looked at in conjunction with an additional feature installed simultaneously; a bridge overlooking the controversial wall segregating Luník IX and Luník VIII, a relatively wealthier district beside Luník IX. This partition is referred to as the “anti-Roma” wall, the fourteenth such wall in Slovakia. In Ostrovany, the local government constructed a wall in an effort to protect property from Roma settlements and in Michalovce, a non-Roma neighbourhood fundraised their own wall to deter the Roma in the adjacent district from passing through. Similar anti-Roma walls have also been built in Czechia, Romania, and Bulgaria, all countries with high Roma populations. Luník IX’s wall in particular attracted staunch criticism from the EU, who argued that the wall contradicts the values the EU strives to promote, hindering integration efforts.
Spatially, as Kurmaz’s text spans the entire length of an apartment roof, you could draw the interpretation that this quote speaks for those living beneath it, though is not actually accessible from their perspective. This begs the question: who is the intended audience?
Firstly, the decision for Kurmaz to produce the artwork in Slovak as opposed to Romani or even English may be a message for the wider Slovak society who have often found it difficult to accept Roma people. Such negative attitudes are historically rooted and well documented across Europe. During the Cold War, the housing and welfare policy in Central Europe disadvantaged Roma populations and the residual impact of these policies and attitudes can still be observed today in the tensions that remain between Roma and non-Roma. During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Košice’s mayor was criticised for suggesting that Roma were accelerating the spread of the virus; a sentiment also shared by people in municipalities across Slovakia. A further notable fact is that Luník IX is located just a few kilometres from Košice International Airport, making the graffiti easily seen to the constant stream of aeroplane passengers skimming the housing estate. They are the only audience able to witness the work first-hand.
Luník IX in transition
Within Luník IX, grassroots artwork has offered an insight and a provocation of moral discussions over life for the community and the challenges it faces. The ignition of international attention in turn has further served to highlight shortcomings in policy and practice on a more political scale. Additionally, some argue that the existence of street art may serve a gentrification function to spaces, and a movement away from common connotations of vandalism and towards art appreciation and civic cohesion instead.
The current mayor, Marcel Šaňa, has made an effort to better integrate Roma into the wider city society and to improve the image of the area. He introduced new initiatives in an attempt to improve the lives of Luník IX’s residents, such as the opportunity to apply for social funding for new projects. He stated that it was the tragic deaths of two Roma children in separate incidents in nearby Mašličkov that spurred him to ramp up these initiatives.
Since Kurmaz’s installations, Street Art Communication has continued its work and engagement in Luník IX. The latest project was commissioned in conjunction with the visit of Pope Francis in 2021, which brought the region to the forefront of international news. Kvety Ako Gesto is a mural by a creative team within the borough’s Catholic community aiming to represent hope and overcoming adversity. The papal visit marked a significant moment for the borough, demonstrating to the predominantly Catholic Slovakia, and indeed the world, that Luník IX may require more compassionate attention than as an object of antagonism, not to mention online morbid curiosity.
Luník IX sends sobering and positive messages to society both regionally and internationally. It will be interesting whether further installations in the area will be created to add more facets to the stories of its people. On an even wider scale, Košice has proven itself to be a well-established and popular urban gallery for artists from all over the world to canvas their messages.