With the nonstop flow of US skate content, I’ve become more interested in the Uganda skate scene than I am about what the FA kids did at Tompkins. Nothing against FA (or kids), but the Uganda skate scene has to face challenges and issues that we could never imagine here in the US.
With that in mind, when David Milan Kelly cold emailed me to ask if I’d be interested in hearing about the Serbian DIY skate scene, the photobook on the subject he’s releasing shortly, and stories of skaters taking apart the bombed-out ruins of the neighborhood to build their own version of Burnside, I was hooked.
In the 1990s, the Balkan region, once known as Yugoslavia, experienced a decade of conflict. It ultimately led to its dismantling and NATO intervened taking part in a series of bombing campaigns that impacted the Serbian capital, Belgrade, as recently as 1999. The ruins of buildings that resulted from that bombing campaign are still strewn about the capital city, often plundered by people to build houses and urban structures with, or in this case, a DIY skate spot under the bridge.
To find out more about Belgrade’s skate scene, the DIY park, and his forthcoming photo book, I talked with the person behind the lens. If you decided to take the trip to Serbia, bring some spare boards for the homies.
Just to give some context to the story here, can you talk about the conflict in Serbia back in the ’90s?
In the ’90s the United States bombed Belgrade for 75 days. It’s a complicated history that I’m still learning about it and trying to understand. Some buildings that were bombed are still completely wrecked and blown out in the middle of the city.
The bombing had to do with contested territory and the US intervening in the Serbian and Albanian conflict over land and war in the Balkans. Corruption is kind of widespread in the Serbian government and there are a lot of views and history I need to understand further to really say something. What I know beyond a shadow of a doubt is that all war is horrific and the terror of your city being bombed is unimaginable.
I wasn’t born when the bombings went down, but I’ve been interested in looking at the huge impact these bombings had on so many regular people and how the pain and suffering of that event tanked the well-being of a lot of people.
How did you end up in the US?
I got lucky because my mom immigrated to the US a few years before the bombings happened. A lot of my mom’s very close friends weren’t as fortunate.
You mentioned skaters building skate spots and DIYs with the rubble from the bombings, right?
There are a lot of materials and shit from these destroyed buildings that we pull from. We stole a lot of rocks and trash and dirt to fill in the transition of the DIY. We also went to different construction zones with this van and took a bunch of super rusted-up rebar. What’s really interesting about Belgrade is the structure of the city, how old everything is, and how it’s so easy to walk across a bunch of decaying and wrecked buildings in the middle of a super populated and functioning place.
Down the street from the DIY we have, there is USCE Shopping Center and the only actual skatepark in Belgrade. The skatepark is pretty broken and torn up. Half of the ramps have giant holes and are unskateable. People were stealing the wood and metal off the ramps to use for their houses.
What is Serbia’s political situation today?
Serbia’s inflation became insanely high, and some diseases came about that affected animals and food after the bombing. Serbia, formally Yugoslavia, transitioned from being a communist country to a free market country in the mid-’90s before the bombing began, so that played a role as well. The economy in Serbia is still not great today and there aren’t many jobs. The wages for jobs are really low and nobody has that much money. Unless they come from old money.
What’s that neighborhood around the DIY park like?
Right next to where we were building, there is this huge river that’s used for transporting cargo and whatever else. There’s also a huge line of nightclubs, called splavs. Splavs are clubs built over the water on permanently docked rafts on the edge of the river. It’s a huge thing in Belgrade for young people to go partying and clubbing at splavs.
It’s sick because, at night, the neon lights from the boats and the bridge give you enough light so you can see the whole spot super easily for a night sesh. Pretty much every night there’s a bunch of people that flock down under the bridge to go out and drink and party.
I think as far as skateboarding goes, just being so visible and having a lot of foot traffic every day gives the spot a lot of energy. Aside from dodging broken bottles and having to sweep all the time, I think it’s perfect cause there is always so much interaction.
“People were stealing the wood and metal off the ramps to use for their houses.”
Do the drunk people from the nightclubs ever wander over to the DIY and ask to ride your boards? Do they just eat shit?
Yeah, a lot of dudes were always asking to try my board and shit but I never let them [laughs]. People get pissed at me but I always make up an excuse that some asshole broke my shit last time. Some of my friends are more willing to let people try their boards, but I’m definitely not about it. I’d just rather not stop skating to let some guy wobble around and interrupt the sesh. There’s glass and shit everywhere also so they’re basically asking to eat it [laughs].
What’s the typical drunk food for you guys?
A nice pljeskavica is the go-to food pretty much all the time no matter the occasion. It’s a big ass meat sandwich, basically a hamburger, but way better on some nice bread. There’s a pljeskavica spot close by, no matter where you are. There’s a bunch of little stands that sell them and they usually have other types of meat dishes also [laughs]. Serbian food is basically a bunch of meat. No vegetarians.
Who taught you guys building skills? Are you just sitting at the spot on YouTube trying to get shit right?
Reska and David, they’re in a lot of the pics, knew basically how to do everything. They had already built a nipple and a little ramp-to-wall thing. It was a rotating crew of dudes and whoever was available to work came on that day to help out. Some of them had legit construction experience. I had absolutely zero experience with DIY shit. I kinda just asked them what to do and they told me what needed to happen. It was pretty unstructured. David was cutting rebar and welding shirtless with no protective equipment whatsoever. I think building something of this scale, and so publicly, could never happen in the US without a permit.
“There are probably only 60 guys in Belgrade that I see consistently skating”
Why should people be paying attention to skateboarding in Serbia?
I feel like every trick in Belgrade holds some extra weight. The entire population of Serbia is roughly 7 million people, and there are probably only 60 guys in Belgrade that I see consistently skating. I met most of my homies over there just skating down the street to the pljeskavica [burger] spot. You see someone with a board or you hear their wheels and it’s like, “Oh shit, it’s on.”
When you’re skating a spot in Serbia, you get kicked out about the same as LA if not a little quicker. Usually, instead of a security guard, it’s some old guy yelling at you and religiously condemning you beyond salvation. My friends have gotten into a lot of fights because they look like skaters or are just fucking with the wrong people.
Why does skating have a bad rep in Serbia?
There have been some super violent group fights that have gone down which is not great. But, if you are just riding a board around the street you are completely fine. Skateboarding just doesn’t have the same cool rep that it seems to have in the US.
Youth culture in Serbia is insanely interesting to me. The mainstream dudes are usually guys who wear Nike Air Max and tracksuit jackets with shaved heads. Navijači is a term for like soccer jocks that just get into a bunch of shit and have fucked with my friends.
Which culture do you feel more connected to at this point in your life?
It’s a bit confusing because I am definitely more integrated with American culture. I’ve spent the majority of my life in the US, but at the same time I feel like my attitude and approach to skating are more similar to life over there. Daily lifestyle stuff and the way my friends band together in Serbia really resonates with me. My friends there have a very different perspective than all of my American friends and I think part of that comes from not having perfect access to everything. They make things work their way, and I really admire that.
Do you ever bring back stuff from America to Serbia to put them on – not just skate stuff, but maybe music or other pop culture stuff?
Yeah, I definitely bring my American shit with me, I don’t know if they are necessarily looking to adopt it but I absolutely show them. While we were building I was playing Death Grips, Three 6 Mafia, and a bunch of random Shoegaze and punk bands. I’m gonna be honest, I’m not a fan of Serbian turbofolk. My skater friends don’t listen to that a lot but it is a huge genre over there.
Can you talk more about the culture gap?
The fashion/style gap in skating is so crazy to look at. In 2016, when I was 14, everyone in Belgrade was on some hybrid chunky Fallen shoes with skinny pants/shorts 2005 rail skater drip. It was so funny because it seems like the styles in skate clothes were like 10 years behind what the current style was for my friends in LA. Of course, there are outliers to all this stuff, but I’m talking in general. There are definitely a lot of Fallen and chunky DCs still, but now I think there are a lot more Vans and Converse and the baggy thing has caught on.
I was riding some Polar boards that I brought from the US and I saw a few of my friends had Polar. Baker also seems to be pretty popular. Not even the boards, but the attitude you know. I love all the styles. No disrespect to Fallen or DC or skinny pants. Ride the Sky was sick.
“The quality of wood for the majority of boards in the country is completely terrible.”
Is it difficult to buy a real skateboard in Serbia?
As far as getting actual skateboards, Serbia is in somewhat of a fucked position. The quality of wood for the majority of boards in the country is completely terrible. There is one skate shop but it’s run by this guy who sells “name brand” boards from AliExpress because it’s really hard to get actual decks into Serbia. Most of those boards break super easily and are unusually thick or thin for some reason. I’m not 100% sure but I think it has something to do with Serbia not being in the EU. You could order stuff from another country but it’s super expensive to ship.
What do you expect to see in the future for skateboarding in Serbia and neighboring Eastern European nations?
My friends who live over there are really taking the initiative to build out a larger community to bring skaters together. That’s what the whole DIY park brings. They’ve been hosting skate events, concerts, and art galleries over there at this yearly festival called Samit Nesverstanih [Summit of the Non-Aligned]. It is finally starting to expand and people are getting a little bit more interested in skateboarding.
In Serbia, because skateboarding is so much smaller and way less popular, the average person you see who really skates, has had to endure their share of shit. It’s a bit rougher there. The spots are all a bit fucked up and have some crazy communist architecture, and it’s a bit more lowkey than other places I’ve seen.
I don’t wanna grandstand or dramatize skating, but I definitely have a lot of respect for all my friends in Serbia. The world honestly deserves to know about them, and I guarantee that skateboarding out there is only gonna get bigger.