Artist leaves large mark in St. Petersburg with murals

He escaped war in Bosnia. Now he brings life to St. Petersburg streets.
Published July 23 2013
Updated July 23 2013

Damir Tabakovic turns walls into art.

He has since he was 4 years old, drawing elephants and bicycles on the wall behind the couch in his Bosnia home. His mom discovered him and bought him his first set of crayons.

Tabakovic, 34, lives in Clearwater now, and he spends his days conceptualizing and creating art. His murals are large and sprawling, vibrant and loud. Turquoise, purple, chartreuse and orange, the colors clash and form bold figures.

"Trying to convey the unspeakable stuff that you can't put into language, that's what I'm going for," he said. "It's art for what you can't talk about, but you can see."

Tabakovic's distinctive works are scattered throughout downtown St. Petersburg, primarily in the warehouse district.

His works are lively, he says, because he's seen the darkness. He thought he would die in Bosnia when tanks began firing over his town. He hunkered in his basement as a kid, finding comfort in books. His family struggled to get food and water, trapped until 1992, when they fled to Germany.

Berlin gave him a different life. His apartment overlooked remains of the Berlin Wall, blooming with art and constantly morphing. The culture supported street art. He tried his hand, painting his first mural in 1993. It was no good, but it was important to him, showing him a freedom war never allowed.

"Berlin helped me heal from the trauma and wounds from the war," he said.

When he left, he was almost 20. It hurt to leave, but he believed America could give him the blank slate he wanted, letting him leave Old Europe behind.

"Europe kind of suffers under its history," he said. "Coming to the States was like a breath of fresh air."

He and his family — mom, dad and younger brother Ermin — moved to the Tampa Bay area to meet Tabakovic's uncle. And they made a life here.

He taught himself English with library books, movies and a dictionary. He kept painting. He met a woman, Amy, who's now his wife. In five months, he'll be a father — a change he, a self-professed free spirit, is nervous and excited about. And he found himself inspired by Florida.

"Florida reminds me of summertime, of the freshness of the dawn," he said. "The different colors in the sky. You can see that nowhere else."

Tabakovic's preferred method is freestyle painting. He approaches a wall and sketches out an idea with spray paint, letting the colors take him where they may. He translates all the things churning inside him to the wall, splashing it with color, commanding attention.

"It's like a puzzle that I keep solving and solving and solving," he said. His street art alias is Acut, or Akut, drawing from the word "acute," which he liked for its intensity and energy.

He has found inspiration in mountains and books, in Picasso and Chagall, in anime and martial arts. He's practicing the latter now to learn control of the mind, something new for him. And Bosnia is always underneath it all, inspiring him because he's still alive to paint. He survived.

"Some people come out of being in a war traumatized, but he's come out even stronger," said his wife, Amy, 34. "It's made him invincible. If he's lived through that, nothing can be as bad as what he's gone through."

Tabakovic hasn't fully escaped his home country. For the 2013 action film Killing Season, featuring John Travolta and Robert DeNiro, he acted as a kind of culture coach, helping Travolta understand the role. Tabakovic went with them to Bosnia, for the first time since the war, but as the taxi neared his childhood home, he made them veer away. He couldn't do it.

But Bosnia taught him creativity, he said.

"I saw my mom be creative in wartime. The women would create meals or games for the kids, out of nothing," he said. "They would bring joy. Creativity is about the joy of life."

Tabakovic met his wife at a party in 2005. She knew he was the most interesting person there, she said, just hearing his stories. "Our living room is filled with canvases and sketches and colors. We have paint all over the place," she said.

As an analyst for a software company, Amy makes the couple's primary income. Tabakovic's commissioned murals are priced depending on size and detail required, usually about $30 to $50 per square foot, he said.

Amanda Cooper, curator of exhibitions at the Morean Arts Center, led an exhibition of street art last summer called "Leave A Message." Tabakovic worked on two walls, one inside and one outside the center.

"His work is just fabulous," Cooper said. And she believes in the power of good public art to enhance a community.

"When you drive down First Avenue N, there are so many buildings that you don't notice," she said. "And now you stop and look. It takes a ho-hum building and makes you see."

Good street art actually works to curb the graffiti cities don't want, she said, because vandals are less likely to paint over good art.

Leslie Curran, City Council member and chairwoman of the Arts Funding Committee, said St. Petersburg has made great strides in developing its public arts program, recently channeling more money toward art.

"Art really has a calming effect, a thoughtful effect, an intellectual effect on all of us," she said. "All of us could use more art, whether you understand what it is or not."

Tabakovic's goals are varied. He wants to connect with people. He wants to improve. He wants to leave a mark.

When he thinks of street art, he says, he thinks of people drawing in caves, saying: "I was here."

Claire McNeill can be reached at