In Albania, around 750,000 bunkers form a gray mushroom network across the country. This drab legacy of recent communism presents a creative challenge today. Albanians are transforming the bunkers into more purposeful structures, often with tourism in mind.
Remnants of a Paranoid Past
Built of thick cement and iron, the bunkers are phone booth-sized subterranean fortresses with rifle windows and cement dome roofs above ground. A delusional communist dictator built them in the 1970s in paranoia of nuclear warfare and xenophobia toward the rest of the world. The bunkers were never used. When the dictator Enver Hoxha died in 1985, the communist regime lasted about five more years and collapsed with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Only two decades later, this history still haunts the present. Most of the 750,000 bunkers are still standing and crumbling slowly where they were built. Moving or destroying them is not a simple task, as they were built to withstand nuclear warfare. Myth has it that Hoxha hired the bunkers’ engineer by instructing him to shelter himself in the prototype while it was attacked by military explosives. The engineer survived, so Hoxha ordered almost a million of his bunkers to be built.
Today, Albanians face the question of how to address these scars from the past. Most are simply worked around, while some have been destructed by explosives in order to build in their place. While the majority of the 2-person pillboxes continue to blight the landscape with concrete and iron, a rare few have been “repurposed” into worthwhile structures such as planters, cafes, playground equipment, and pieces of graffiti art.
The creative repurposing of cement bunkers is a telling metaphor for Albania’s recovery from its recent communist past. One project, Concrete Mushrooms, has secured resources for the research and documentation of Albania’s bunkers. The organization works toward “inverting the meaning” of these symbolic structures by “giving bunkers value instead of having them as a burden”. Concrete Mushrooms identifies ecotourism-related uses for the bunkers, such as tourism information points, cafes, and even accommodation, as an area with real potential.
The Tattooed Bunker in Tamare
On the highland road north from Shkoder to Tamare, where population is sparse, bunkers are also fewer and farther between. Here, a bright example of creative repurposing can be found. A large bunker has been converted into a tattoo parlor. This one is easy to spot -- the concrete is colorful, with “tattoo” painted on the outside dome in graffiti-style lettering. For fearless tattoo shoppers, ink enthusiasts, or those who are simply curious, it is worthwhile to pull over and see this place and the tattoo artist, Keq Marku Djetroshan, who works there mainly during the summer season.
Having lived in the United States for several years, Keq is fluent in American slang. His time in the States ended with a run-in with the law, so now he is back in northern Albania with his tattoo business. He serves mostly Albanians and Montenegrins who cross the nearby border. Inside the bunker-turned-parlor, the walls display more graffiti and an array of dog-eared tattoo art magazines sit on the table in front of the couch. Keq’s arms are covered with layers of tattoos, perhaps a repurposing of his own scars from the past.
To visit the tattooed bunker, go to www.shkoder-albanian-alps.com for accommodation and tour information about Albania’s northern region.