On location Painting by Simon Bird
To promote the use of art for raising awareness about the developing world

Slovakian Gypsies 2006/08

In 2006 I spent one month visiting Slovakian Gypsy settlements in Eastern Slovakia. Two years later in 2008 I returned for a brief 10 day visit to see how things had changed. The settlements were Letanovce, Tomášovce, Hrubašice and Smižany, located in an area known as 'Spiss' below the Tatra Mountains.

Read the article from my visit in 2008: Slovak Gypsies revisited.

Brief History

It is thought the first waves of Gypsies started to leave India as early as the 3rd century AD escaping from invading Islamic forces. The first written records of Gypsies in Slovakia are during the 15th century, but it is suspected they would have arrived a few hundred years before that.


To begin with the Gypsies were met with a degree of hostility by the Europeans. But through time they became more integrated into society while still holding onto their own language and traditions.

During the Second World War the Nazis removed many Gypsies to concentration camps. Few ever returned.

In 1958 the Czechoslovakian Government outlawed the “Nomadic lifestyle” led by the Gypsies. The State supplied some housing, but many Gypsies were forced to settle on farmland.

After the fall of Communism in 1989 the state care of Gypsies improved slightly. However, because of the sudden change to a commercially based economy, many unskilled jobs were cut making a large number of Gypsies unemployed. Local businesses and farmers now with the freedom to choose who they employ favour the white Slovakians over the Gypsies.

Slovak Gypsies today

Today up to 90 % of Slovak Gypsies are unemployed.

There are roughly 300 Gypsy settlements in Slovakia, with some people living in very poor conditions. Alcoholism and criminality are endemic. The social attitude towards Gypsies is often one of xenophobia and racism.

In Slovakia, Gypsies number from 350 to 500 thousand making up 4 to 6 % of the population. 3 distinct groups exist: Servike Gypsies, Vlachike Gypsies and Slovakian Gypsies. The latter being the least integrated and most isolated from society at the moment.

On Location Painting


When you walk into a Gypsy settlement, which is often situated on the edge of a white Slovakian village or town, you are usually met with a crowd of kids and adults interested in why you are there.

Painting was often difficult to organise because of the attention they gave you. I had to stay especially vigilant to make sure paints did not go missing. Some adults would usually stay close by to make sure the situation didn't get out of control.

I found the Gypsies creative input a real inspiration. Their pictures and our joint paintings gave me a huge respect for their natural and uninhibited attitude towards life in general. Afterwards, in the white areas of town it always felt unnaturally subdued and quiet.

- Listen to local Gypsy song... 1 Min. 242kb

View of hrabusice settlement
View of Hrubušice

View of hrabusice by local kids

The lady in the foreground was demonstrating a type of Gypsy dance, while the boy on the right was just concerned with acting “cool”. Once these two figures were completed enough I moved down onto the road for a view of the whole settlement for the backdrop.

At one point a car came reversing around the corner, spectators jumped out of the way. The car did not stop. It ran clean over the picture and my bag then skidded to a halt. The driver had been trying to bump start the car backwards without success.

He said it my fault for almost getting some-one run over, and told me to leave and go back to my tent.

Acrylic on canvas. 85x65 cm


mother by local kids
Mother & Daughter. Hrubušice.

This mother spent half an hour doing her daughters hair, so she could sit proudly for the portrait, which gained the attention of much of the settlement.

Acrylic on canvas. 35x50 cm


car by local kids
Scary Gypsy, Hrubušice.

This man was a powerful figure in the neighbourhood. He shouted for beer and cigarettes and when the children came to look at the picture he would scare them off by growling at them, like an animal.
He told me he was unemployed, but that he still did lots of work for the community.

He approved of the way I sketched him, looking mean and strong.

Acrylic on canvas. 35x50 cm

Letanovce Osada, Interactive picture with local.

Letanovce Osada, population roughly 500. This settlement is very much isolated, it is situated next to the large forest reserve of Slovinsky Raj National Park. There is no electricity, no running water or no sanitation. Houses are made of wood from the forest, as is fuel for heating and cooking.

It really surprised me to think that a settlement like this, not dissimilar to the poorest villages I have come across in India, could exist within the European Union.

Letenovce Gypsy settlement

One of the reasons for this, is, because, the Gypsies were forced to settle during the Communist regime. Then, after Communism, people started to claim back land that was once theirs. This led many Gypsy settlements to exist on private land. Due to this, the Government will not supply basic services to them.

I spoke to a worker for the local Government area that manages Gypsy housing issues. He said that a proposal for a new village for the inhabitants of Letanovce has been in place for the last 10 years, but building has not yet begun.

Acrylic on canvas. 100X70 cm


Relaxing on the grass with 120 sheep behind him, it was a scene from the past. Jěuka is 26 years old and is married with 2 daughters. For him work is good because it starts at 8am and finishes at 5pm - payment is 10,000 Slovakain crowns per month ( £180 ), very good for a shepherd. During my stay I often met him as he cycled home.

He did not pose or even move in the hour it took to sketch this picture. He got up and left only when his sheep began to move on.

Later that day I discovered two fat ticks happily feeding on my ankle.

Acrylic on canvas. 50X35 cm

Smižany, interactive picture with Locals.

This was the largest Gypsy settlement I visited, population roughly 2000. It was situated on the edge of the area capital Spisska Nova Ves. Here, not all the houses had running water, for the local inhabitance, however, the river acted as a place to wash cloths and bath.
How clean the river water was, is certainly questionable, because there were great piles of household rubbish being dumped into the river just up stream.

Acrylic on canvas. 100x70 cm

Gypsies shopping
Buying sacks of rice

Gypsies from Letanovce Osada buying sacks of rice and flour at the local shop 2 km cycle ride away.

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Simon Bird


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