Culture

The story of Jovan Bulj, Belgrade’s most famous traffic cop

Jovan Bulj

In the 1960s and 1970s, one of Yugoslavia’s most famous performers was a Belgrade traffic policeman, the inimitable Jovan Bulj, who turned directing traffic into an art form.

If people were asked to name the most glamorous occupations, it’s doubtful that “traffic cop” would be too high on the list. But, the glamorous direction of traffic is exactly what the citizens of Belgrade got in the late sixties and early seventies from a policeman named Jovan Bulj.

Dressed in an impeccable white suit and gloves, Bulj worked as a traffic policeman, directing traffic at the end of the then newly built Terazije tunnel near the Belgrade Youth Centre.

But it was more than the fetching uniform that made Bulj a legitimate star and one of the most enduring icons of 20th century Belgrade.

In purely technical terms, there really isn’t much to directing traffic at an intersection. As the law and the rulebooks dictate, there are three different postures, three hand gestures, and three accompanying whistles that tell motorists when to stop, when to go, and when to turn.

Graceful art

And yet, Bulj found a way to turn these monotonous movements into a kind of graceful art that quickly earned him the title of “the ballet dancer from the city’s crossroads”.

At the time, many believed that he had actually had training in the art, possibly from the National Theatre in Belgrade, but this was apparently not true. Bulj himself credited his ability to the fact he regularly played football and handball.

Wherever the talent came from, it quickly endeared him to Belgrade motorists as well as the general public. Cars would sometimes slow down to say hello, and pedestrians would often clap at the end of a particularly interesting performance.

Jovan Bulj posing with ballet dancer Jelena Tinska in Belgrade.

It all started when the police department in Belgrade had the idea to spruce up the uniforms of their traffic cops in a bid to make them more noticeable in the streets. A white uniform, with an accompanying white helmet, shoes, and gloves was settled upon.

Bulj, who previously worked as a member of the security personnel within the department, loved the uniform so much he immediately requested to be transferred. It took some persuasion, however, as his superiors initially felt he was too short for the role.

They relented eventually, and the stage was set for Bulj to become a Belgrade darling. Word quickly spread all around Yugoslavia.

Belgraders would even bring visitors to see his moves at the intersection and for a while Bulj was a guest at official city functions, even reportedly attending some events organised by President Josip Tito himself.

Bulj’s notoriety would also lead him to participate in international traffic direction contests, where he never quite managed to win first place, settling instead for third.

He was also invited as a guest to several European cities such as Zurich, Paris, and Moscow. However, it was probably his appearance at Oxford Street in London in the United Kingdom that is best remembered. During his stay in London he reportedly met Queen Elisabeth II.

Premature retirement

Sadly, it was downhill from there for Bulj. His fame lasted until 1980, when he was retired prematurely for reasons that were never disclosed to the public and that he would not reveal later in life.

From meeting the Queen of England, Bulj ended up working at kiosks and as a security guard at parking lots, and some of Belgrade’s river raft clubs at the Sava Quay.

Jovan Bulj died in 2010, aged 71. In his condolences to the family, the then-minister of internal affairs Ivica Dačić called Bulj “a legend of the Belgrade police”.

Bulj is still fondly remembered in Belgrade and in Serbia as someone who brought a sense of joy and elegance to everyday life and is still seen as one of Belgrade’s enduring symbols.

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