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Graffiti: prioritizing the battle for civic respect

February 9, 2011

EikOn Projekt posting, photo by Jessica Stewart

The boundaries and bridges that divide and connect well-meaning community activist groups often focus on the problem of urban graffiti.  Groups like “riprendiamociRoma” here in Rome vehemently battle billboards and graffiti alike, unifying them under the banner “urban degradation.” Their most recent tirade, on their blog is against the daily newspaper Repubblica for its discussion of the work of street-artists Omino71 e Mr.Klevra for the l’EikON Projekt 2011. Affixed to city walls with glue, these painted/printed posters are inspired by Byzantine ecclesiastic iconography. If and when removed, yes, they will leave traces behind on the already graffiti covered walls.

The debate is a valid one and should be brought out into the open, voiced in the context of the range of difficulties faced by a city like Rome. Questions must be asked including, but not only, whose property are building walls in the city? What media are available for expression? What are the predominant messages conveyed in the daily life of the city? Who pays the price of urban deterioration?

Critics may object to a discussion of the markings of graffiti writers as works of art so let’s keep it neutral, calling it “street painting and posting”.  In the context of a legally provided wall, such as those many schools and community centers have made available, or in art galleries, this same work can certainly be described as art, so the dispute is not about the work itself, but its context. Painting and posting on a public or private wall without consent is a violation of property rights, without doubt.  Which is exactly what makes it interesting as a cultural phenomenon, that it calls into question our preconceptions about property and the “acceptable venues” for expression. The right to express has long been linked directly to money; the more one has, the more visibility can be purchased. The ownership of urban buildings and their potentially graffiti covered walls is made possible by money, the barrage of advertising legally or illegally displayed throughout our cities is made possible by money, the goods displayed, the cars which saturate our city streets, the clothes worn by passersby, are all expressions made possible by money. Money not only buys more volume, be it a building or a car, but it also can buy immunity from prosecution as seen in the case of the billboard racket in Rome.

But now, for the first time in history, we are starting to see media which allow widespread expression with meager means.  Of course, I’m talking about the internet but even before its advent “street painting and posting” foreshadowed this phenomenon.

Ancient Rome left ample examples of scrawled messages, from bathroom humor to political slogans, on the walls of Pompeii and elsewhere. But it was in late 18th century Rome, under the oppressive Papal and Napoleonic governments, that “pasquinades” started to appear, witty, anonymous critiques hung around the necks of statues or posted by fountains. As graffiti took off as a part of the multi-disciplinary hip-hop phenomenon, focused on New York in the early 80s, it provided powerless youth a quick path to recognition, a path which bypassed the system (of studios, agents, galleries, compromises) and went straight to the viewer in the street. The aesthetic was also picked up by the less powerless, by privileged people who might navigate conventional paths to visibility but preferred to challenge those channels as a critique of the system. And then, of course, like every cultural trend, graffiti became commoditized.

The cityscape today offers a vast array of stimuli for all senses, and sometimes those that are appealing to some are appalling to others.  As in any system, there is something to be said for diversity, for multiple voices being healthier than a few loud ones, especially in Italy where media is notoriously centralized in very few (well, two) hands. Those that cringe at graffiti, especially when defended as art, are of course welcome to engage in campaigns in the name of civic decorum, but might first look and reflect and prioritize. Today’s graffiti will fade and merge in time with all of the other markings that make up the time-worn palimpsest of Rome. With rare exceptions, it doesn’t prompt action, unlike the billboards which, legal or illegal, usually pressure the viewer to buy, to consume and eventually to discard. Unlike the automobiles which clog the streets of Rome, graffiti doesn’t block my path, it doesn’t pollute my air, and it doesn’t kill or maim. Its critics might take a deep breath, smile and be glad for some “painting and posting” that doesn’t just promote the agenda of a multi-national corporation.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Karen permalink
    February 9, 2011 20:13

    An excellent article, just one correction – ‘pasquinades’ appeared in Rome much earlier than the 18th century. The statue known as Pasquino, from which the term derives, was placed in Piazza di Parione in 1501, and already in the first years of the 16th century anonymous satirical poetry began to appear on it. The context, protest against the papacy and city government is accurate, but the date is much earlier. Also, in the last year or so forces of ‘restoration’ have managed to silence Pasquino for the first time in more than five centuries – a sad and worrying development.

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  2. Tom Rankin permalink*
    February 9, 2011 20:19

    I knew someone would correct me on that; I was too lazy to check my facts and could only think of the pasquinade “non tutti i francesi sono ladri, ma Buonaparte” (apologies to non-Italian speakers, it’s a pun that doesn’t translate, but gist is “not all French are thieves, just most of them”).

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    • Karen permalink
      February 9, 2011 20:38

      ha!!!! Fantastico, evviva l’amore eterno fra i francesi e gli italiani…

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  3. February 10, 2011 00:03

    Hi Tom, thank you for taking the time to take up this debate. I can only speak for myself when I say that the degradation of the city is something I care greatly about. I spend a lot of time photographing this city and seeing all sorts of visual pollution on the streets each day. In a sense the mere fact that someone take the time to stop and look at these pieces of art (and yes, I consider them art), is part of the point. A debate and discourse on their value, as well as the value of the advertisements, tags, etc that we are faced with every day is necessary in order to really live our city instead of merely inhabiting it. In addition to the Pasquinades, I would also point out that the decoration of the facades of homes is an Italian tradition from the Renaissance period, one can still see palazzi on via Governo Vecchio with their painted scenery. Whether or not La Repubblica publishes articles, this work is out there and will continue to be out there. If it sparks a debate, that’s great – that’s what art does.

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  4. February 16, 2011 16:58

    Awesome post. Do you mind if I ask what your source is for this information?

    Like

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