When you think of Rome you’re probably thinking of fine architecture, ancient history, and the mouth-watering food. That representation probably holds true of any out-of-towner. While I did get to walk around the city and realize it to be an open-air museum, I had no idea of it’s gained popularity or reputation for graffiti and modern street art.
As an outsider, It is safe to say that one can be surprised by the raft share of spray-painted scrawls Rome has to offer. At first, I noticed it on a few buildings in the downtown area and only later did I witness how the graffiti has blazoned across the city walls. Questioning whether graffiti was art or not wasn’t my interest or intention. I was purely eager to know what they were communicating in the form of self-expression? Was it any good? And if it was legal? And if it was illegal, the consequences brought in by it.
I was observant of the fact that the word graffiti comes from the Italian language, the plural of the word “graffito”. What I wasn’t aware of was the clear distinction that exists between graffiti and street art. Graffiti writing and street art are often confused with one another. Though both are subversive art movements where work is displayed in public rather than a gallery setting, graffiti is ‘word based’ whereas street art is ‘image based’. Generally speaking, graffiti artists are not interested in the public understanding of their work; they want to speak to other artists. Street artists want everyone to view and be engaged by their work. They are trying to make a statement. Graffiti writing and street art are closely related to contemporary art movements, however, they differ in terms of technique, function, and intent. Also, an additional contrast was that usually street art is painted with permission or commissioned and the same doesn’t hold true of graffiti or tagging.
Curious to find out how Romans perceived the street art since they live with it every day, I decided to bring up the topic as a conversation starter who was about to join me for a meal. It was interesting to see the banter augment into a debate. What I understood from the discussion was the amount of graffiti in some parts of Rome was surely appalling, particularly in the area around the city’s main train stations. Simply because they were celebrations of football success, declarations of love, poetic or crude banter found alongside Anti-government satire. That said, there were other parts of Rome, such as Ostiense and Pigneto, where the graffiti truly is “urban art”. But one does need to know where to go.
The Ostiense neighborhood is a modern and trendy district that comprises contemporary and creative art with the public interest; it holds more than thirty large public works and therefore has successfully embedded itself as part of the city’s cultural tourism. Rome recently released a ‘map of the street art’ and some street art itineraries, guiding visitors through their quest to find the most exhilarating art pieces scattered throughout the city, their slogan reading: Change perspective. The Street is your new museum.
Coming back to random graffiti and tagging across ancient buildings, aesthetically speaking can be an eyesore; practically, it can't be good for the old buildings. Meanwhile, cleaning it up is frustrating and expensive and in a situation of economic crisis in Italy, there is definitely a shortage of funds. Legally speaking defacing property with graffiti is anti-social behavior and punishable offense by the law in Italy. How much of it is enforced strictly is another debate altogether? But I guess people coexist with graffiti because it has been around for ages in some form or the other. Nowhere is art definitively defined as ‘good,’ but nowhere is art assumed to be acceptable in all places at all times. Art has its place, as does anything else. On the wall of a building or side of a subway train is not it.
One example that's widespread in the city is the metal pull-down storefront covers that essentially seal-off businesses when they're closed. Lots of them are covered with graffiti, but you'd never know it when the shop is open and the cover is rolled up.
Rome is an incredible layering of different ages of art. This Urban art movement, although much contemporary than other art forms in the city is actually believed to be tied to cave paintings from a bygone era. Though they’re far more sophisticated than etchings on a cave wall, each of the paintings is an example of the thriving network of urban art that exists in the city today. While many of the murals are highly creative, humorous, and have clear messages giving us insights into the cultures, as a temporary visitor it is best to try not to be vexed by the grunge markings in the city.
Shilpa Srinivas @flohwithme