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Street Art versus Urban Deterioration
Street Art or Urban Deterioration? The EikON Projekt 2011 captures viewers and spurs debate in Rome, where graffiti is nothing new.
curated by Tom Rankin

Rome GraffitiThe boundaries and bridges that divide and connect well-meaning community activist groups often focus on the problem of urban graffiti.  Such groups here in Rome vehemently battle billboards and graffiti alike, unifying them under the banner “urban degradation.” One of their most recent tirades was against the daily newspaper Repubblica for its discussion of the work of street-artists Omino71 and Mr.Klevra for the EikON Projekt 2011, documented by photographer Jessica Stewart of Rome Photoblog. 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.

Rome Graffiti

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 early 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 critic 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. According to Jessica Stewart who photographs Rome’s street art, “a debate and discourse on its 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.”

 Rome Graffiti

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.

curated by Tom Rankin

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