The Graffiti Walls of the Eternal City

The jumbled, colourful, in-your-face world of Rome’s graffiti is getting a bad rap. It has been described as ugly and disgraceful.  It degrades the urban environment, and it encroaches on the country’s artistic patrimony. But on closer examination, passionate and heartfelt messages are being lumped in with gratuitous and senseless tagging that gives graffiti a bad name. A few metres into a narrow, quiet via behind Camp odei Fiori, huge letters painted onto a curving wall stop me in my tracks: “Proletariat vigilantes against bosses, fascists, and other various whorish things.” The message inspires me to take a second look at Rome’s graffiti explosion.

Why Rome? Why are its streets such a target for graffiti? In the late 1990s, almost overnight, century-old buildings in the historical centre of the city were being tagged. It was shocking to see beautiful architecture defaced. It was equally shocking when around the same time giant billboards covered the façades of palazzi up to five and six storeys high, during renovation. Is it a coincidence that the two practices began to appear around the same time? Steadily, over the years, Romans have been moving out of the historical centre of the city. Once vibrant and cosmopolitan, it has become a playground for suburbanites and tourists. Bars, lounges, clubs, restaurants, banks, tourist shops and hotels have taken over the ancient capital.  A city estranged from its soul is easy to tag.

Roman streets are narrow and most of the buildings date from the Renaissance through to the nineteenth century in the “newer” part of the city. Their façades are smooth, coloured stucco, an irresistible canvas for a graffiti artist. In this crowded, three-thousand-year-old city, where everything and everyone is jostling for space, anything that appears on these walls is immediately immediately in your face. It is estimated that there are up to 1000 taggers in Rome and over 2,500 graffiti artists. There isn’t a door or wall that hasn’t been sprayed. Nobody likes it. Some of the graffiti fades along with the coloured stucco and becomes part of the streetscape and, once in a while, even tagging can improve the look of a rusty, metal garage door. But looking around, it’s hard not to agree with graffiti’s detractors. The tagging gives the city a run-down feel. It is a losing battle to defend the guy with a marker who writes his name on every wall in the neighbourhood.

Graffiti is an Italian word from the verb graffiare – to scratch. No matter where you sit on the graffiti fence, even artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael are guilty of defacing architecture after they scratched their names onto the walls of the newly discovered Domus Aurea, Nero’s pleasure palace in Rome.

Indiscriminate tagging, artistic interventions by urban artists, and messages written by ordinary citizens colour Rome’s landscape. Areas around train stations and bus depots get lots of graffiti treatment. The historical centre and the popular Trastevere area are covered in graffiti. An artist looking for exposure will find it in Trastevere where on weekends its crowded streets and restaurants fill to capacity.

Graffiti needs pedestrians and it needs a public forum. With a population of almost four million and over twenty-five million tourists annually, there are lots of pedestrians in Rome. In the nation’s capital, graffiti gets noticed. But let’s leave the taggers and artists aside.

Gazing with a critical eye on the graffiti messages, hand-written by ordinary citizens, you can tease out three recurring categories. They reflect the three eternal passions of Rome and Italy: sports, politics, and love. In case you’re wondering, in the heart of Roman Catholicism, there is no religious graffiti.

Messages like “Rome for Roma fans. Chic radicals, that is fascists, get out of Rome,” stand out. Unlike a tag, a graffiti message by an ordinary citizen is neither random nor gratuitous. It is about the message and its context. Soccer is part of the fabric of Roman life, so much so that the city’s two teams – la Roma and la Lazio are linked to political factions. Soccer is serious business for its fans. A taunting, single word such as Roma painted on the right wall can play psychological havoc with rival soccer fans, sending them into an emotional tailspin. After important games, soccer graffiti literally mushrooms – Ave Roma (Hail Roma), or Campioni del mondo (World Champions) festoon every neighbourhood.

The political graffiti is more in tune with its twentieth-century roots. Politics in Italy is intense. It is the favourite topic of conversation at the café, at the piazza, and at the dinner table. The current buzz is all about citizens forming vigilante groups (ronde) to patrol the streets to fight crime. To counter this disturbing development fuelled by right-wing rhetoric, “vigilante” groups (read volunteers) are popping up to take on social ills in their neighbourhoods, providing a constructive community building alternative to community patrolling. The graffiti I found painted on the wall near Campo dei Fiori – a warning to padroni e fascisti (bosses and fascists), was a clear and effective message that got me compiling a long list of whorish things during an otherwise mundane stroll.

By far, the most common graffiti theme is love. To walk around Rome you would think love is on everyone’s mind – “I love you to death Topolina (little mouse),” “Cicciolo (my tasty little tidbit), I love you too much.” You read declarations of love and of love’s intensity; statements of adoration and devotion; lovelorn pleas for unrequited love; and the expression of just plain ecstasy. The writing is on the wall. Mythologies about Casanova and the Latin lover still resonate in the eternal city. Love graffiti appears on parapets, on walls in secluded alleyways, on a building located in the intended’s neighbourhood, a favourite meeting spot, anywhere lovers are likely to be. What an exhilarating moment when you walk by a wall, one that you’ve always passed, and suddenly you see a message jumping out, directed to you – “Federica, I adore you.”

The clandestine nature of graffiti enhances its passion. It’s the perfect vehicle to express openly what’s deep in your heart. To be sure, love graffiti is everywhere in Italy. In Verona, the wall surrounding Juliet’s house is awash with multicoloured love graffiti. There is so much of it, words superimposed on more words, that it looks like a Jackson Pollock painting. Both sexes are prone to take up pen and scratch declarations of love onto city infrastructure. I found a marriage proposal written on a wall on a path to a waterfall in Val D’Ayas, in the Alps. It was preceded by a heartfelt preamble, indicating it was written by a woman to her man, after a big fight – “You promised me a super mega magical day … I broke your balls to get a whole day with you … then I stopped to think about it … I only need to know that you’re mine … I’ve waited for you so long. I’m sorry if I’m an ass. I would like to and want to be with you for the rest of my life. Will you marry me?”

Back in Rome, walking up Via Savella to the Giardino degli aranci on the Aventine Hill, I spot love graffiti fading into a porous brick wall, “The writing on this wall may fade, but our love never will.” I love the handwritten quality of love graffiti. I love that it is passionate and I love that it appears on so many different kinds of walls whose texture and colour intensify the message. I love that near Campo dei fiori I was encouraged to think of political shenanigans and whorish things. I’m glad someone got me to stop and think about housing issues with this message scrawled on the side of a neglected church: “+ houses, – churches.” I love Rome ergo I love its graffiti.

But Rome has had enough of graffiti. The municipality dispatches squadre decoro urbano –urban décor teams to clean up the walls. Through its program called CROMIAE, the city is making “legal walls” available for “writing” – interestingly, English termsare used in Italy’s graffiti culture. “Free walls” are open to everyone. Additional “personal walls” are reserved exclusively for graffiti artists and their crew who apply for membership to the program. The CROMIAE website lists the location of these walls. Officials hope that this initiative, and other urban art cultural events, will provide an outlet for the taggers and graffiti artists and some relief for passionate citizens who cannot resist the urge to “scratch” their feelings onto Rome’s eternal walls.

Born in Italy and raised in Toronto, Elizabeth Cinello travels to Rome and Italy every year for a period of two to three months. She is active in Toronto’s arts community, focussing on neighbourhood development projects and cultural animation. She co-wrote and codirected York Classico, a documentary film about the homemade winemaking culture in Toronto.

First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 18.

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