Modern Art in an Ancient City: The Graffiti of Rome

A city of ruins, churches and endless fountains; Rome has been a major tourist destination for centuries. Yet it has also been a city swamped by social disruption, political controversy and clashing powers. This disruption is noticeable through the graffiti that litters these ancient streets, used by many as a way to express opinions, from as far back as the Roman Empire. Many regard this graffiti as dirty and disrespectful but, as I discovered on a recent trip to Rome, some now regard it as artistic expression.

As in any city, when walking the streets of Rome its not unusual to find sprayed messages scrawled on the side of buildings, but the debate over whether these images should be seen as pieces of art is increasing rapidly. In the last few years a growing number of graffiti artists are using spray paint and stencils to create elaborate images in public places. But for many the word ‘tag’ invokes an image of some teenagers defacing a public space with their initials, which really cannot be seen as art.

The other side of graffiti shows the much more elaborate creation of ‘masterpieces’ and a shift towards artistic expression which parallels a general growth in popularity for public art as a whole. Many argue that the presence of graffiti stops Rome from being seen as a living museum, keeping the city in the present by creating new layers of expression on top of the old.

Rome has always been seen as a centre for art and architecture, but it is important that it keeps reinventing that image. In 2010 MAXXI (Museo Nazionale Delle Arti Del XXI Secolo) was opened as the Italian equivalent to MoMA or Tate Modern, but it is the street artists such as Sten & Lex who constantly remind us that Rome isn’t just an ancient city. Their stencil portraits can be found in doorways, on walls or on street signs (the below image was found near our hotel).

They are not imposing or threatening, but raw and very modern in comparison to the buildings they are often found on. They are not just the scribbling of a pair of teenagers, they are making a political commentary through the figures they choose to depict and the freedom the diversity of location their work uses. They want to remind us that they are artists, which is emphasised by leaving the stencil partly attached to the work in order to show the process of creation. Alice is another graffiti artist who is internationally known throughout the urban art world. Her style is defined by bold black lines on brightly coloured paint depicting the everyday scenes and unknown faces.

Due to the largely negative reception to urban artists their public artworks are usually a temporary fixture on the Roman landscape. As is often the case all over Europe and America, they are taken down or painted over by the authorities. Their style of creativity is still pushed to the bottom of the hierarchy of artistic mediums, below classical practices of painting and sculpture, even though this is arguably just a newer way to paint. Yes there may be political undertones to each statement piece, but the criterion is largely aesthetic and based on self-expression.

Its a shame that modern mediums such as graffiti are not celebrated in the same way as sculpture and architecture, but this response also emphasises that Rome is first and foremost a city of history and ancient culture. However, the success of these artists in their own right (all have held individual shows indoors as well as on the street) suggests that ‘graffiti’  should not just be seen as an act of violation. It doesn’t have to be dirty or offensive, and should be regarded with an open mind.

Urban art is a part of the city and so it should be embraced as belonging to a new growing culture;  the merging of freedom of expression with the traditional city landscape. In the end, we should see this as public art that aims to entertain, engage and stimulate passers-by, not a piece of scribble that aims to offend and upset the cities in which it is found.

Rachel Tait

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