Fair enough question. Truth be told, Trastevere was a pretty rough neighborhood in the 50s and 60s, but over the years has actually undergone an urban gentrification, becoming one of the more expensive and well-to-do areas of the city (believe it or not, after seeing the graffiti-covered buildings in the video). I wonder if graffiti=crime is still a good general rule of thumb to apply in the States? In my experience, it certainly doesn't work that way here in Europe. I realize that most Americans live in a suburban, not city, environment, and so may not be used to seeing graffiti, and thus they associate it with a run-down or dangerous area. In many of the suburban areas and gated residential communities that are so frequent in the States, you generally don't find distinctions between the "bad" and "good" parts of town as you would in a city, and private homes would probably be the only place to put graffiti. It's the urban environment that seems to invite the graffiti "artist" to go to work, and I think we should take a take a closer look at how common the practice of graffiti is here in Rome, who is doing it, and what it means.
In most of the larger European cities I have visited, I have seen an abundance of graffiti. Everywhere. Near the train station and shady-looking businesses around it. Near and even on the richer homes (which are still apartment buildings, not single-family dwellings). On the shops. On the subway cars. Even on the churches. Everywhere within about a 2 meter radius from the ground, anywhere there's a nice "canvas" of wall, seems to be fair game.
When you live here you tend not to notice it, but my guest's comment has really made me stop to consider the topic. I'm now kind of more sensitive to it since I need to be able to communicate the European urban reality to people who may never have experienced a European city before, and may be justifiably put off by the fact that there is graffiti on the walls, and what that says about the area.
Here's what I came up with on my walk back from the grocery store yesterday, as a little examination of this topic.
First, I think the majority of the graffiti you'll find is simple tagging, kind of like a cat spraying to mark territory. Take this street corner off of Viale Trastevere for example: make a simple 360° turn, and on every corner of the intersection you'll find the same tag: "Lucas."
I found Lucas all down the road as well, once I started looking for it.
Here's another example of tagging that I found in various spots in the neighborhood. Can you decipher what the "tag" is?
If you said "Croels," you're right. (Now scroll back up to the first "Lucas" photo. Notice anything?)
Here's the first piece of graffiti I ever saw in my neighborhood, five years ago. Who knows when it originally went up. I still remember it because I thought it was funny, and since I was just learning Italian, I was proud of myself for understanding it as well:
It says "More houses, less churches." Graffiti as political statement, especially when painted directly on a church. Rome's housing situation is very difficult.
Evidently inspired by this succinct and effective message, someone else decided on a new rhyming phrase that has sprung up next to it, on the same church:
"More green, less...." well, I'll let you look that one up in your Italian dictionary. Let's just say that dog owners aren't so good about picking up after their dogs when they walk them.
Some graffiti can get quite elaborate and almost artistic:
And if it stops for long enough, even a press delivery truck becomes fair game:
Often you'll see buildings that look a bit two-toned, like this restaurant:
That's because they are constantly painting over the graffiti. But just next door, this:
Because it all depends on the owner of the building, and if they can afford to keep painting over it.
What point am I trying to make? The truth of the matter is that I'm no sociologist or criminologist. I wish I understood better the reason why graffiti is such a common practice here in European cities. I agree that it's a shame to see it on churches and buildings of important historical significance, and it certainly can be an eyesore. But I think when we're talking about graffiti and associating it with crime or a "bad" neighborhood, we need to understand the context we're dealing with.
Why are the graffiti artists tagging all over? Is it because they want to commit crimes in the neighborhood, or because my particular neighborhood attracts a delinquent crowd? No. Like I said, you'll see graffiti pretty much throughout Rome. (As an aside, when the Rome soccer team won the national championship in 2001 for the first time in 20 years, "normal" people turned into rampant graffiti artists, spray-painting elaborate emblems on the streets and buildings in broad daylight, for weeks on end.) So the question remains: why?
In college I took a few criminal justice classes (a secret passion and curiosity of mine--I took all the electives I could, as I was actually an advertising major) and one of my professors, Jeff Ferrell, had gone underground to do field research with graffiti crews, getting to know them inside-out and writing an interesting book on the topic. I have to say that Crimes of Style: Urban Graffiti and the Politics of Criminality was hands-down one of the most engaging course textbooks I ever had. One reviewer of the book comments:
"In the graffiti artists' use of space and in their definitions of beauty and neighborhood, they uncover the way power and meanings are manufactured. Ferrell's work is a powerful, clear, and engaging book; one which shows stunning new ways of seeing and studying 'crime.'"Later, when I became a copywriter at an ad agency, my creative director actually hired a graffiti artist to do a mural on a city wall for a campaign we were working on, and the graffiti artist went on to sell some of his work in art galleries.
That's the thing: whether we like it or not, many of these spray-can toting individuals do define themselves as artists, not criminals, and no amount of clean-up is ever going to truly get rid of the problem. I don't really know how to reassure my guests on questions like this. I think many people who have traveled to Rome for the first time have probably been initially shocked at seeing all the graffiti, but then it most likely fades into the background once they see that it isn't an occurrence particular to just one area, but pretty much to all areas.
In the end I can't really provide a good answer. And I'm sure if I could, it would be way too complex and involved for this post, anyway. I just wanted to bring up the topic and open it for discussion. I'm curious to hear what your impressions are when seeing this, what experiences you have to add, and if you are qualified to enlighten us from a more academic or sociological point of view, please do so!