Friday, January 26, 2007

Un-American Graffiti

The other day, I posted a video that my friend Finny made when she was visiting, of me driving around my neighborhood streets looking for parking (in this post). One of my guests who will be arriving in a few months and has never stayed with us, but who follows my blog, got in touch with me to mention that with all that graffiti you see on the video, could it be that my neighborhood (Trastevere) is in a run-down or dangerous area?

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!


Anonymous said...

Very interesting post !This is particularly true in Rome. Graffiti is not as developped in Paris for instance, except in very old parts of the city, like "le sentier" (neighbourhood of the clothes warehouses) or near the Sorbonne where the graffiti is more political.
Rome struck me too with all its graffitis, I particularly noticed how many football graffitis there were, everywhere !! (actually I arrived just after the Roma won the national championship, 5 years ago and people were painting all our neighbourhood - the Monti- in yellow and red !!!)

Michelle | Bleeding Espresso said...

We have a lot of graffiti down here in no man's land (Calabria) as well, and a lot of it is actually quite good--especially closer to the main train station. Funny you posted this now, though; the other day when I went to the doctor (which shares a complex with the elementary school), I noticed a lovely tag on the school: scuola di merda, but it was raining, so I couldn't get a pic. Yet :)

sari said...

Hi Shelley,

Thanks for saying hi on my blog!

I have a confession, I've heard of Nutella but NEVER had any! Terrible, I know. :-)

John Cropper said...

It's really ironic that you post about this, because I was just assigned to write about graffiti on OSU's campus. Here it's viewed a little differently, because it's been proven that, in areas where graffiti is prevalent, other crimes are spurred.

Personally, i'm torn on the matter. I respect the artistic side of graffiti (that is, good graffiti), but if I was a business owner I would certinaly get ticked off if someone sprayed their name all over my walls.

Elizabeth Abbot said...

Hi Shelley, check out a great graffiti wall in Testaccio just off the lungotevere by the Architecture facoltà.

I once had a Canadian au pair girl from Vancouver who told me that she had almost run away before ringing my doorbell on arriving in Rome -- we were just off Corso Vittorio Emanuele (in the very thick of the center)at the time. The building looked so OLD and rundown!!! Lucrezia Borgia had actually slept there so it was old, but in what is now considered a very upscale neighborhood.

The Forums have arrived!!

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

Great post Shelley. On travel boards many first time American visitors to Rome are horrified by all the graffiti.

There is graffiti in Pompeii. This is something that has been going on for over a thousand years. The tagging in Rome is not the same as the tagging here in Los Angeles, where most of it is gang tagging (a huge and scary difference).

John Cropper said...

Oh, by the way, your posts are addictive!

FinnyKnits said...

Funny thing about graffiti in Rome, I never notice it while I'm there. Probably because the city has so many beautiful things to look at (or because I'm too busy trying to dodge traffic, navigate the cobblestone or find something ELSE to eat.)

I remember after my first trip to see you I came home and was looking at my photos and only noticed the graffiti then. I'd taken a photo of the produce stand below your apartment, thinking at the time how darling it was, and it wasn't until I got home and looked at the photo again that I even noticed the graffiti.

I do agree with Ragazza that while graffiti in the US is usually associated with danger/crime/gangs, I never felt that the graffiti in Europe or Rome signified the same issues.

Good post -

African Kelli said...

Graffiti bums me out. I was so disappointed with the graffiti all over Bolivia. And political message or not -- keep it off of the churches! That is just wrong.

Anonymous said...

Amsterdam has quite a lot of graffiti, but not so much in the 'tourist' areas.

Cape Town had a lot of graffiti and some of it was quite gorgeous - there were some very talented artists there.

I like it, I think it shows that a city has life. Otherwise you have suburbs (and sterility) imo.

Anonymous said...

Hi! I enjoyed your post! Before my study abroad in Rome in 2004 I was told "rome is noisy, graffiti is's just "ghetto"!. I couldn't believe what I was hearing and started to feel discouraged about my upcoming semester, but I fell in love with the city and actually fell in love [maybe i'll start a blog] lol ..I got used to seeing the graffiti as a part of my everyday experience and it didn't bother me at all..i lived in monteverde..I even had a few good laughs once my italian improved and I started to understand the things that were written!! Your guests have nothing to fear.

Dixie said...

We've got about as much graffiti in our city as you've got there and I have to say it drives me mad, especially when it's done in a completely inappropriate place such as statues or walls around a cemetery. On a church not far from me someone had spray painted on the wall near the door "Jesus Christus ist unserer Retter" (Jesus Christ is our Savior) and they left it because can you clean off Jesus graffiti in good conscience?

Once while on a streetcar I saw on a wall by a streetcar stop someone had painted "Fleisch ist Mord" (Meat is murder) and then someone had come behind them later and added next to the graffiti "...aber lecker!" (...but tasty!). That struck me so funny that I laughed out loud and got everyone in the streetcar to look at me.

Shelley - At Home in Rome said...

Thanks everyone for your interesting comments. I do realize that a lot of graffiti in the States is gang-related and I think this is an important distinction to make. Rome doesn't really have its own Mafia or a gang problem, per se, but does or did have a group called "La Banda della Magliana," the Magliana Street Gang... but the way that would operate is much different than perhaps an LA-based gang, meaning you aren't going to see drive-bys, etc, I think it's mostly underground organized crime. Of course I'm no expert but this is what I understand from the time I've lived here.

I won't respond to each comment individually but I enjoyed reading all of your insights. Grazie! Keep them coming if you've just read the post...

Alec said...

Hey, really interesting post. I'm going to read more of your posts and subscribe to this!

I'm studying Italian at school so it's good to be able to get to understand some of the culture and lifestyle of Italy.

Thanks! =D

Shelley - At Home in Rome said...

Alec: Great to see you! Benvenuto. Thanks for joining us...

sarainitaly said...

There is a huge difference between a graffiti artist and a *tagger* or vandal. If someone gets permission to do an artsy piece on a wall, then more power to them. I have seen some beautiful walls.

But some idiot kid like *lucas* who spraypaints his name all over town should be fined, and forced to repaint all the walls where he has tagged - which it is easy to tell where he has been, since his name is everywhere.

Remember that kid who was caned in Singapore for spraypainting? It isn't a petty crime. It costs homeowners and car owners millions in repairs.

When I lived in SD, a gang moved into my neighborhood, tagged my sidewalk, and two days later my car was stolen. Twice. So, it can be a mark of gang territory, although, in most cases, it is idiot kids.

I think the vandalism/defacing of historical monuments should be dealt with - either community service, or fining the kids/parents. *ugh* it is horrible to look at. And it is sad. Absolutely no respect for history, or other peoples property.

I see it all over Europe, and US. Paris was really bad too. Perhaps if these vandals *were* caned, it would help sove the problem! haha

Shelley - At Home in Rome said...

Ciao, American Girl. Thanks for your thoughts and opinions!

I agree that tagging isn't art, and is in fact vandalism. But by showing it I wanted to make the point that we can't automatically assume that seeing this type of graffiti means that the area is run-down, dangerous, or "gang-infested," at least we can't make that assumption here in Rome, or Trastevere, it just doesn't hold up.

This is a complex issue and the ways graffiti is reacted to and dealt with vary wildly depending on where you're at and where you're coming from.

DiscoverSoriano said...

When I lived in Italy, my apartment had an amazing view of an 11th century castle. In the beginning, I would wake up every morning in awe. After a year, I stopped noticing it was there.

My point is that Romans don't see the beautiful church we see. They just see buildings. It is very easy to lose the appreciation for the beauty around you, especially for kids (the taggers, of course) who are not mature enough to appreciate what is around them.

The graffiti in Rome, IMHO, is an absolute disgrace. It has gotten so much worse in recent years, but you cannot fault the kids... this is what kids do. YOu have to fault the government and people for allowing it to get this bad.

Governo Ladro!

Anonymous said...

Here in Dublin graffiti will appear on almost any surface in any part of the city. I guess it's whatever seems appropriate to the "artist"!

Madelyne said...

Sydney has some bad graffiti problems in the most affluent areas. It's often just bored teenagers with no respect for other peoples property. My husband was a graffiti artist in his teen days and he said they rarely tagged where they lived (he was from a less wealthy neighbourhood)so if they got seen no one knew who they were. Thankfully he has outgrown his bad boy days

Spangly Princess said...

hi there! The endless tagging really annoys me since it's so pointless. But graffiti that actually says something doesn't bother me at all.

In all the parts of town I've lived in - Salaria/Nomentana, Trastevere and now on the Appia Nuova - there have been graffiti making political, religious, social and economic points: for me it's a form of highly democratic expression which I enjoy reading. Yhere's an awful lot of love declarations too. As an obsessive football fan I also love all the football-related ones. Though of course I understand why some people hate the whole thing.

And the one thing you can't say that these people have no sense of history - the very word 'graffito' is Italian and it's an ancient tradition here from Imperial Rome onwards, throughout the medieval and renaissance periods up to the modern day. In some places you can see these historic graffiti and they're a fascinating social document. It's also noticeable that Romans have an innate sense of their history and there are some buildings and monuments which just don't get graffitied. One way or another it's a permanent part of Italian culture.

Libbycookie said...

I like being startled or inspired by artistic or political "graffiti" - but the rest of it is such a bummer. I was obsessed a while ago with tag art on train cars, after stumbling across this photo site of the artist Labrona.
I love the idea of train cars as moving galleries, crossing internatioanl boundaries and carrying images to unexpected distances. The photos of Rome are another story, though...

Michellanea said...

Graffiti is one of my pet hates. I do happen to think that Italy has one of the worst graffiti problems around Europe and it's just more pervasive here. I think a lot of it goes back to there being little respect for authority (like the police do much to stop this here...). And also a lack of respect for common spaces and civilized life. I've heard people say the kids are "just trying to express themselves" and that's a bunch of BS. I'd like to take one of their motorini and express myself by spraying my "tag" all over it and kicking in the headlight. That's the same kind of self expression, right? Not to sound like such a fun sponge, but I truly hate the graffiti and think that even if it exists in areas that aren't "ghettos," it just ruins everything. They inaugurated a new park by my house a year ago and now it's overrun with trash, graffiti and broken benches and streetlamps. I've been here 7 years but I still "see" the graffiti and hope to never "just get used to it."

Anonymous said...

as both and american and an italian i find present day rome very similar to NYC in the early 80s- graffiti wise. when everybody & their mamma was tagging any surface possible, including trains. if you go to NYC today you won't see nearly as much graffiti, trains are spotless outside. whereas in rome, it's out of control, there is NO control over it. i have no problems with graffiti in industrial/modern areas but in the historic center it is just WRONG. i also live in trastevere and after they finally redid a very beautiful palazzo and removed the scaffolding, a day later it was covered in this crappy scribble, "tags" but too lame to even be comsidered by REAL graffiti artists. i can say that most european cities have already gone throw the graffiti boom, that's probably why you don't see it much- other cities have become severe about it and they actually enforce their laws. in barcellona you see very little "illegal" graffiti and tags but you do see great murals and commissioned works. rome needs to get its act together because the city looks like a dump, it has gotten progressively worse. i've lived in rome/trastevere for over 10 years and observed this change- from clean to dumpy looking. there's nothing wrong with a little tag here and there or some nice graffiti but if everybody and thei mamma is trying to be a writer anf failing miserably, something needs to be done!

Shelley - At Home in Rome said...

Thank you all for your continued thoughts and comments... I am learning a lot from our discussion!

I agree that it would be wonderful if somehow Rome could "magically" be cleaned up. I see buildings painted over continuously and the taggers love it because they have a new "canvas" to work on. Not more than a day or two goes by before they are all written on again.

Is there any hope for cleaning up Rome, though? How do the other cities manage to enforce this? Here in Rome I see it like I see a lot of things that have to do with bureaucracy: a lost cause... Don't mean to sound cynical but I would be shocked to see something done about this. Pleased, of course, but shocked.

However I had the same hopeless feeling when the no smoking law in restaurants came out a couple years back, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that IT WORKS. But there the reason is that they changed how it was being enforced. Before it was the smoker that would be fined if caught. It only started working once the owners of the establishments would be the ones fined, and hefty fines... the owners started enforcing it immediately and people stopped smoking in restaurants.

Anonymous said...

Grazie mille a tutti, specialmente Shelley for posting this topic that I wasn't aware existed in big cities in Europe. I have learned so much from all the comments and I'm glad I inquired about the graffiti.

When tourists go back home, they only remember the beautiful sights they visited and the food they ate.

Another thing I'm glad to hear is the no smoking in restaurants, I had not thought about that.

Grazie Shelley.....

Unknown said...

Rome was the first European city I have visited, and while I found the landmarks and church beautiful and captivating, I was completely saddened by the graffiti. I got more used to it from when I first arrived, once I realized that the graffiti was not associated with street gangs. I still find it disheartening. On one note I would not go so far as to say that people in gated communities and suburbs associate graffiti with crime in the states. (Which implies that people in the city view it as art) I grew up in Albuquerque, NM and graffiti is mostly done by gangs to mark territory. "XVIII street" and "West Gate Locos" are simply not a bunch of artistic people looking to cover the "open canvas" with art. It represents claimed territory in a very real sense of the word, and any sane person would not go there at night. Personally I think Rome would look about 100x better without garffiti.