Rome queuing at the Vatican museums, a stroll through the Imperial Fora, shopping in Via del Corso or tossing a coin in the Trevi Fountain. It is the tourist city that, after two years of closures due to the pandemic, is back on its feet, alive, with its arms wide open to visitors from near and far. But the Italian capital is also an exceptional showcase for street art: just take a tour of the Ostiense district, a developing area included by The Guardian among the top ten coolest neighborhoods in Europe.
The Ostiense district is world famous for its expanding collection of legal and super-size works of street art
A two-hour walk through what has in recent years become the top neighborhood in the city, world famous for its expanding collection of legal and super-size works of street art. We get off the subway at the Piramide station and start walking. It is an early July morning, 9 o'clock; the heat is stifling and the sun beats down on the buildings, with the benefit of illuminating the stunning murals. Mobile phone in hand, we try to find the right angle to photograph them.
After just a few yards, in Via Ostiense, on the corner with Via delle Conce, we encounter the first work: Hunting Pollution by Federico Massa, known as Iena Cruz, one of the Italian artists most sensitive to environmental issues. It is the largest green mural in Europe, depicting a Tricolored Heron, an endangered species, which has just captured its prey in a polluted sea: the victim of environmental pollution. The bright colors are an instant attraction. An elderly lady passes by and takes a picture. We do the same. The work has been defined as a 'smog-eater' because it is created using Airlite, a special ecological paint that captures pollutants and destroys them by means of a chemical reaction similar to chlorophyll photosynthesis in plants.
We are no experts, but on our tour, we are accompanied by Veronica De Angelis and Maura Crudeli, respectively President and Vice-President and project manager of the No Profit organization Yourban2030, which in 2018 supported Cruz's project.
“I started graffiti in 1997,” says Iena Cruz. “Since I was small, I have always been attracted by the culture of skateboarding and by the tags on the walls in Milan, my home city. After my first trip to San Francisco in 2006, I made the spontaneous transition from graffiti in the sense of lettering to street art, so more figurative and graphic. I believe that, for an artist, the most important thing is to find your own expressive language. Talking about environmental sustainability, endangered animals and man's impact on the ecosystem was for me an emotional need that stemmed from my shock and disapproval towards what we are doing to the planet we live on.”
Ethics and sustainability are—in terms of techniques, the materials used, the workmanship—after all the true signature of all Iena Cruz’s art, which is not limited to creating murals: “Growing up in Milan, studying Scenography at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts, working as a set designer for photo shoots in New York are the keys that have characterized my passion for art, design, craftsmanship and fashion,” he says.
A journey of creativity and experimentation documented by a container—Zurcanei Collection Mindset by IENA CRUZ—which has a bit of everything inside: lamps, mosaics, carpets, fabrics, wallpapers, clothes: “I like to use art to explore new fields in my works, either self-financed or in partnership,” explains Cruz. “Making public art enables me to get to know new people, different places and cultures; each of these factors generates cohesion, comparison, sharing, making these experiences unique, irrespective of the place, the people and the culture. This is why it was an honor and a great personal challenge for me to create Hunting Pollution in Ostiense. I would do it again tomorrow and I hope that, in the future, I will get the chance to create a new work.”
And on our chosen path, in addition to Hunting Pollution there are four other works: all sponsored by Yourban2030. These include VentiduePortoFluviale Mela Mundi. This mural is one of the most recent and it shows: the colors are very fresh and bright. The work decorates the walls of the restaurant Porto Fluviale, named after the same street.
It consists of six paintings: the first—the start of the story of Mela Mundi—depicts the apple of Eve, original and pure; the second represents social differences. in the third, the servants and slaves fight over the tray with the emperor's leftovers.
The fourth painting depicts the era of the Crusades, with a knight setting fires in the name of God; the industrial revolution in the fifth painting is the beginning of the contamination of apples/nature; while the sixth portrays the contemporary era: in a polluted world, nature is now transformed by man, who shows off an unnatural cube-shaped apple, far from its original form and from nature itself.
The artist is Marco Burresi, known as ‘Zed1’. “I started in 1993 in Viareggio, after meeting some guys who were writers and they showed me photos of art in America and Northern Europe. I got interested and then it became my passion,” he says. In the beginning, I painted illegally. Then the first conventions came along and today it is my job: I usually paint walls but in my free time I also paint canvases and sculptures. My works are mostly autobiographical: they talk about my experiences, existential reflections. Painting is a form of therapy, it helps me express my pains and my joys,” continues Zed1. “Each wall is a bit like a journey into the local culture: you discover people, customs, traditions. I don't know much about Rome but street art is a phenomenon that is growing worldwide: today, you can find many cities with whole neighborhoods painted and Ostiense is a prime example”.
Redevelopment also involves art that becomes an attraction
“We started in the Ostiense district, establishing a good relationship with the Municipal Authority, but we have also worked in Europe and the United States, always in reference to the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” explains Veronica De Angelis. “Technology has in fact a very positive impact on the environment. The two works by Iena Cruz and Zed1, for example, together occupy 1,200 square meters that absorb the pollution of 192 cars per day.”
“Redevelopment also involves art that becomes an attraction,” concludes the President of Yourban2030. “And everyone can do something: the restaurant Porto Fluviale, for example, has given something back to the local area by financing a public work that everyone can enjoy and by donating to a no-profit, which is commendable.”
Exactly opposite in Via del Porto Fluviale, on the facade of the former Italian Air Force barracks, we find I mille volti by BLU, known as the “Italian Banksy”. And just like the British writer, considered one of the greatest ever street artists, nobody knows anything about BLU: his social media account does not reveal his identity. But his works do “talk” about him. I mille volti (The Thousand Faces) is a mural of many different colored faces: a message in the representation of the fight against property speculation. The work still makes an impression, although over time, the details have faded somewhat.
We come across other faces—26, like the letters of the alphabet—continuing on Via dei Mercati Generali. We recognize the former president of the United States, Barack Obama; rapper Mobb; director Quentin Tarantino; singer and pianist Ray Charles, the legend of soul music. There are more: Dante Alighieri, even Zorro. The mural, over 65 yards long, is called the Wall of Fame and the creator is the local street artist JB Rock, who also interspersed among the famous faces six much-loved family members and friends, in a sort of monument to communication as a central value of contemporary society.
The tour isn't over yet. We turn along Via del Commercio and the perimeter wall of the former Italgas, we come across Fuoco Fatuo (Wisp) by Diamond and Solo, two local artists: the first known for his strong Art Nouveau inspiration and the second for work focused on Italian super heroes. The mural was conceived as part of the public domain project Millennials Art Work (Mart) in 2019.
Next, on Via dei Magazzini Generali, the giant slogan “Paint over the cracks”, created for the Outdoor Festival 2012 by the Malawian artist Kid Acne. A clear, colorful message, 71 yards long that urges us to use art and creativity to fill in the fractures–not only physical–of contemporary society.
Immediately following, in Via del Gazometro, ‘Davide Desaparecido’ by Mauro Pallotta, aka Maupal, known for his works of Pope Francis. The mural, painted in 2020, is dedicated to the case of the Italian non-commissioned naval officer, Davide Cervia, a 31-year-old expert in electronic warfare, kidnapped in 1990 at the time of the first Gulf War. A crime mystery still unresolved thirty years later, which Maupal–as usual–“chronicles from the bottom up”: Cervia is at attention, looking out to sea, stabbed in the back by a harpoon that bears the Italian flag.
The heart rises a little further on, on Via Giuseppe Acerbi, with the imposing mural on the facade of the Roman headquarters of Turner, broadcaster of the channel Cartoon Network. Created for the 25th anniversary of the US entertainment broadcaster, it is a collective work created by two local street artists, omino71 and Mr. Klevra, as part of an educational project that involved a group of young people from the Caritas emergency centers for minors. Amicizia, incontro e diversità (Friendship, encounter and diversity) is the title of the mural created by multiple hands just a stone's throw from the gasometer:
the best message to take home after a wonderful stroll amidst avant-garde and modernity, in a part of Rome almost completely unknown to tourists and, unfortunately, even to the people of Rome.
A wall called wonder
A wall called New York. New York subway. Line 7. Lines 6, 1, 2, 4. From Queens to Brooklyn, from the Bronx to Forest Hills. They come from all over the world to leave their signature on the most coveted subway “canvas”: graffiti artists, dressed in sneakers, hoodies, jeans, armed with spray cans and spatulas to define the contours of their drawings or giant pop art lettering.
Like Friedrick Hagel and Peter Hansk, from Hamburg, who arrived in New York a week ago and wandered along the tracks looking for the right place to draw. Or Julien and Pierre from France,; or Orvar Gustavsson from Sweden
“They come from all over the world,” says Orvar, who we met near the Roosevelt Bridge, which crosses the East River. “I even saw a Korean guy. We make friends easily because we have the same goal.” On his mobile, he shows us a photo of a mural in the shape of a subway train, featuring an image of a rapper with a cap: "He’s the giant of graffiti in New York, he died of COVID.” His name was DJ Kay Slay. “But when I went to see it in person,” he admits with a hint of disappointment, “the mural was gone.” This is the fate of a lot of graffiti, whose artistic fortune quickly evaporates.
This is the fate of a lot of graffiti, whose artistic fortune quickly evaporates.
The world of graffiti artists is less obscure than in the past: they find one another through Instagram; they go to see the murals painted and photographed on social media and friendships and partnerships are forged. They generally wear acetate tracksuits, trainers, and often stand with their hands in their pockets, looking distrustful. It is an art that is sometimes fatal, for them and for the passengers: last year, there were 1260 cases of intrusion on the tracks, which caused two hundred accidents. Of these, in sixty-eight cases someone died.
They are not always responsible. Often writers flee along the tracks to escape the police, sometimes they end up under a train. Like the story told by Ellis Gallagher: he was in a tunnel near the Bergen Street station, in Brooklyn, together with Hector Ramirez, whom he’d only just met. They were on a track armed with spray when they heard the trains coming. Gallagher moved to the center of the tunnel, Ramirez to one side. A few hours later, the police said Ramirez was likely run over by at least three trains. A series of drawings were found near his remains. Ramirez was 29 years old. They took him away in two suitcases.
Despite the mortal risk, or perhaps because of it, all writers agree: the New York subway is the Mecca of street art; or the Vatican for a Catholic
Despite the mortal risk, or perhaps because of it, all writers agree: the New York subway is the Mecca of street art; or the Vatican for a Catholic, as a French graffiti artist called Fenx says. Trains have the ideal surface and the rounded shape increases the depth of the figures. Trains to Queens are very popular, as are those that go down to Brooklyn. But even the railroad passages through Harlem end up filled with murals. Often, the wall is a means of saying ‘I exist’. The New York Times, a couple of months ago, told the story of a Frenchman, Blanc something, who had posted on Instagram a video shot from the roof of the building where he had rented a room. He had written his name in red and black. “A small painting,” he commented, “waiting for the sunrise in Manhattan”. But this had a limit, or rather two: it was on top of a building, accessible to very few; and it was “still”. This is why the subway attracts graffiti artists from all over the world: because their drawings get carried all around an iconic city.
A tag painted on railings is one thing; painted on the side of the line 7 subway car, it is quite another. That name will travel through neighborhoods that symbolize the struggle of life, past people always in a hurry, people sleeping on the sidewalk.
And it will be seen by New Yorkers, perhaps lit up by the window light, when two trains come side by side for twenty seconds, along with the expressionless faces of passengers in the other train. Perhaps the writing flashes by, or a letter that causes a memory to resurface, a color that recalls a sunset enjoyed years ago with a person who has since passed on. The golden age here was the 1970s, when all the trains were painted. Then, around the mid-1980s, a cleaning plan began to remove the writing from more than six thousand subway cars. Message for graffiti artists: you'll be working for hours on something that will be washed off.
The cost to erase the drawings, explains the New York transport company, is around a million dollars a year
Within five years, all the trains had been “cleaned up”. But the trend never really died. In the last five years, train tagging has resumed. Since 2018, 1500 cars have been painted. The cost to erase the drawings, explains the New York transport company, is around a million dollars a year. The message to the writers, fifty years later, is still the same: it is useless to work for hours on a drawing, because we will erase it. But it's not the time it takes to stop them. Or the time they have left to live, as they wander along the tracks at night. They are there to draw. And, to them, that is the only thing that matters.
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