Graffiti, vandalism or art?

All over Italian urban centres it is possible to see a wide variety of graffiti. Some of it is displayed on underpasses and other city infrastructure, such as bridges and embankments. However, you also see graffiti, in all of its various forms, depicted on public and private buildings, too. In contrast to many other European cities, much of Italy seems to be overrun by it. Why is this? Are Italians more tolerant to this street art or are they simply in no hurry to get rid of it? The answers lie in Roman culture which dominated the Italian peninsula for centuries. This is because urban graffiti dates back to the earliest Roman times, well before even the first Emperors took over in the wake of the assassination of Julius Caesar.

The Graffiti Culture of the Ancient Romans

The Italian noun graffito literally means a scratch and graffiti, the better-known plural version of this word, derives from it, too. Early examples of people scratching words and images into walls can be found in Pompeii, the well-preserved ancient ruin of a Roman city that was destroyed almost instantaneously by a volcanic eruption. However, humans have always made their mark on their surroundings and older versions of scratched out graffiti can be found in ancient Greece, too. Even further back, neolithic man has left graffiti in caves. Nonetheless, what marks ancient Roman graffiti out from its predecessors is that can be found in such abundance. Furthermore, it seems to cover a wide variety of subjects – anything from important and often insulting political propaganda to banal personal messages. In Pompeii, examples of graffiti include one which simply says, “Marcus loves Spendusa”. Elsewhere, a pearl of wisdom such as, “a small problem gets bigger if you ignore it” can be read. It seems that almost everyone in Pompeii’s society was at it. So much so, in fact, that a graffito legend on the wall of its basilica reads, “You have held up so much tedious graffiti, that I am amazed that your walls have not already collapsed in ruin.”

Why Was This Artform so Popular?

A restoration project of the famous Colosseum in Rome has revealed centuries of graffiti. By clearing away the accumulated grime and calcification that had built up on the structure’s stonework, experts have found multiple layers of inscriptions, much of it faded from ancient time and with lettering inscribed over the top that had been left by more modern visitors. Ultimately, graffiti was popular in public places, like the Colosseum, because it gave people a chance to express themselves and for their expressions to be viewed by as many people as possible. For people without access to other forms of mass communication, scratching an idea or a rude picture – possibly of your rival – was a means of reaching out. Although social media has largely replaced this function in today’s culture, the spirit of graffiti, especially in the form of large artworks, lives on in Italian towns and cities. You can see it in many places just as you would have done walking through the street of ancient Rome, Herculaneum or Naples. Whether it refers to the crude sexual prowess of the artist or makes a political point during an election, newly formed graffiti in Italian cities shows no sign of stopping.

Modern Italian Graffiti and Its Superstars

Indeed, graffiti nowadays is such an essential part of the urban landscape that many Italian cities actively recruit talented artists to add colour to the once-bland facades. A number of street art festivals across the country further confirm the growing acceptance of graffiti as a modern artform. Many famous graffiti artists have left the ‘underground’ and enjoy the respect and admiration of their peers and fans, their works proudly on display. Stroll down Via del Porto Fluviale in Rome and you are sure to notice the colourful faces with windows for eyes. The massive mural is the work of Blu, the mysterious Bologna-born graffiti artist whose street art is reminiscent of Banksy’s in its large scale and political undertone. In Milano, Davide ‘Atomo’ Tinelli has been stirring local spirits with his political graffiti since the 1980s. In his ‘home turf’, the Ticinese quarter, many younger artists still follow in his footsteps. Besides politics, football is another hot topic here. You can find it immortalised in many murals across the Isola neighbourhood. In Turin, Francesco Camillo “Millo” Giorgino has beautified the Corso Palermo with 13 murals that explore the topic of urban habitats and the role of citizens in them. These are just a few examples that show how Italian graffiti has decidedly stepped out of the shadows to claim its place as a full-scale form of modern art that is here to stay.