Italian graffiti artist, Blu, is featured on Colossal today. Seeing such obvious statements of the social and political reality in Italy reminds me of the importance of art when it comes to educating the masses. Go into any church in Italy and you’ll see frescoes covering every square centimeter. Ancient walls and ceilings were not only canvases but opportunities to display a message, tell a story of hope, redemption, death and resurrection. The paintings were commissioned with religion in mind, to educate an illiterate population with the messages of the Church. Today, in modern times, it’s not as likely to be illiterate anymore. Italians as a whole are well-educated. They know how to read and write. And as if by osmosis, because so much of their world is made of it, they know a thing or two about art.
I don’t know much about graffiti culture but I learned most of what I know while I lived in Italy. It seems to me (and I could be totally wrong here) that in the U.S. graffiti is about territory and gangs. In Italy, gangs are practically nonexistent and maybe that’s because the urge to revolt against politics and social injustice are heavy enough to squelch the need for other kinds of rebellion.
One thing I found, as a foreign observer of graffiti in Italy is that if it doesn’t have a “F*ck the Machine” message, it’s ususally about love. It’s kind of funny to think that acts of vandalism could be about anything important at all. But once I got in the habit of reading what was literally written all over the walls, I saw I was surrounded by pure poetry. Go to any Italian town or city and you’ll find I love yous — “Carla, ti amo!” — sprayed in rushed, amateur hands across the tops of bridges. Messages of love had, love lost, messages of obsession and mostly longings are secretly scrawled in strategic locations like underpasses or pedestrian walkways ovvunque.
I suppose it’s only natural that Italians would be so enlightened in their graffiti culture. Afterall, they did seem to invent it. Go to the ancient ruins of the city of Pompeii and one of the most popular places tourists go and see are the scratches in the walls of the brothel. Next to erotic frescoes are etchings of names, dates (listed, of course, in Roman numerals) just like you’d find phone numbers and names in any nasty gas station across America today.
Graffiti goes back farther than ancient Rome. About a month ago, I came across this quote: “Beer has dispelled the illness which was within me.” This quote was taken from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics which were pictured above the quote in English. Reading it, I couldn’t help but wonder about hieroglyphics; those little pictures that when combined, could express a complete, complex thought. Seeing this quote translated made me wonder: when we stopped using hieroglyphs as a means to communicate our thoughts, did we lose something or did we gain complexity in our ability to express ourselves? It’s tempting to think that humans have evolved but I don’t know how to interpret this ancient form of communication. What if they taught it to us in school, would it enrich our ability to communicate? Or would we simply gain an understanding of an ancient set of obsolete emoticons?
When I was a kid, my sister Jess had a rocking horse just her size that had her name on it. I don’t even think she could read it, but as her older sister, I could. So I did what any other self-respecting older sister would do and got a big red crayon and drew an “X” over her name and wrote my own next to it. That was the extent of my graffiti career (and of my rocking horse privileges). Humans have this innate desire to leave our mark on this earth. To claim something in writing and make our claim public. Apparently, we have done this forever. Don’t tell me that if you went to the moon you wouldn’t draw your name or your lover’s name in the dust of its surface.
I think that’s sorta the point of graffiti. It can be a lot of things–a statement, a form of rebellion, a prompt, an impetus to change something. But even more than that, it’s a way of making what’s otherwise passing — a time in history, a political state, an emotion — and making it as permanent as possible. In short, it’s art. Brett Whitely, said it best: “Art is the thrilling spark that beats death.”