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Graffiti: Vandalism? Art? Democracy?

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November 16, 2009 Cultural Musings, Culture & People 1 Comment

Several recently published reports heavily criticise the graffiti in Rome. The BBC published an article in August 2009, pretending to provide a balanced view and diverse opinions on the topic, but instead simply picking up on Prime Minister Berlusconi’s moaning about graffiti in Rome – one of his skillful moralising digs at the political left – and leaving it at that. The article interviews an array of people with the same opinion – hating the graffiti – and falls short of highlighting any of the controversies and meanings surrounding this ‘dirty issue’.


l campo arch rome Graffiti: Vandalism? Art? Democracy?

Arch near Campo de' Fiori


While some people would prefer for the city to be immaculately polished, preserving the original state of every building, wall and street to create a pure or even sterile outdoor museum, Rome’s youth certainly has other ideas. The embellishment of countless buildings with graffiti may be seen as a protest against the prevailing perspective that the great history of Rome was yesterday, and that today must be spent conserving this history instead of letting the new generations take charge and make the city their own. While graffiti – as a way to achieve a sense of change and dynamism – is certainly debateable, views on graffiti in Rome are as diverse as the drawings themselves, and deserve to be reviewed as such.

The drawings can be political, childish, interesting, pointless, witty, beautiful (in an edgy sort of way) or outright dumb. Your view likely depends on your role – are you a visitor, a neighborhood resident, the owner of the building, or even the artist? Many visitors, mainly from the US, will instinctively view the graffiti as evidence of street crime and may feel threatened and disgusted by the graffiti in Rome even long after they have been assured that such a connection is not applicable to this city. Some neighborhood residents will feel that the graffiti is disfiguring, others will regard it with interest, and will allow themselves to be entertained, enlightened, intrigued and confused by it. The owner of a newly ‘decorated’ building may feel angry and frustrated at the illegal act, or interested if it appeals to his sense of art, while the artist will likely feel proud of his work.


l graffiti river rome Graffiti: Vandalism? Art? Democracy?

Graffiti alongside the Tiber


Yes, graffiti is illegal and generally regarded as vandalism. It is also a tradition that reaches into the annals of history: Ancient Rome was rife with it, offering social commentary, satire and a reflection of the times – and lending modern graffiti its name. In a way, then, it is unrealistic to ask that graffiti should suddenly stop simply because this city’s grandest history appears to lie in the past. But even where graffiti is met with simple hostile resistance, as by the government of Rome, the definition of graffiti as a crime and pursuing the vandals has not stopped drawings appearing and evolving everywhere around the city. In the graffiti artists’ use of space and in their definitions of beauty and neighborhood, they uncover the way power and meanings are manufactured.

As such the cause for an immaculately polished Rome may be lost, and we do not have many options other than refining our judgement, and looking beyond the obvious. We need to think about what is desirable, and what we can achieve given the circumstances. What happenes to a society that lives in a museum where nothing can be touched or altered? Do we need beauty so cultivated that it becomes boring, or can we live with evolving truth and conflicting interpretations of beauty and ownership? When is graffiti democratic expression, when is it vandalism, and when is it art? At best, in the historic centre of Rome, it will take on all three forms simultaneously.

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Currently there is "1 comment" on this Article:

  1. Tim says:

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    Great post.

    As an Anglo Saxon I also made the assumption when I first came to Rome of Graffiti=crime… That is overly simplistic. Sure, when you look at Graffiti from a moral/legal point of view, it fails.

    However, as you state, the history needs to be understood. “Quiet” resistance to the authorities is imperative. Sometimes it is unnecessary (during stable times) but the “art” must never be lost in case it becomes one of the few outlets of expression. Graffiti can be many things (art, ego, public message, private message etc etc), but Banksy, the pasquino statue (good article on wikipedia) and blogs are all variations of the “traditional” outlets of information – there are many more.

    I also know there is a lot of zone variation in the Graffiti in Rome, and the symbolism is quite complex. So much so that 4 different Northern European universities run 3 year courses here in Rome studying Graffiti.

    It would be great to run a flickr group on Roman Graffiti all geotagged. There are some very clever guys out there (and some idiots:)

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