There is no way to avoid the new generation of rebels. The children of those who burned their bras and sang ‘War Pigs’ under a blanket of stars at Woodstock have forgone their dreads and beaded braids in exchange for a can of spray-paint and the cloak of night. Their goal is to show the world when it woke up in the abruptness of the 21st century, a Technicolor rebellion and permanence at its finest. From the artistry of the hip-hop culture and the radical symbols of the politically frustrated to the downtrodden Joe Shmoe whose only kick comes from the hiss of the can and the sound of his own feet running—graffiti defies the classic definition of beauty and titers between a world of infamy and abomination.
A far cry from being a punked-out rebel born in the 1980s, graffito (an Italian word whose plural is graffiti) is as old as the history of civilization, dating back to the world’s first functional cities like Athens and Rome. A precursor to its modern form can be found in the primitive Greek city of Ephesus, where one can find writings carved onto ancient ruins. They read, ‘I am amazed, Oh wall, that you have not collapsed and fallen since you must bear the tedious stupidities of so many scrawlers’. Along with politics and opinion, on these same partitions one can find everything: quotes, names, poetry, art—all of which managed to avoid the negative backlash of officials assuming these writings were merely ‘defacement’.
And as one follows footsteps that lead from the ancient to the modern, they become hard pressed to find any uniformity in the current style and evolution of graffiti. It seems, however, to have at least two identifiable motivations and subcultures. Florence houses, often to its own dismay, every variant of graffiti sub-culture. Hip-hop and its graphic artisans appear alive and well in the melting pot of Florence, as you can clearly witness if you happen to catch a train at Santa Maria Novella (a rainbow billboard of Italy’s most notorious artists). Hip-hoppers choose to replace words like ‘graffiti’ with ‘bombing’ or ‘hitting up.’ Florentine bombers (and their colorful bubbly letters and hip characters) can even be found on websites such as www.graffiti.org. Many have even become famous after being placed in various modern art museums around the world.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are those who use stencils, symbols and cultural slurs to express their hatred and distrust of Florence’s modern political and economic condition and the policies of other worldly powers. These are the grunge heavy rebels who prefer the term ‘political writing’ to define what they do. These are the ones who don’t have time to perfect the anarchist, communist or fascist symbols they create in haste, or fear. Whatever they write tends to mirror the polarity of the politics that Italy as a culture has experienced. This group of political writers use graffiti, music (27obiss, Hobbit, Dot), and online networking (such as websites like www.fenice1488.eu) to insist on the substantial nature of their messages, even if others fail to notice it. Perhaps attention to substance doesn’t justify graffiti in or around areas like Santa Croce, Via Nazionale or Via Ginori, but one thing is certain: their words, silenced in every other fashion, cannot help but be read by every casual passerby—including those doing the silencing.
Officials representing Milan, Rome and Florence seem baffled as to how to solve the problem, as it has blossomed into a full-fledged epidemic in recent years. One option on the table is increasing jail time (from five days of house arrest to six months of public service or the rather harsh sentence of two and a half years of prison). Officials have also concurrently increased the fine, almost quadrupling from 2,500 euro to 10,000 euro. While ‘raising of the stakes’ is still in question in major cities throughout Italy, places like Milan and Florence seem to have recognized the timeless demon they fight has no kryptonite like acceptance and tolerance. They have decided to construct moveable panels throughout the cities as designated graffiti spots, in hopes of showing the artists how to respect their city and express themselves at the same time. To date, neither option has been implemented. The undecided local governments linger in the decision-making process and the decided cities have yet to actually put up any walls, leaving the future of the Italian graffiti artists up in the air.
One of the biggest problems with graffiti is whether to define it as art or eyesore. But if art is the physical re-creation of the mood of the times, and art is subjective to the eye of the beholder, than wouldn’t it follow that graffiti at its best is art, and at worst an eyesore? It can, in fact, be both. So then, at the heart of the issue, isn’t there the question of how to stop humanity from seeking manifestation? It seems that as long as there is a want of understanding, a need for art as a way to draw the complexities of the self, and unquenchable exuberance within the human spirit, there will be those who, despite repercussions, will risk all to express it.