What’s in a name? Everything, when that name is your art. Throughout history, artists have sought ways to impact their contemporary societies and leave a lasting impression via their craft. For some, name becomes the vehicle.
Take, for example, a young graffiti artist. The youth tags their name across walls and train cars to let you know they’ve been there. Their art becomes synonymous with a system of letters that leads the viewer to pause and say, “There he is again.” Recognition and familiarity become critical to success.
Living in Italy, I am situated in the epicenter of art, where old and new collide at every street corner and young artists are fazed by the responsibility to aspire to the grandeur of their predecessors. But the avant-garde in Italy is not led by the bronzed watercolorist at Piazza Navona painting impressionist renderings of classical shapes. Instead, it is driven by the silenced youth of a culture firmly routed in tradition and waiting your turn.
Here, street artists like HOGRE, But and Serpe in Seno are littering the streets with counterculture propaganda and gaining the attention of the same art-goers waiting in line at the Vatican Museums or the Villa Borghese. Transplants and tourists alike find themselves opting out of Tamara De Lempicka at the Vittoriano – a fantastic show, I might add – to instead trek up to the Pigneto district for free viewing of an outdoor gallery that serendipitously exists as if 5Pointz took over the entire quarter.
“That’s a HOGRE. That’s Serpe. Oh, there’s one by Yuri! He’s a friend of mine,” my friend Sezgi lists to me as we walk down the pedestrian area on the Via del Pigneto. Sezgi is the daughter of two Turkish textile artists and her eye for design has led me to follow her on many a new artist’s trail. It was Sezgi who took me to Laboratorio 51 in San Lorenzo last January to see a show titled The Last Portraits.
It was there I was introduced to Serpe in Seno, a collaborative effort of artists Camilla Falsini, Susanna Campana and Giovanna Pistone, former children’s book illustrators whose multi-surfaced creations are like fairy tales gone wrong. I was going for the freshness of contemporary illustrative art, but was struck instead by the similarities I found to works of the great European masters.
It’s not surprising that today’s Italian artists would be inspired by papal portraiture. As a study that came back in vogue in 1477 when Melozzo da Forlì painted his famous architectural scene featuring Pope Sixtus IV and Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, the soon-to-be Pope Julius II, three-quarter posed popes began lining the walls of the new Vatican halls the latter was responsible for constructing.
Raphael would take the papal portrait to a new level with his intimate interpretation of Pope Julius II and influence artists from Sebastiano del Piombo to Velázquez to Francis Bacon, who would shock the world with his grotesque interpretation of Pope Innocent X until Serpe in Seno would bring the art form from worldly museums to the street.
Street art as we know it today grew up fast when The New York Times wrote about prominent teenage tagger Taki 183 in their 1971 exposé ‘Taki 183’ Spawns Pen Pals. From simple Magic Marker id’s to intricate painted letters sprawling New York City subway cars to notorious artists like Banksy – who is currently so modish buildings donning a “Banksy original” now have increased rents – graffiti has changed and affected change with the times.
Rome was the birthplace of graffiti. The Italian spelling should give you a clue that this phenomenon was not born on the streets of New York or LA. Graffiare is the Italian verb “to scratch” and contemporaries of Cicero and Caesar would carve their messages into public walls as propaganda that was quite literally set in stone.
In a land where freedom of speech is reserved for the influential elite – just look at Berlusconi’s singular control of all major media outlets – the Romans, as with graffiti, found other methods to relay controversial opinion. The ‘talking statue’ was a tool employed from the Renaissance onward where citizens could post anonymous witticisms critical of religious or civil authorities for public appreciation. Similarly, artists of the time found methods to engage in the madness.
A famous example of this is the figure of God in The Animation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It is commonly agreed that as a young artist in Florence, Michelangelo studied anatomy by dissecting cadavers. When he later went to Rome at the behest of Pope Julius II, he continued his allegiance to the craft and, in a state where it is forbidden to perform an autopsy even today, went on to insert a perfect cross section of a brain on the ceiling of the chapel where new popes are named, as if to say ‘God promotes science’.
“I love Michelangelo. I mean, I grew up in Florence,” the energetic street artist But told me at her co-opening of Saranno Abusivi (They Will Be Abusive), a collaboration with HOGRE, last week. Mainly, she likes his sculpture. “It’s poetic but it’s real.”
Realness is an important aspect of this youthful art form that stemmed from a need to have a voice in society. Sezgi and I sat together with the two young artists and their posse in the basement of Fusolab, the cultural association that hosted their exhibition. Fusolab’s mission is to promote culture through conscious exercise of freedom in all areas related to art via innovative technologies and communication channels.
“When you want to say something as a young person in Italy there aren’t many outlets,” the twenty-two year-old artist behind HOGRE asserted, “so we have to write on the walls.”
If street artists co-opted it, Renaissance artists set the precedent for the mural. Fresco, “fresh” in Italian, was the old fashioned answer to spray paint, as pigments brushed on freshly applied plaster would lock permanent hues into the walls once they dried. Evidenced by the drastic change in fresco style in the Vatican’s Raphael Rooms from the period after Martin Luther delivered his Ninety-Five Theses leading up to the 1527 sack of Rome, like street art, papal art was an expression of its times.
But HOGRE has no aspirations of winding up in a museum. He keeps a distance from the mainstream so that art critics can’t apply their meaning to his expression. Instead, he’d like to leave the interpretation open to the everyday observer.
The first time he painted back in 2006 was to vandalize Berlusconi election posters. A simple but effective statement, he wrote the word “bald” across the forehead of the second longest tenured Prime Minister behind Mussolini on hundreds of bulletins in his neighborhood.
“It’s an insult in Italian, but it was also true because he had hair implants,” he laughed. “There was this other banner with a slogan that read ‘A Policeman in Every Neighborhood.’ We wrote ‘That’s the Problem!’”
But when I asked him about a face of his I found that reminded me of Leonardo da Vinci’s John the Baptist, he was quick to dismiss it as coincidence.
“You can’t say ‘I am inspired by this or I am inspired by that’, inspiration comes from everything you see.”
As for their call to the profession, But and HOGRE seem to subscribe to the common anecdote exasperating for those of us who are less artistically inclined.
“It’s not a thing you can choose,” HOGRE told me. “It just comes out of you,” But added.
Pablo Picasso once said, “The bad artists imitate, the great artists steal.” Are these contemporary artists borrowing from a tradition that is not their own to carve their names into the art history books? For HOGRE, the answer is most assuredly no.
“Artistic progress moves in the same way as scientific progress: while it’s happening, you don’t recognize that it’s happening.”
For the everyday observer, it simply means less lines and ticketing costs, more fine art.