Spray away on the walls and the web

Internet graffiti gallery has a preservationist role

The International Herald Tribune’s Italy Daily: Masked figures conspire in the darkness, spray cans clasped tightly. Their canvases — a row of trains — glow dimly in the industrial background. This is the hit-and-run world of graffiti, where art erupts overnight in bold aerosol.

Some designs survive mere hours, before soap and paint erase all traces. Yet others, like the furtive image described above, have taken refuge in more permanent media. Graffiti has infiltrated the Internet, galleries, museums, even graphic design. And after four decades of urban intensity, the movement is only getting warmed up.

Artcrimes is a global gallery boasting thousands of photographs from six continents. Begun in 1994, it claims to be the first graffiti site on the net. Www.graffiti.com certainly remains the largest archive —of both information and images, including thousands of Italian examples.

“We do not advocate breaking the law, but we think art belongs in public spaces and that more legal walls should be made available for this fascinating art form. Because it is so hard to get books published and to keep [material] from being seized and destroyed, the Internet may be the best way to publish and preserve this information,” explain the founders of Artcrimes.

“Now we can compare styles while we preserve great art. Every few days graffiti masterpieces disappear under a fresh coat of paint. Graffiti is a natural for the Internet. On the net, information wants to be free; on the walls, graffiti wants to be free. Graffiti tries to reach as many people as possible, we’re just helping it out a little.”

Traditionally, graffiti is made with spray cans, though markers, enamel paint and rollers aren’t uncommon. A large piece — say, a full subway car — could take 30 cans to complete.

Translating emotions into rapid and smooth lines is the key to all graffiti. It’s not just about defacing walls. Sun, a graphic designer and media student from Palermo, explains: “Graffiti is the wrong word because it means ‘engraving against the wall with sharpened tools’. Instead the right words are ‘Writing Art’ or ‘Aerosol Art’. A tag is just a signature, while a ‘throw-up’ is simple and fast work. A ‘masterpiece’ — or in better slang a ‘piece’ — is what most people call graffiti.”

New York, known as the Mecca of street art, first fostered the transition from street to gallery. Graffiti legends such as Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat managed to crossover. Yet hard-core aerosol-artists like Sun prefer the adrenaline kick of illegality to museum pieces. Normally the two worlds don’t mix, except as a retirement option. After a life spent dodging the police, a canvas can be quite appealing, he explains.

Artist Swing got “seriously into the real thing (illegals) in 1997,” both ‘street-bombing’ and decorating trains. “I’ve never fallen into serious troubles, probably because I live in a small city where the graf scene is tiny and not too annoying for the citizens. Overall in Italy the graffiti culture is getting bigger and spreading everywhere. The kids are bombing the trains hard and Ferrovie dello Stato started to buff them a year and a half ago.”

In fact, the train company coats about 110 carriages a month, and hopes to have the entire network covered by 2002. This preventative measure will cost 35-40 billion lire.

The crackdown is having some effect, according to Swing. “Now almost all the trains are covered with an anti-spray-paint coat and the yards are patrolled better, but it’s still much easier than in the rest of Europe. The Rome subway is the most bombed and is still running totally painted.”

Yet Italy has a strong tradition to combat. Ancient graffiti has been found in Roman catacombs and in the ruins of Pompeii, as enthusiasts are fond of recalling. Even the word graffiti derives from Italian – the plural of scratchings, though originally from the Greek term ‘graphein’ (to write).

“We are definitely more influenced by the French and Swiss than by the Northern Europeans,” Swing says, “that means simple styles, big pieces, lots of punk stuff, quality before quantity.”

Sun agrees: “In theory there’s no specific Italian style, but the ‘works’ here use very simple letters – less stylized – and largely lean towards the vandal side of the phenomenon. Meanwhile in America, Germany or France, there’s more wildstyle, the extreme evolution where nobody except the authors can understand what is written.”

Although Sun and his crew publish a fanzine called Sudcoast, he is skeptical about the Internet’s impact on graffiti. Yet no one disputes graffiti’s impact on the Internet. The advent of digital technology has turned the hand scrawled, torn, rough look into the hottest design currency instead of killing it off as prophesied.

Artcrimes founder Kairos finds this distasteful: “In recent years the media has been making the graffiti culture more and more in vogue and there has been an inundation of wanna-be graffiti.

“Graffiti is a highly individualistic thing. Having two billion shirts that all look the same really does not reflect the vibe of the culture very well. It is also important to note that graffiti is a large-scale artform that often does not shrink well onto a small workspace like a T-shirt or poster.”

Or perhaps his colleague Schmoo is right, and graffiti can not be captured. “The biggest part of graf is in the doing of it. The action of putting your expression on a wall for other people to see is what writing is all about.

“Graffiti is a temporary art form, like improvisational theatre. You know that your piece soon will be gone.”

More Italian graffiti can be viewed on www.sudcoast.cjb.net and www.graffiti.it/graffiti

Sidebar: Neon joins the game

Artist Mark Handforth has taken graffiti to a new level — in neon. He locates memorable designs, then works with local Roman craftsmen to illuminate the original message.

“Italian graffiti is so passionate, so touching, so personal compared to other countries. It’s like a confessional,” the 32-year-old says. “The language can be really funny, especially in the declarations, such as ‘Sandy, I think I’m falling in love with you’.

“These are comments you would whisper during the most intimate moments. And suddenly they’re ten feet tall and in public.”

So far, Handforth has reproduced a white scrawl ‘MODS’ and some sweet nothings. Yet he longs to capture the multi-layered political graffiti found in Rome’s Trastevere neighbourhood.”One circle had been transformed from an anarchist symbol, to fascist, to the hammer and sickle. Is it laziness? The urge to erase? To merge?” He ponders this for a moment, then jokes: “Perhaps it’s a good metaphor for Italy.”

The sculptor, a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome, chose neon to reflect the Arte Povera movement of the 60s and 70s. “It’s so intangible and ethereal, like creating the ghost of graffiti,” he adds. “And it makes you look closer at these words on the walls, which generally are ignored.

“This is real public art, made by people in anonymity. I’m just bringing it to light.”