For a country steeped in classical art history and tradition, Italy also boasts a thriving street art scene
Wander through the strade of Milan or Rome, and you might come across a mural on the side of a building or an installation in the unlikeliest of places — a manhole, for example. For a country steeped in classical art history and tradition, Italy also boasts a thriving street art scene. Urban activists in Italy are redefining the birthplace of the Renaissance with their own flare for innovation, activism — and subversion.
What we know today as street art evolved from a mixture of revolutionary movements including the Parisian art brut (raw art), abstract expressionism — think Pollock, and pop art á la Andy Warhol. Unlike classical art, which was typically commissioned by a pope or wealthy member of society, urban art appeals and caters to the masses. It is free from the binds of sponsorship and rebels against conventional rules.
Many contemporary artists have taken to the streets and alleyways in the name of social commentary. Take Jean-Michel Basquiat whose graffiti boldly criticized structural racism and oppression. Or Keith Haring who spread AIDS awareness and advocated for safe sex with his bright characters and illusions of movement. British artist Banksy expresses societal and political criticism through his wall murals. Street art is equitable and accessible, regardless of class. A ticket is not required for viewing. In fact, when it comes to urban art, one does not have the option to disengage. Street art requests, nay, demands the viewer’s attention.
Artists throughout Italy have taken up arms in the form of spray cans and brushes to communicate their cause. The juxtaposition of antiquity and modernity adds an element of intrigue to Italy’s ancient cities. A key example of this is an artist whose studio is perched across the Arno from the masterpieces housed at gli Uffizi. French Florentine Clet Abraham is less street artist and more street sign artist. He adds whimsical and thought-provoking characters to traffic signs posted throughout Florence. The element of surprise incurred by his art serves many purposes. First and foremost, Clet’s quirky additions are typically related to the city of Florence. He adds a splash of new to what is old, of imagination to convention. His artistic alterations also comically challenge norms, not with the intent of damaging property, but rather to encourage the idea “harmony between authority and freedom”. In true urban artist fashion, Clet playfully bites his thumb in the face of the multiple fines he has received.
Slightly further south in Rome, artist Alice Pasquini covers the sides of buildings with her images of dynamic women. Her subjects can be seen bouncing up and down as if on trampolines, embracing one another, or wistfully staring at the viewer. Pasquini’s art is active, climbing not only the walls of her native città eterna, but spreading like ivy to London, Madrid and San Francisco. The exploration of women in their many forms is evident in Pasquini’s murals. The artist provides her viewers with different representations of womanhood: independent, nurturing, brave and — maybe most importantly — present. In a world dominated by male artists, Pasquini dares to bring herself and her women where they belong — to the forefront.
Meanwhile, in a manhole in Milano, we meet artist Biancoshock. Deemed a ‘provocateur’, Biancoshock crusades to alter seemingly innocuous and commonplace objects in a way that grabs his viewer’s attention. His manhole series, for example, transformed underground, often unnoticed spaces into fully furnished rooms. Though amusing, the installations served a deeper purpose. By appealing to a passerby with brightly colored wallpaper, clocks and even a robe, Biancoshock communicated the necessity of literally looking down. His art served to comment on the neglect and oversight of the growing homeless issue and of the increasing number of people that live in sewers. Biancoshock renders societal commentary a part of everyday life. He simultaneously appeals to a viewer’s pathos and intellect — even if it is below ground.
These artists are part of a rich Italian tradition of creativity and innovation. As the definition of ‘art’ continues to evolve over time, so does our ability to wield it as an instrument of change. From the small galleries to the Roman ruins to the back alleys, art is omnipresent in the bel paese and will forever serve to remind us of the past — and challenge us for a better future.
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