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Pigneto Street Art Sampler – Away with Words

By Martin HigginsMonday 06th July 2015

In March last year we held a competition to find an aspiring travel writer to send on-board Allure of the Seas as our very own guest blogger. Our competition winner Martin Higgins, and his girlfriend Emily, will be spending one month travelling around the beautiful Mediterranean while visiting some of Europe’s most loved destinations from Barcelona to Florence on our 7 night West Mediterranean cruise.


Read about their exciting adventure with the latest edition of Away with Words.

This week I have seen two very different sides of Rome. On the sightseeing tour organised by Royal Caribbean, I saw the touristic centre.
Like St. Peter’s Basilica, where you can look up at the majestic ovoid-shaped dome designed by Michelangelo, take snaps of Maderno’s beautiful façade, and if you want to be a proper tourist, buy a couple of stamps from the Vatican City-State gift shop – the only place in the world you can find them.
Rome Building
We passed the exoskeleton of the old fighting pits in the coliseum where Gladiators would fight and die for the entertainment of the mob. We drove past the pyramid of Caius Cestius, and around the cemetery where Keats and Shelley are interred, and finished with a scenic drive along the Tiber River. Oh yeah, and did I mention the gelato? Lots of gelato had to be tested, for research purposes of course. Remember, it’s only gelato if it contains fresh fruits and natural ingredients.
The old and the new currents of Rome were perceptible on every street corner, as we were dragged along by the chaos and commotion of the local traffic – where street signs are viewed as suggestions rather than commands.
Rome Streets
The image of death-defying scooters, or mosquitos, as they are colloquially known here, hurtling through breaks in the traffic, and every driver communicating their angst with metronomic beeps on the horn – is a spectacle that has to be seen to be believed.
We passed the shimmering monuments of the antiquities, and the buildings which are synonymous with the ancient Roman civilisation, and the cultivation of ideas around ethics, politics and metaphysics. There is so much history in fact the whole of the Eternal City is a UNESCO world heritage site – and must remain untouched.
Rome Piazza
This is why there are only two underground trains permitted here, because of all the treasure that is locked away in the subcutaneous layers beneath the city. Everything is protected by law.
But there is a new type of art which is becoming a colossus in another part of the capital right now, which doesn’t require any permission from the authorities, because the practice is stereotypically an illegal one. What I am talking about of course is street art, and the place I was visiting was Pigneto, to be shown around by art historian and creative force behind the Rome Photo Blog, Jessica Stewart.
Rome Scooter
Pigneto traditionally is a very multi-cultural area, and slightly grittier and working-class than the tenements closer to the moneyed interior. In recent years, the more affordable housing you find here has lured the artists and creatives from far afield, particularly those who use the spray can and stencil as their medium – and the results have been spectacular.
First thing to understand is the architecture in the region. In the war lots of Pigneto and San Lorenzo were bombed heavily by the allies, who had agreed to isolate their bombing campaigns outside areas of historical importance, ensuring that future generations could enjoy the world’s biggest open air museum.
As a result vast swathes of Pigneto were targeted and destroyed during the bombardments, and the town needed to be rebuilt significantly, both during and immediately after the war. The area was also at the heart of the underground resistance movement during this period, and there’s lots of plaques and memorials to commemorate those freedom fighters who died in the conflict.
Rome Pigneto
The buildings therefore are very uniform and utilitarian in design, and offer lots of blank canvasses for artists to work with on the flanks and exposed sides of the purpose-built blocks.
Like this example – in Torpignattare, portraying a man in a trash can covered in detritus, drinking a cup of coffee. This is a work by the Polish duo Etam Cru and reminded me of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, an apocalyptic vision of the future maybe – or a comment on the poverty of today, in the age of austerity.
Rome Torpignattare
Jessica informed me the man is holding a coffee because the people in the community were constantly offering the artist’s espressos while they were working – so they added it to their composition later, as a symbol of the generosity and sense of community which flourishes here.
Next up on this inner-city ramble we took in this mural, by an artist called Etnik, who is very well-known throughout Italy as a pioneer in this controversial art form. He started by painting the trains and railways like most aspiring artists, and then transitioned over into large-scale street art, which is the perfect foil for his geometric style, his abstraction, and the architectural forms he uses. These are all motifs which are becoming increasingly popular today.
Rome Street Art
Dotted around the town, on the private property, I could see the conversations written on walls by local art hooligans and professional taggers. Whether it is declarations of love, political statements, chants from the football terraces, or the more esoteric world of graffiti writing, you can find it in abundance here.
There is a definite hierarchy on the street, too, if you think of graffiti writing as a form of elitism, which in many cases only has a meaning in the closed, insular world the individual artist operates out of. This closed conversation can often be between one or two artists and their tags can appear complex and illegible to the outside world. But that’s the point really, they don’t care. They are indifferent to any wider audience or context.
An example of which is here, as you can see the tags surrounding the work of a more prominent figure in the street scene, Alice Pasquini. The image of the woman in sunglasses holding the cat is very typical of her style, and a theme she returns to again and again. Focusing on gender issues, Pasquini depicts women who exude confidence and self-awareness; and in doing so challenges the prevailing view of women as passive, sexual objects – particularly in the media. The male gaze is always under attack in her work.
Rome Street Art 2
The huge street murals you see around here have a different purpose to graffiti writing, however, and are more inclusive and communal by nature; designed to both enhance a space and to engage an audience who wouldn’t necessarily be interested in art – it forces art outside of the gallery, into the real world.
This piece below is by the new Iranian artist, Aladin, who is operating in the area, and does a lot of work on occupied buildings. There is a huge occupy movement in Rome today, as the people take back derelict houses, shops, tenement blocks, and edifices for their own means. Many of these are then transformed into social hubs, which give value to the wider community. They are usually left alone by the state, but sometimes the police evict the squatters – in an operation which is known as scomberi. This piece is a comment on these forced removals.
Rome Street Art 3
The community activism even extends to kitchenware. This fridge has been reclaimed and decorated by the denizens of Pigneto – and now it is filled with books that can be borrowed and enjoyed by everyone. I love this novel form of recycling and the simplicity of the idea, turning something ugly and abandoned on the street into a site of learning and exchange.
Rome Bookcase
This is a work by Omino 71 – who has depicted the famous filmmaker Passolini in a superhero mask. Passolini died under suspicious circumstances and the conspiracy theorists have been hard at work solving and un-solving his death ever since. This piece whips up some of the conjecture and mythology around this luminary of Italian cinema. And here I am getting papped mid-photo.
Martin Higgins Taking Photo
With gentrification, comes vintage shops. Only this one comes with a graphic bear painted on the exterior wall, busy trimming the vines with a pair of scissors. The artist behind this optical illusion is Cancelletto, from Rome. His street name in Italian stands for the hashtag symbol; a name he has been using long before Twitter elevated its status in popular culture.
Rome Street Art 4
This is Sulk below – who has more of a cartoonish style, which incorporates dark overtones and black humour to create a highly individualised form of surrealism. The sketches are complex and detailed and have multiple narratives running through them. Take this cat, who is drinking a cup of hot eggs with a psychedelic parrot perched on its tail, which is half made of wood. Reminiscent of a Lewis Carol trip if ever there was one.
Rome Street Art 5
This is a work by Hogre – who employs a more sinister style in his work – using a series of white lines, which undulate like waves, to create a truly horrifying subject. This face…
Rome Street Art 6
Then we stumbled into a beautiful shade, a coffee shop tucked away in what was an old garage. Here’s me shotting some of the delicious coffee you can procure here in Rosti.
Martin Higgins Drinking Coffee
Rome Coffee Shop
Rosti sponsored this work by the artist, M-City, in their courtyard, who plays with the industrial and mechanical form. To achieve this graphic style he uses stencils, like Banksy.
Rome Street Art 7
I felt a sense of child-like wonder walking around Pigneto, immersing myself in the art of modern Rome, in a landscape which feels so contemporary and captures the feelings and sensations of living people. In a Renaissance city, to have this amount of new art, politics, community activism and culture, all intersecting in the one place, feels quite ground-breaking and radical to me.
Visit Rome. But take the tram out of Porta Maggiore, beyond the Aurelian wall and see what is happening in Pigneto for yourself.

 Images courtesy of Jessica Stewart


Words by Martin Higgins




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