After six weeks of recently wandering the streets of Dublin, Florence and Rome, I was puzzled by the lack of new public art (approved by a public process), appalled by the abundance of graffiti and intrigued by the street art (no public approval).
There was really only one piece of what looked like new public art that caught my eye. It was in Rome, in the tiny off-the-beaten path Vicolo dell’Oro square. The piece “Personal/NonPersonal” by Simone D’Auria was commissioned by the Gallery Hotel Art which is located next to the square. A very ambitious piece that encompasses the entire square, it has 18 ghost-like man/animal figures strategically placed from the earth to sky, including several figures climbing the side of the building.
The artwork represents an imaginary world populated by white creatures with a human body and the head of an animal. The inspiration has its roots in the past of those great men who have made the city of Florence and its history and who repesented themselves through emblems depicting the head of an animal followed by a motto that extolled the value and virtue of action. Some examples? The turtle with a sail for Cosimo I, symbol of prudence combined with the power of action; a rhino for Alessando de Medici to symbolize his strength and strong will; a weasel by Francis I, the symbol of cunning.
"Today, in my work, those animals and the meanings they carry with them become faces of men and women, ironic caricatures in which they can identify themselves, visible expression of their deepest inner values; portraits, in fact," says D'Auria. The circus-like animation is a welcome relief in a city dominated by somber ruins of past cultures and statues of people long passed away. It was definitely a refreshing and welcomed surprise.
I can’t help but think that an artwork like this would be a good addition to downtown Calgary. It would be very appropriate for a space between the many two-tower office blocks or for the alley space between the towers of the Hotel Le Germain project on 9th Avenue SW.
Florence Street Art
While Calgary invests millions of public and private dollars into public art, in Florence and Rome, temporary free street art seems to be the rage. Very soon after arriving in Florence, I started to notice the appearance of faceless, simple cartoon-like stick figures with balloons and words like “exit, freedom and resistance”. For me, it soon became a fun game of spotting the next piece. And they were all over the place!
Later, I found out by googling that the no-name artist was from Pisa, Italy a hot bed for street art. The title of the project is “Exit/Enter” with the purpose being to tickle the imagination of street spectators, to be a catalyst for a smile or a smirk and maybe even be a bit thought-provoking as one tries to understand the ongoing narrative. I thought the title was very appropriate as the streets and alleys of Florence are full of doorways and corners where people are always entering or exiting.
While walking around Florence’s San Niccolo district we discovered a t-shirt shop with some very interesting street-sign decals so we popped in. We quickly learned that they were the work of CLET, a very well-known, European street artist who has his studio in the area at Via Dell’Olono 8r. CLET cleverly alters road signs around cities with removable stickers. Seems the local authorities tolerate the work, which again adds humour to an urban landscape polluted with street signage. Once, we knew about CLET we started to find the altered street signs everywhere.
A third street artist, Blurb, takes on major masterpieces of art and dresses them up in scuba gear. The title of the project is “Art knows how to swim” and while I have no idea was the meaning is, they too added an element of fun to serious works of art like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Michelangelo’s David. Many of the works on paper are ripped and faded to the point where they blend right in with the urban patina of the city.
Rome Street Art
In Rome, we didn’t find any new public art or graffiti street art like Florence (though we did find a few Exit/Enter pieces). However, in the graffiti-filled streets of the San Lorenzo district near the university, we found the motherlode of street art.
Along the retaining wall of a playing field in an elevated park are two block-long linear art galleries with works by various artists intertwined to create a powerful statement about the area’s sense of place.
These are not the refined, pretty, decorative street art works you see in some cities, but rather the evolution of graffiti and tagging into expressionist paintings full of social and political protests. In some places, it was hard to tell where the graffiti ended and the street art began.
Calgary Street Art
Earlier this year, Calgary experimented with some street art on the retaining walls of the busy pedestrian (4th and 14th Street SW) underpasses connecting 9th and 10th Avenues. And although in most cities street art is painted without permission on public and private walls and is permanent, most of Calgary’s street art is approved and temporary.
For example, this past May, as part of the Beakerhead, program Michael Mateyko and Hans Theiseen (also known as Komboh) created a pair of 27-foot long murals on 4th Street and 12-foot murals on 14th Street. Eco-chalk graffiti, an environmentally-friendly product that can be easily removed was used. The murals consisted of several cartoon robot-like figures that mimicked people walking to work.
The spontaneity, surprise and fun-ness of the artwork that appeared overnight was dampened by a large text informing everyone, “This temporary public artwork is created with eco-calk and application and removal process approved by the City of Calgary.”
As well, in East Village, Calgary Municipal Land Corporation organized two interesting temporary street art projects. The first “I am the River” by Derek Besant and the current “The Field Manual: A compendium of local influence” by Calgary’s Light & Soul Collective, both using the new RiverWalk’s bridge abutments, storage sheds and robo-bathrooms as their canvas.
One has to wonder if Calgary and other cities would be better served by encouraging more temporary street art, both approved and unapproved, than expensive permanent public art works. Not only is street art cheaper, it doesn’t have any maintenance costs and if the public doesn’t like it, well, it will literally disappear in a few months or years.