Cultural differences: graffiti in Rome
For most of our Northern-American guests, the city center of Rome offers a contradictory experience: on one hand, the beauty of the landmarks and monuments takes their breath away, but so does the overwhelming amount of graffiti seen on every corner. Some of our visitors even consider moving somewhere else for their holidays because they’re so spooked by what they associate with gang activity.
This post serves the purpose of reassuring them, as well as any future travellers who might not be aware that there’s a cultural difference between graffiti abroad and here.
The… “offspring” of an ancient tradition
Let’s start with a link to a very interesting project: Ancient Graffiti collects and translates into English the inscriptions found in Pompeii and Herculaneum.
When we look at graffiti now, we need to think of them as the “descendants” of those very same engravings. The only graffiti to stand out because they’re different in scope and style are the, indeed, “tags” that have been introduced from, indeed, North America when street art started being known internationally.
Graffiti on the walls of modern Rome generally include pleas for love, dedications, insults. They make fun of the supporters from a rival sports club, they quote songs or poems, they talk politics and they can even be doodles. Looking back at what has been discovered around the Vesuvius, you’ll see the same themes. They are not evidence of any criminal activity.
When you wonder about which elements of ancient Roman culture have been passed down to modern Italians, this is certainly one of them!
Vandalism or “art”?
On the other hand this doesn’t mean that modern Italians all draw graffiti wherever they go because it’s in “our culture”.
Of course our sensibilities as contemporary humans are different from those of ancient Pompeians, so today we look at graffiti (and in a UNESCO World Heritage Site, no less!) with outrage and shock as they deface buildings that are several centuries old.
Is vandalism always defacing, though? Look no further than in Pisa, where one Keith Haring work has been protected by the municipality and is visited by tens of thousands of people each year. It’s not the only instance in Italy!
How are graffiti being handled in central Rome?
Should vandalism be addressed in a heavier way? It actually is, although it’s hard to believe for those tourists who walk through Roman alleys right now.
City workers remove graffiti and sticker art regularly. So much so, they had to restore an ancient voting slogan when they mistakenly erased it, thinking it was vandalizing a building.
At the same time, events that are more “symbolic” like the trial against one of the most notorious writers in Italy are ongoing and are used like an example. Also, the fines for defacing monuments are famously high and often end in the news.
It should also be argued that those writers who regard themselves as street artists have a code of honor of sorts and they wouldn’t touch a listed monument, and some exceptions are tied to general drunkenness and not in any way to a sense of artistry.
Bottom line is… don’t worry about graffiti!
Whatever your personal opinion on this, know that graffiti here do not denote an unsafe area, and are harmless. If anything, you might be around some contemporary piece of art in your Roman explorations and not know it (Street art tours are very much a thing and is something you might want to consider)!