Roman holiday's graffiti highlight

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Rome street art What can a son teach his mother about antiquity? It's 22 years since I was last in Rome, a wide-eyed 24-year-old on my very first trip to Europe. The future lay ahead of me, an unwritten story, a place of blank pages to be filled with everything this expansive new world had to offer.

In Rome I tasted gnocchi for the first time and dodged ranting drivers on streets too narrow even for the toy cars that whizzed up and down them. I touched the foot of the Pieta, and threw a coin into the Trevi Fountain.

Now I am back here with my 20-year-old son on his own first trip to Europe. It must be true, I tell him, that if you throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain you will return to Rome.

But the world looks different when seen through the eyes of someone much younger than oneself. As we cross the Tiber River on our way into the old city my son strains for a better look. 'Oh man,' he says. 'This city is awesome.'

As the Colosseum comes into view, his face is overcome with the same expression of wonder he wore as a little boy poring over his favourite book, The Big Book of Knowledge, his eyes widening at the enormity of it all, his eyebrows rising and falling in tune with the tales he was being told.

I recall the art projects we would do at home with his two sisters, the Roman egg-shell mosaics we made and the picture books filled with gods and goddesses we read. I'm thrilled to be back in Rome, but my impression of it is filtered through the prism of my son's experience; the world is a much clearer place now that 22 years have elapsed, now that the future is no longer an unwritten story.

You can never see a city again for the very first time, and so instead I observe my son as the world he's inhabited through books and stories comes alive before his own eyes. His greatest fascination with this city is not its stand-alone antiquities, but the graffiti that blooms all around them in lavish swirls and curlicues and blunted lines.

To me, these are displays of tasteless vandalism; to him they are the blurring of ancient and modern, of obedience and individualism. They are direct challenges to the sort of conformity that stunts societies' growth. They are a continuation of an ancient ritual, and are cultural constructs as important to modern subversives as gladiatorial contests were to the Romans.

I learn something new as we enter the Colosseum and peruse the graffiti that was etched onto its seats by Roman spectators as they waited for the gladiators to appear. Did I know, my sons asks, that the Romans were the original graffiti artists? Their practise was called graffito. The earliest recorded graffiti was made at Pompeii, to his knowledge. This ire-raising genre originally started with the cavemen, of course, but today such paintings are revered as art, while graffiti provokes contempt, he says.

We leave the Colosseum and take the steps through a tunnel to the Via Cavour; here my son notices a spray of graffiti on a roller door across the road. He recognises the artist at once: Horfe, a famous French graffiti artist who has painted Paris and has even exhibited his work.

A little way down the road we take a pavement table at a pizzeria. Across the road, high on an ancient Roman pillar, is a small, bright yellow mosaic by French street artist Space Invader. He leaves these calling cards all over the world, my son tells me — he's even sent one into space in a helium balloon.

Later that afternoon, strolling near the Vatican City, we spot an artwork on the pillar of a bridge spanning the Tiber. 'Is that a Banksy?' my son wonders, referring to the most famous and reclusive street artist of his generation.

It's a phenomenon that follows us all the way to Rome's port of Civitavecchia where, next day, our ship pushes off to sea, revealing crude markings painted on the dock's edge by hang-down graffiti artists using paint rollers. My son laughs, but this time it's me who grabs my camera and takes a shot. I've seen Rome anew, through a young person's eyes.

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney based freelance journalist and travel writer.

Rome street art image by Catherine Marshall.

Topic tags: catherine marshall, Rome, graffiti



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This is terrific. Thanks Catherine. Your son is on the money and so are you. I have been running a street art / graffiti space and fine art studio exhibition facility since 2002 in Brisbane. We have strong connections with Sofles, Lister, Fintan Magee, Guido, Gimiks, etc. Peter Breen Co-Founder/Chair/Director
Peter | 05 June 2015


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