A Colossal Battle Over City's Image; 'Rocco' Defends Ancient Tradition
Source: The Wall Street Journal, by Margherita Stancati and Stacy Meichtry
ROME - On a recent afternoon, a group of American diplomats gathered on Rome's cobblestones with buckets and rollers, spreading peach-colored paint across the weather-beaten façade of a medieval storefront. Their mission: To cover up the swirls of graffiti lining one of Rome's oldest neighborhoods.
"It's just so sad and so devastating," said Rebecca Spitzmiller, an American lawyer living in Rome, who donned rubber gloves and a dust mask. "We're retaking Rome."
Ms. Spitzmiller had tapped the diplomats to join the volunteer force of Italian and American students she's recruited in recent months. They clean up after graffiti artists who have swathed the city's palazzos and piazzas in tentacles of spray paint.
The campaign has inspired cheers and approving headlines across Italy.
But some Romans see graffiti—an Italian word meaning scratches—as a way to reclaim the city from tourists and prevent it from languishing into a museum. And they don't always appreciate the Americans' meddling.
"Not all Romans perceive the city as tourists do," says Rocco, a 27-year-old who started spray-painting as a teenager and declined to give his last name. "This is my city, my home. The aim is not to deface the city but to acquire visibility, to show the city is alive."
Graffiti artists say their expression is part of an ancient tradition. Tourists filing through the Colosseum's archways are still greeted by a phallic symbol, centuries after it was etched into the stone surface of the ancient arena.
One message still inscribed on the walls of a first-century dining hall in the ancient Roman port town of Pompeii reads: "Restitutus has deceived many girls."
Such scrawls led to anti-graffiti graffiti. "Oh walls, you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin," reads another ancient scrawl in Pompeii.
JB Rock, a 31-year-old graffiti artist known for spray-painting elaborate designs in the heart of Rome's historical center, says that graffiti is a Roman rite that "existed before Jesus Christ." He says the U.S.-led cleanup campaign is doomed to fail.
"We, the graffiti artists, are stronger-willed than the people who clean it up," says Mr. Rock.
That kind of attitude is making life hard for Rome mayor Gianni Alemanno, who was elected in 2008 on a pledge to clean up the Italian capital.
In February he raised fines for graffiti from a minimum of ˆ25 to ˆ300 and introduced a new law that ordered anyone caught spray-painting the capital to clean it up personally.
Helping to tackle the problem is an 18-member crew called the Urban Décor Squad.
The city-financed group repainted nearly 10 square kilometers of wall space in 2006, the latest year for which figures are available. However, Mirko Giannotta, the squad's leader, says the crew is too small to keep up with Rome's prolific graffiti artists.
"We're just a stopgap measure," he says. "We would need a team of 400 to even start tackling the problem."
An editorial in Corriere della Sera, Italy's biggest newspaper, scolded "fatalist Rome" for having surrendered to spray paint and praised Ms. Spitzmiller's squad for delivering "a good lesson in citizenship."
Ms. Spitzmiller gives speeches on tidiness at Italian schools. Her talks have converted some students from potential taggers into "maniacal cleaners," she says. She's introduced a new method—using oven cleaner—for removing spray paint from marble, travertine and other stone surfaces favored by the emperors and popes of Rome.
Other cities have discovered that tackling the graffiti scourge isn't easy. In Milan, officials brought criminal charges of defacement against one of Italy's most famous graffiti artists, known as "Bros," and sought ˆ18,000 in damages.
Mr. Bros's lawyers argued in court that graffiti was art, not vandalism. The case was thrown out on July 12 when a judge ruled that the statute of limitations had expired. Mr. Bros was off the hook, but his lawyers wanted a precedent-setting acquittal.
Also on the side of graffiti artists is the sluggishness of modern Roman bureaucracy. The Urban Décor Squad can only remove graffiti on public property or buildings and statues designated as monuments.
Most of Rome's Baroque and Renaissance palazzos don't fall under the Urban Décor Squad's jurisdiction, leaving their owners to handle the cleanup. Those that live in the historic center need approval from national and municipal cultural superintendents to add a fresh coat of paint to their homes.
These officials routinely press residents to hire specialized painters, who mix paint to match a building's existing color, making sure the new patina is both period-specific and complementary to neighboring buildings.
The city often requires residents to repaint the entire façade, not just the graffiti-covered sections, to avoid multi-hued patchworks resulting from touch-up jobs. The total cost of repainting the façade of a four-story palazzo can run as high as ˆ40,000.
Even the painters, however, must wrestle with bureaucratic obstacles. Lorenzo Lana, a painter who specializes in removing graffiti, recently spent nine months getting approval to remove a single tag. "The endless bureaucracy definitely puts people off," he says.
As a result, tags—the term for spray-painted pseudonyms—can remain for years, encouraging other vandals who compete for territory.
Some graffiti artists have repented. In Rome's Jewish ghetto, a stone slab has been covered with the black strokes of the tag "LAE" for more than a decade. The tag's author, 24-year-old Matias Lindemann, said he wrote the tag as a teenager to impress his friends. Now a tour guide, Mr. Lindemann bristles at the sight of graffiti, including his own.
"It's just degrading to our cultural heritage," he says. "Tourists might not have many chances to visit Rome and it's a real shame to give them such a bad impression."