Why, Why, Why Does Rome Have So Much Graffiti?

When in Rome... create graffiti!
The short answer: because as long as people in general, and Romans in particular, have been around, we've had the urge to make our mark. That's as true of cave paintings thousands of years ago as it is of "Katie + Tom 4ever" today.

And graffiti isn't always a bad thing. Without ancient graffiti, we wouldn't have the world's oldest example of written Latin, carved into the lapis niger in the Forum in 575 B.C. We wouldn't have nearly as much idea of how literate most ancient Romans were, or of how they actually pronounced their language (both of which we can tell from graffiti's misspellings and grammatical errors).

Graffiti also gives us insights — often both humorous and humanizing — into past cultures. Actual graffiti in Pompeii, for example, includes such winning lines as "Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men's behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!" (bar/brothel of Innulus and Papilio); "Satura was here on September 3rd" (atrium of the House of Pinarius); "Atimetus got me pregnant" (House of the Vibii); "Celadus the Thracier makes the girls moan!" (gladiators' barracks); and "If anyone does not believe in Venus, they should gaze at my girlfriend" (atrium of the house of Pinarius) (and — aww!). 

There's also this lovely romantic triangle, played out in inscriptions on the Bar of Prima. "Successus, a weaver, loves the innkeeper’s slave girl named Iris. She, however, does not love him. Still, he begs her to have pity on him. His rival wrote this. Goodbye." Successus' response: “Envious one, why do you get in the way.  Submit to a handsomer man and one who is being treated very wrongly and good looking.” The downtrodden Severus: “I have spoken. I have written all there is to say. You love Iris, but she does not love you."

And everyone — not just the riffraff of society — has felt the urge to make their mark on buildings and monuments, even those who, it would seem, were making more important marks in other ways. Michelangelo and Raphael scratched their names into the ruins of Nero's Domus Aurea; American settlers heading west carved inscriptions onto Signature Rock on the Oregon Trail, now a national landmark. Even Lord Byron couldn't resist, scratching his name onto the Temple of Poseidon in Attica, Greece. Picture 592graffiti

Fine, you say. But why all the graffiti now?

It's true: For a modern city, Rome certainly has its fair share of spraypainted scrawls. (Although if you head to London's Brick Lane neighborhood, or other southern European cities like Athens, you'd see just as much. Not to mention places like Olinda, Brazil, where graffiti has reached the height of an art form — just check out the image at the bottom, which puts most Roman graffiti to shame). And importance of historical graffiti aside, it's not necessarily a good thing. Aesthetically, it can be an eyesore; practically, it can't be good for the old buildings. Cleaning it up, meanwhile, is frustrating and expensive: Repainting a 4-story palazzo can set you back €40,000.

And so Rome's launched a campaign against the practice. In February, the city's conservative mayor raised the fine for graffiti from a minimum €25 to €300 and mandated that anyone caught doing it will be forced to clean the graffiti up. Meanwhile, expats and Italians have started to fight the city's graffiti in volunteer squads, armed with paintbrushes and cleaning solution.

But not everyone's thrilled about these attempts. Critics point to how long graffiti has been around for, saying that preventing Romans from spray-painting their walls is like forbidding them from ever using slang. For some practitioners, meanwhile, graffiti is an art; for others, it's part of a heated competition to claim physical space in a city where actually buying property is out of most Romans' means. 

And in a city where jobs are scarce and creative jobs scarcer, where architectural or artistic innovation rare (modern Maxxi museum aside), where the old palaces and ancient ruins can make the city feel more like a living museum than an evolving, organic metropolis, where the police aren't particularly notable for being energetic enforcers of the law — that all seems like the kind of place where it's little surprise that a teenager might grab a can of spray-paint and go "tagging" on a hot, lazy summer night. Nor is it surprising that most Romans, as much as many support a "graffiti offensive," both seem to understand the urge to make one's mark in spray-paint — and refuse to let it bother them.

Graffiti in Olinda, Brazil has been raised to a high art.

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9 comments

  1. I was disappointed to see all the grafiti when I was in Rome last week. No one warned me about it. So when I saw it all, it reminded me of Bronx, New York. Not a good connection. I am sad that so many people would want to deface their own country.

    1. I will not go to Italy un til they get rid of the graffiti- I don’t want to be reminded of the Bronx- this is disgusting !

    2. I too was very disappointed and sad to see the amount of graffiti in the cities and train stations in almost every small town we passed by in our recent trip to southern Italy. To me, it is not art. It is ugly, unsightly and intrusive, forcing people to pass by it and look at it everyday. It is disrespectful to deface buildings that do not belong to you.

  2. I’m definitely with the graffiti’s party. Rome is an incredible layering of different ages art. But just as you stated, there’s no more much innovation, no living art movement is growing nowadays. Graffiti in Rome has been a real folk art form, as you can clearly see in Garbatella and other scattered spots thoroughout the city.
    But if you really want to see how high modern graffiti art has reached in Rome, go to Forte Prenestino csoa, and you’ll be amazed.
    Rome is not a living museum and it will never be cause of the strong folk culture it has, even if someone around would.

  3. I think the ability to look past the “grunge” of graffiti and see something more is key. True beauty can be found in many places that ordinarily, to the average Joe Schmo, would be considered ugly. Detroit is a perfect example. Detroit is full of decay; crumbling old buildings and factories, and insanely beautiful, historic architecture in the heart of downtown – that up until recently sat vacant and neglected. It’s now undergone a resurgence, and is currently a “hot city” in America. But Rome is much different. Much older, and more historic. Those from regions outside of Italy probably wouldn’t understand.

  4. P.S. to Frances Van Siclen – probably good that you don’t visit Italy. I’m sure they’re better off with your absence.

  5. I am an art history professor, and I personally loathe graffiti in all its forms (though that Brazilian image is well-done). I don’t respect the argument that it’s “art” as some of my more inane, moronic colleagues might claim. Nowhere is art definitively defined as ‘good,’ but nowhere is art assumed to be acceptable in all places at all times. Art has its place, as does anything else. On the wall of a building or side of a subway train is not it.

    Yes, Rome and Pompeii are filled with ancient graffiti; if you happen to read it, it usually refers to public sexual acts. THAT is no longer acceptable in modern society, so why should graffiti be viewed as such? It is tantamount to littering, and should be be a crime heavily punished.

  6. And Rob, your own P.S. reflects hypocrisy. You are decrying Frances for something, yet you are guilty of the same. You apparently believe she (?) cannot find ‘beauty’ in the grunge. Why should she or any one of us assume that to be beautiful? You dislike Frances’ assumption of beauty, yet I dislike your assumption of beauty. I would not argue that Detroit is a cesspool of humanity as it would do no good here, but I don’t have to find beauty there, just as Frances does not have to find beauty in graffiti.

    Personally, I love Italy, and will continue to visit. But I will sneer in annoyance and disgust any time I see “grunge” that I consider ugly. The beauty (pardon the pun) of that, is I get to decide what is beautiful.

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