When Street Art is Politics: The Case of the Italian Blu | MARIA DOMENICA ARCURI

When we talk about the phenomenon of street art we have to consider both its features and the urban space with which it interacts.

Many of the street art interventions have some features typical of subculture, such as rebellion, reappropriation of objects and spaces of the everyday life and the expression of dissent through symbolic forms of resistance. To all these, they sometimes add a main characteristic of counterculture, which is that of often taking on openly political and ideological forms of opposition to dominant culture.[1]

Street art is sometimes also associated to the anti-globalisation movement because some artists use guerrilla tactics:

Some street artists have taken corporate sabotage or culture jamming as the main element of their work. This has created associations between street art and anti-globalist politics in the public consciousness.[2]

Street art can express dissent and rebellion and can be considered as a form of creative resistance. Displacing images and objects from their usual position and placing them in a different context, street art aims at reappropriating public spaces often denied and at creating new space. Here a new and different language, which subverts already existing and given elements, often sets out a radical critique of the economic and political system, in an attempt to raise awareness on the process that influences people especially through mass media.

When we look at the urban space, we can see a sort of ‘war over space’, a politics of occupation and liberation/reappropriation. On the one hand there is the government, the corporations, a system of power that decide, through city planners and architects, the shape of urban space. On the other hand we can find unresponsive citizens, who either passively accept or prefer to conform and, as Malcom Miles states, who are confined to the role of passive consumers of the space designed by experts.[3] Instead, other citizens and some artists try to reappropriate those spaces that should belong to them but are actually denied to them (and here apart from graffiti writing and street art, I also think of the collective and resistant movements such as Reclaim the street, the grassroot movements for the protection of territory and commons such as No tav, or the group against the landfill in Chiaiano and Marano).

Then, urban space, the city is not an aseptic, estranged and alienating place; on the contrary it is a space that we produce while experiencing it daily, even only by walking through it. The space of the city is a complex territory, crossed by various forces and constant tensions, which shows and reveals the contradictions of society. It is a territory of struggle and negotiation, of contestation and reappropriation that happens through the creation of common and shared spaces for socialisation, activism and political action.

Street art has an active and activist approach, characterised by a dynamic becoming and a continuous creative change. In fact, it interacts with and draws attention to often hidden features and qualities of the urban space, it appropriates and reappropriates them and highlights the fact that this is a territory for struggle, negotiation and contestation. These artistic interventions can be seen as moments, gestures, acts of fracture and dissent in the everyday life, against a given social, moral and spatial order. They create an opening, a breach in the ‘grammar of power’ and new zones for resistance. Street art changes the urban fabric, even if temporarily, and at the same time it captures the gaze of passers-by, helping to change the perception of the city and becoming a tool through which to start exploring the city itself. In this way the new urban explorer has the chance to see alternative visions of the city and follow new maps, to live in a less alienated and more playful way, to be more open to the becoming and to encounters, and he/she also has the possibility of a ‘journey towards an elsewhere’. With elsewhere I do not refer to a physical place different from the city where someone is. On the contrary I think of an elsewhere already present in the everyday space and life, which opens up new possibilities and offers a glimpse of a different, ‘other’ city, invisible but always present in the visible one.

A great example of political artistic interventions can be found in the work of Blu, a very elusive Italian street artist, who started painting in the street in 1999. Like most street artists, he started spray painting graffiti, but his style changed quickly, thanks to the use of wall paint, paint rollers and telescopic sticks. His very peculiar and unique style is characterised by huge human figures and large-scale mutant and mythological creatures, part of the human body and characters made up of a crowd of tiny human figures, or notes, or it features architecture, which can all have a disturbing appearance. His interest is predominantly in drawing; therefore he focuses on line and form highlighted by a limited colour palette, as he uses paint to fill in the drawing. He prefers to paint his works on urban and industrial surfaces, and considers the buildings as sheets of paper. His interventions are very site-specific: they display careful attention to the surrounding space and to the chosen spot, of which he includes the pre-existing elements and he always manage to create a relationship between content and context. Blu is also known for experimenting with digital animation and creating wall-painted animation in stop motion. For instance, in ‘Big Bang Big Boom’ he creates an unscientific story about the beginning and evolution of life and paints in an abandoned house. His most famous and awarded video by the title ‘Muto’ is made of hundreds of paintings on the walls throughout Buenos Aires that create an animated mural.

Blu’s work always has a social and political meaning and content and it almost becomes a manifesto through which it is possible to share ideas. He is clearly political committed and he always pays attention to many different social issues and political causes. Through his interventions, he displays a critique of society, war, occupation, capitalism. He transforms the marginal places and ‘derelict spaces’ into sites of resistance and struggle, in the attempt to arise awareness.

Palestine. In December 2007, together with other artists Blu was invited by Banksy and Picture on Walls to take part to Santa’s Ghetto, a temporary exhibition of street art usually taking place in London for Christmas, but exceptionally transferred in Bethlehem in that year, with the purpose to show solidarity to the Palestinians as well as attract international attention on the separation wall and the violation of human rights.

Blu created three simple but massive and powerful works directly on the wall.

The most striking among the three is a giant man who pierces with his finger the wall of a grey watchtower and cracks it. This is not a common watchtower, but one of the many controlling the ‘wall’ between Israel and Palestine.

1 - Boy piercing watchtower

Blu. Boy piercing the watchtower. Bethlehem. 2007

The construction of the Wall began in June 2002, in order to protect the Israeli population from terrorist attacks, as it is explained on the Israeli Ministry of Defense website, thus preventing Palestinian suicide bombers to enter into Israel.[4] The so-called security fence, that runs about 800 kilometers through the West Bank, aims at separating Jewish settlements, often illegal, and Israeli cities from Palestinian towns and villages. A difficult task, since it does not exist a clear-cut division between them, like in two different countries, but the two populations often live close one to the other. This happens in the case of Bethlehem, a powerful example of contested space, where the Israeli colonisation is massive with 35 illegal settlements. Here the wall penetrates the city for about 10 kilometres, annexing lands and farms, thus cutting through the territory and the community and cutting off the small neighbouring villages and refugee camps from schools, hospitals, art centres and religious places.[5] The watchtower pierced by the huge guy stands there, in the place of Palestinian shops, houses, gardens with fragrant jasmine and olive groves. Beyond it and the gate there is Rachel’s tomb, the incorporation of which caused changes in the wall’s route. The painted boy is powerful in his simplicity and reveals an alternative narrative, one that adopts the Palestinian point of view. His gesture is naïve and at the same time strong and meaningful, as if a naked finger, becoming iron and steel, could shatter the concrete, thus erasing the shameful wall that fragments both space and lives and expressing the significance of the political struggle infuriating over space in the West Bank.

2 - Boy blowing soldiers away

Blu. Boy blowing soldiers away. Detail. Bethlehem. 2007

A giant child blows away tiny armed Israeli soldiers, which dissolve into banknotes, as it is clearer in the detail. This artwork painted by Blu on the portion of the wall enclosing the Aida refugee camp in the northern part of Bethlehem is the embodiment of the political situation and the struggle enraging there.[6] Blu’s giant child seems to express and give voice on the wall to Palestinians’ desire of recovering their freedom and their land, by blowing away the Isreali occupation forces. It is interesting to note how the artist chooses to display a potent opposition of power: the child is usually associated to purity, innocence, simplicity and he does not have the same strength of an adult, but in this peculiar image he is huge and more powerful than the tiny Israeli soldiers, which, even though armed with guns, are blown away and dissolve in notes, indicating both Israeli money and that coming from other countries supporting the occupation.

3 - Enclosed Christmas Tree

Blu. Enclosed Christmas Tree. Bethlehem. 2007

The third work on the barrier depicts a Christmas tree enclosed and protected by a circular wall, which clearly represents the Israeli/Palestinian wall. All around it there is a desolate landscape full of stubs that refer to the many Palestinian olive and citrus groves violently taken, expropriated and destroyed by Israelis in order to make room for the wall. Once again Blu is not scared of criticise and show injustice.

4 - Fortress Europe

Blu. Fortress Europe. Morocco. 2012

Very sensitive to different contemporary issues and socially and politically committed, Blu decided to focus on the immigration flow coming from Africa through the Mediterranean Sea and trying to reach Italy, in the hope to move somewhere else in Europe. The question of how Europe looks like from the outside is common to people who critically reflect on the theme. ‘Fortress Europe’, a term of the military propaganda, referred during War World II to the areas of continental Europe occupied by Nazis. Nowadays it is used to describe the state of immigration into the EU and it indicates the attitudes towards it as well as the system of border patrols and detention centres preventing it.

5 - Fortress Europe Detail

Blu. Fortress Europe. Detail. Morocco. 2012

Keeping all this in mind, in Morocco in 2012 Blu painted his answer to the previous question: from the outside Europe looks like a big electrified fence decorated with barbed wire. Looking from far away the mural recalls the flag of the European Union. When you have a closer look, the yellow stars of the flag turn into the barbed wire put there as a border and preventing a crowd of tiny figures from entering.

6 - Il MUOStro

Blu. Il MUOStro. Sicily, Italy. 2013

Blu is always keen on supporting grassroot movements, as it happened for the NoMuos in Niscemi in Sicily in 2013. MUOS or Mobile User Objective System is an array of five satellites and four ground stations, which is being developed for the US department of Defence. It is a narrowband tactical satellite communications system that is meant to provide military users more communications capability over existing systems. Mainly it is a new technology only for the U.S. military purposes. One of the four ground stations, with its three parabolic antennas and two elicoidal antennas, is in Niscemi. The citizens see the site as a huge US Navy base very close to the town and worry about the consequences of this system. Apart from the risk for human health due to the transmission of dangerous electromagnetic waves, the whole Muos affects the ecosystem of the protected area of the Sughereta di Niscemi as well as the quality of the agricultural production. Moreover, as it is a military site, it represents a limit to the right to mobility and the development of the territory and a risk for the right to peace and the security of the inhabitants, as it can be a sensitive military target. For all these reasons, the inhabitants protested against it and Blu joined their cause and created a big mural in Niscemi. On his blog he documents not only the making of his mural but the whole protest, explaining the context and showing videos, posters and pictures of the area and demos.

He painted ‘Il MUOStro’ – playing with MUOS and ‘mostro’, which is the Italian word for monster. The antenna is depicted as a huge monster emanating red electromagnetic waves. Flying from behind the monster, military planes gradually become the white crosses of a cemetery. Opposing the monster and the planes with their banners, people of Niscemi are protesting and their loud-hailers generate yellow waves set against the red poisonous ones.

7 - Murale Tribale

Blu. Murale Tribale. Rome. 2014

The next example shows Blu’s interest in and support of social issues such as those related to high rent prices and the right to housing. In 2003 Coordinamento Cittadino di Lotta per la Casa, a grassroot movement focusing on the struggle for housing, occupied a dismissed and abandoned military warehouse in Rome, in Via del Porto Fluviale. The building has become home to 450 people, 120 families, who could not afford either to buy or rent a flat. They refurbished the whole place, and created rooms and flats but also space for services and social activities open to everyone. There are various workshops such as the one for jugglers, a working-class school – a school where they offer different courses for free, a tea room where they host exhibitions and book launches. In short, they re-appropriated and transformed this wrecked and abandoned building into a cosy place, where you can drink a cup of tea, watch a film, taste dishes from different culinary traditions, meet people and socialise. Everything is organized in the tradition of collective decisions and self-management. ‘Il Porto Fluviale Occupato’, that’s the name the collective chose, is a heterogeneous movement, made of youths as well as families with kids and migrants. There are no discriminations of any kind and its main feature is anti-fascism. It is a new model of society based on active citizenship and on sharing and fighting together for rights. In order to display this idea of a more open city belonging to everyone, they decided to invite Blu to paint on the outside of the building and change the grey walls, symbol of an imposed and denied urban space, into colourful ones. Once again, Blu stood up for these active citizens and supported them reclaiming their right to housing. He completed ‘Murale Tribale’ in November 2014. It took him two years to finish it, during which he lived in the building and shared his everyday life with its inhabitants. His multicoloured and massive mural covers the whole building and has become the symbol of the struggle for the right to housing.

8 - Murale Tribale Detail

Blu. Murale Tribale. Detail. Rome. 2014

He painted huge human faces, incorporating as usual the architectural elements – the windows have been turned into the many eyes watching passers-by. These faces overlap and mix. One comes out from the other one as if they are part of the same big entity. Some of them are made of leaves, some others of bananas or of scales. In the middle of a split on top of a red head there’s a worker and other two workers are encapsuled on the sides of it. It can be read as a metaphor for the working-class. Very peculiar trees grow inside one of the faces. One heart-shaped has the symbol of Autonomia Operaia, the Italian Autonomism movement. Inside another face a city grows, while it is very distinguishable the antifascist flag. In this huge mural covering the whole building, Blu depicted different characters clearly inspired to the reality of the Porto Fluviale building, representing their ideas. The colourful faces can be definitely read as a hint to the fact that the community is open minded and people of different races and from different places mix and live together. But it also indicates the variety of social activities happening there. The antifascist flag and the symbol of Autonomia Operaia make explicit the political ideas of the occupiers. Blu depicted the story of the place and its inhabitants, he told about their project for creating a sustainable society not based on profit but on solidarity thus transforming the place in a symbol of the struggle for the right to housing.

9 - Unmasking

Blu. Unmasking. Berlin. 2007

In December 2014, Blu realised that the murals painted in Berlin in Kreuzberg were going to be exploited in the gentrification process of the area, and especially in advertising it as a cool place in order to increase property value. Faithful to his ideas and to avoid being involuntarily part of changes he disapproves, he felt it was time to erase his work, which was thus painted black in one night.

10 - Unmasking covered

Blu. Unmasking painted black. Berlin. 2014

Blu is not simply a committed artist, but he acts more like an activist. He not only paints big murals but he advocates and supports the causes, living with people and sharing their beliefs and ideas.

Each mural is not simply an artistic intervention but behind it there is always the story of a struggle against injustice and for a better life, another possible world, which the artist aims to highlight.

Blu’s work is one of the best example of creative resistance and reappropriation of industrial and urban surfaces and spaces of the everyday life. Through his art, he expresses his dissent and openly shows political and ideological opposition to a dominant political and economic system and culture, radically criticising them. At the same time he tries to foster awareness and draw attention to social issues.

Maria Domenica Arcuri

An urban art lover and expert who completed a PhD in Cultural & Postcolonial Studies with a thesis on Street Art. An explorer of the city and a curious eye, keen to discover art interwoven and hidden in the urban fabric through Situationist and Pshychogeograpical techniques. Interested in subculture, counterculture and grassroot movements.

 

[1]To learn more about the distinction between culture and subculture, cfr. Hebdige, op. cit.. Pp, 73-74. Hebdige refers especially to Resistance through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Postwar Britain (1976), edited by Stuart Hall e Tony Jefferson.

[2] Lewisohn, Cedar. 2008. Street Art. The Graffiti Revolution. London: Tate Publishing. p. 81

[3] Miles, Malcolm. 2004. Urban Avant-gardes and Social Transformation: Art, Architecture and Change. London:

Routledge. p. 82.

[4]The statement concerning what is called the security fence on the Israeli Ministry of Defense website says: “Terrorism has been defined throughout the international community as a crime against humanity. As such, the State of Israel not only has the right but also the obligation to do everything in its power to lessen the impact and scope of terrorism on the citizens of Israel. The Security Fence is an operational concept conceived by the Israeli Defense Establishment in order to reduce the number of terrorist attacks whether in the form of explosive- rigged vehicles or in the form of suicide bombers who enter into Israel with the intention of murdering innocent babies, children, women and men. Sadly, this abhorrent phenomenon has become common practice since September 2000.” http://www.securityfence.mod.gov.il/Pages/ENG/default.htm

[5] Cfr. Parry, William. 2010. Contro il muro. L’arte della resistenza in Palestina. Milano: Isbn Edizioni. p.17.

[6] http://www.key1948.org/about-us/history-of-aida-youth-center/

All pictures come from Blu’s website