Anyone who has spent any time in Rome will know that graffiti is a big thing here. That’s not a surprise once you learn–as I recently did–that grafitti dates back to the Greek and Roman Empires (at least that’s the common understanding but I would argue that it dates back to cave painting days). Sure, graffiti is an issue nearly everywhere but here it’s encoded in the Roman DNA. And they’ve had a lot of practice.
Ancient Romans carved love declarations and political statements on walls and monuments. In Pompeii you can find graffiti including curses, magic spells, declarations of love, alphabets, political slogans and famous literary quotes. One oft-quoted inscription gives the address of a woman named Novellia Primigeni, a prostitute of great beauty, who was apparently much in demand. And here’s a sentimental poem that was left by a member of a construction crew doing remodeling work on a colonnade near Pompeii right around the time Vesuvius blew.
Whoever loves, go to hell. I want to break Venus’s ribs
with a club and deform her hips.
If she can break my tender heart
why can’t I hit her over the head?
A local effort:
Modern Roman graffiti artists–of which there are an estimated 3 500–express the same sentiments on walls and monuments all over town (although the mash notes tend to get spray painted on the sidewalk outside the loved one’s dwelling). Sometimes it’s political, sometimes it’s racist. It’s usually incomprehensible.
The artists (or Writers as they call them here) say that graffiti is a legitimate form of self expression with a long and noble history. They say that it injects life into a city that tourists treat as simply a museum. The authorities have been battling graffiti for years, engaging dedicated cleaning crews, passing laws to force graffiti artists to clean up their own work, threatening them with long jail terms, and setting aside 10 k of clean wall for their use. I’ve already written about the art show in Circo Massimo. If you can’t beat them, join them. And a bunch of American diplomats recently took matters into their own hands.
Good luck with that. Like I said. DNA encoded. Thousands of years of practice.