Archive for the 'Street Art' Category

Cairo, Stencil City

I landed in Cairo like something shot out the bottom of a waterslide: a sharp gasp and splash of forward momentum, wedgie-style with a sting up the nose, blinking, shaking water from my ear for the four days. Completely unprepared, and didn’t know what to expect, except that I hadn’t even given it enough mental energy to expect anything.

Which isn’t entirely true—I expected it to be fairly modern, fairly developed. After two weeks in Albania, Cairo felt downright fancy, wealthy even. (There’s a Metro! When’s the next time I’m gonna get to ride a Metro?) I arrived during Eid, which is basically a four-day shitshow of fireworks, honking, running the streets—a Muslim teenage boy version of Girls Gone Wild.

But the daytimes are sleepy as fuck, Downtown dead, shuttered, traffic-less and breezy. I met up an old friend’s little sister, who I hadn’t seen since I was in high school (insert requisite “Oh my God, you’re a woman now!”). We ate koshari and drank Turkish coffee and wandered around, making our way over to Tahrir Square.

Where, if I’d stopped to think about it while I’d been crashing down that waterslide, I would have expected it: a shitton of political stencils.

Running around snapping photos, many of which Kate was able to translate and explain to me, turned out to be the dopest part of my four-day stay.

Leading up to the square, this is a pretty typical shot of what the walls are looking like down there. The half-face on the left is one of the more popular stencils, which I saw in various forms. It’s of Alexandrian blogger Khaled Said who was beaten and killed by the police, pre-Arab-Spring. Outcry and attention (speareheaded by FB group “We are all Khaled Said”) over his death are credited with fueling the flames that eventually led to the January 25th uprising.

Cool because I’d seen almost the exact same Anarchy head in Kosovo.

Another jailed blogger, Alaa Abdel Fattah.

Face on the left of the tree is of Mina Danial, another blogger who was killed.

The next batch are all on the wall by the American University.

“We are all the martyr Mina Danial.”

“Retribution for Mubarak.”

Date of a protest, alongside the star-and-fist logo of the revolutionary socialists. Stencils are apparently one of the primary ways protest dates get circulated.

“I am the brain, you are the muscle.” Liked that this lady walked into the shot.

Face on the left is of a TV newscaster (missed his name) who canceled his show rather than be censored.

A classic. Writing beneath reads: “Long Live the People of my Country.”

Writing inside the TV reads: “Go down to the streets”—ie, don’t rely on the TV/media to tell you what’s going on.

Another of Khaled Said. Quite liked the placement beside the doorway.

Never quite figured out what the cow meant, but there were a lot of them…

K, here’s one all the Occupiers can get down with: a banker being, um, poked, with a caption that reads: “Strike!”

Perhaps not the most well-executed, but reminded me of the Sherpard Fairey guns and roses piece.

Personal favorite, for obvious reasons (though only got groped once): “No touching. Castration awaits you.” Shit yeah!

Don’t have captions/translations/context for the rest of these. If anyone’s got any insights or context to offer, holler…

Metro stops.

…And, a typical street scene round the Square, with a lil hidden gem.

It was really cool and really fucking refreshing to see all these stencils up. You know, you come across a lot of jaded people—people who will tell you that street art is played out, has sold out, commercialized and commodified and done for. There’s an element of truth to what they say, sure, but I think that level of cynicism is dangerous.

So it was rad, all else aside, to see all this up, in this context. Street art is, in its origin and at its core, a political act. At least that’s how I see it. It may be all the other sceney bullshit too, but walking around Tahrir Sqaure, I was reminded of the crucial role it can still play, the dissent it can represent, and how it can be un-fucking-stoppable. And, in a place where there’s such intense repression and media censorship, street art plays a vital role.

It’s like social media—which can be be soul-sucking and superficial—if you let it. The same cynical voices will tell you that FB and Twitter are deteriorating authentic human interaction. Which very well may be true. But, if you look at the fuller picture—holy shit, look what it can do! Look how it can connect people. It’s not a coincidence that authorities, from Tahrir Square to BART, shut down cell phone reception in the face of protests. It’s not a coincidence that the majority of faces stenciled here are bloggers. Yeah, yeah, there’s a lot of BS that comes along with the territory, but that’s the world we live in, you know? And check out the crazy, amazing tools we have to make it a better place.

Street art is one.

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El Mac: Saigon Street Art

So here’s something cool I came across in my internet wanderings last week: a video of American street artist El Mac‘s piece he threw up in Saigon, “Kosom by the Mekong”:

El Mac – Sai Gon, Viet Nam “Kosoom by the Mekong” from Viet Nam The World Tour on Vimeo.

Just, you know, when you start to think you’re doing something cool by travel blogging, there’s some good ole’ street artists to totally blow your shit out of water.

Aside from the images making me nostalgic for Southeast Asia, what’s so cool to me about this is the opportunity for exchange. They say all art is a conversation, right? And us writers prattle on about authentic experiences and living like a local, but street art really offers the opportunity for that in a way that writing necessarily can’t—you know, the good ole’ Tower of Babel.

El Mac isn’t the first dude to be doing this sort of stuff: I got a chance last summer to catch up with Gaia about his work in Seoul, and of course JR is out there giving everyone’s heart a boner with his work. And I guess part of what’s so exciting to me about it is the chance for dialogue it offers—as though the artists were saying: “Hey, I’m here in your country, and this is what I see and this is how I express it, in my culture. And I’m gonna leave it here, for you to see and have, and what do you think of all that?”

And the question may not be being asked to me, but I think it’s fucking awesome.

And I wonder if there’s a way us writers could do something close, even with the limitations of language—if we could find a way to have a similar exchange, in the earnest and uncomplicated way one will point to an object and say it their language, then point to you, and you’ll say it in yours, and you’ll both smile at the difference of it, the arbitrariness of it—neither one’s way right or wrong, but just different, another little glimpse into the vast diversity of human expression.

I’m open to suggestions.

Read more about El Mac’s work here.

JR, Women Are Heores

So I, like a lot of people, have been nursing a major crush on Parisian street artist JR‘s work. It toes the lines between street art, activism and travel—or, more accurately, it searches out those lines and plasters photographs all over them. I got to check out his work in person back in September at FAME Festival (still one of my best travel experiences ever).

This week, a film about his Women Are Heroes project will be widely released, beginning in France and eventually making its way around the world. Here’s the English-language trailer:

So there might be glimmers of gimmick and paternalism. So it might be argued as “parachute-in” activism that does just as much to promote JR’s name as it does the situations and people he’s trying to highlight. That might be true, it might not. But I do get the distinct feeling that JR’s heart’s in the right place. You can’t deny that his work garners attention, makes people stop and think—and that it’s goddamn cool looking.

The Women Are Heroes project made me think about the Madres de Plazo de Mayo. When I was in Buenos Aires 5 years ago, the mothers were still meeting every Thursday to march, to demand an answer—an act of unforgetting. Because mothers don’t forget. I went to see them, and while I didn’t understand a lick of their Argentine Spanish, I could still feel it: that particular sorrow of a mother. You can’t argue with that; it’s something that we all know, that runs deep through the fabric of human existence, probably all existence (have you ever heard a wolf cry for its babies?). And I think JR touches on that.

So, I’m for sure gonna check out the film. I’m also super excited to see what he does next; I’m especially looking forward to his upcoming “Wrinkles of the City” project, which explores the memory of a city and its inhabitants. What’s more, I was stoked to see photos of his work in Phnom Penh, on the Women Are Heroes website.

God on the Walls: Abandoned Monastery Outside Grottaglie

If you walk far enough down a dirt road outside of town; if you stalk through the weeds and sweatshirt-snagging thistles; if you scramble and heave and hoist yourself over a crumbly stone wall and follow the dent in the foliage that has become a path, you will find it: an abandoned monastery covered in art.

You will be on the roof. You won’t be sure how you got there. The storm will be moving in, and the countryside, the heel of the boot that is Puglia, will stretch out beneath the gray: plastic tarps over vineyards, farms, the coughing plumes of the factories of Taranto.

You’ll circle the perimeter of the roof with your new friends. You found them all—you found each other—like a rag-tag team of adventurers in some cartoon: Rebecca at a cafe, Pedro as you walked through the Old Town, then Greg as he feverishly rode a bicycle away from a herd of grazing animals (“Were they rabid?” “No.” “What were they doing?” “I dunno, they were just in the road. It was some weird country shit.”). You’ve all come alone, all flown from your various big cities to Grottaglie, for nothing more than the love of street art. And adventure.

And you will have gotten there. You’ll have gotten to the moldy, peely, crumbling core of What It Is You Came For. Over the last three years of Fame Festival, the abandoned Convento dei Cappuccini has amassed works by visiting artists on its decrepit old walls. It’s become something of a museum of anarchic awesome—where you crunch through the broken glass, through rooms and rooms with bleeding walls; down dank stairways where the mosquitoes buzz and the light don’t shine; down into the guts and internal organs of an abandoned holiness left to rot, left to reborn in the last gasps of its decomposition, its swallowing-back-up by the earth, by the weeds, by the green; left to the artists and the vandals and the punk little kids with bruises on their knees, to the foreigners that don’t speak the language but know that urgent lonesome in the howling of the wind, the coming of the storm, as it blows through the broken windows and walks alongside you.

Pedro on the roof

Courtyard

Panini break in the cockroach room

Cockroach close-up

Where two walls meet

It’s not so much about the art, not the monastery or Fame or the streets of Grottaglie. It’s about the spirit, the breathing of new life into the forgotten, the love of the forgotten, saying, “Yes, yes, you can still be something beautiful to me.”

It’s exceedingly tender; it’s exceedingly unexpected that you would find this here: this vision of yourself in the walls of an abandoned monastery outside a small Italian town. As though every painting and stencil and shitty little tag were a message of love, saying, “Even in your wreckage, your falling-apart, your scars and wounds and ragged flesh—something can still love you enough to take the time, to do something beautiful.”

It’s what you like to think of God as. It’s how you’d like to treat yourself, as if you could love yourself as much as an abandoned monastery.

And it’s even more unexpected that you would find three friends to tromp around with you, to be as stoked as you, to love this place and this town and this art as much as you do.

You pause; you take a moment to take it all in, to file it away in the card catalog of your heart, to be able to call upon in those certain difficult times ahead, when you need something, just a little something, to remind you What It Is You Came For. You look around, smile, tuck it under the slot labeled “Best Travel Moments.”

And then you walk into the chapel.

For a far better visual representation, check out Bablegum’s video of their trip to the monastery. The music doesn’t really fit the experience to me—but in those moments when you hear the wind howl, that’s closer to what I felt in there.

Thank God for San Lorenzo Street Art

The last full day of my trip: drizzly grey and a mounting head cold, city still shuddering from the previous night’s storm. I would not be stopped by the weather or my health (I really should have been stopped by that) or my impending departure or my own crappy attitude. I was going to go out and find something cool. Goddamnit.

It was more than my intuition that told me that Something Cool would be in San Lorenzo. It was Jessica from Rome Photo Blog. Specifically, she told me: “Go to San Lorenzo. Take the number 14 street car. There’s lots of cool street art.” It seemed a good enough activity for my final day in Europe. Because Lord knows I hadn’t tromped around in the rain hunting down street art enough on the trip.

I like Rome’s neighborhoods. I supposed every city has its distinct neighborhoods with their distinct vibes, but for some reason the differences feel more marked in Rome, where perhaps the centuries have dug those differences down deep, deeper than in other places. The center, while magnificent, bums me out and exhausts me, with its gaggles of people and trinket shops. There’s not a lot of contemporary culture to dig into. And contemporary culture is kind of what I’m all about.

Typical crumbling building

San Lorenzo is one of Rome’s hippest neighborhoods. It’s the bombed-out, more gentrified version of Pigneto—or rather, it’s formerly bombed-out and further along the gentrification scale from Pigneto. The working-class 19th-century neighborhood received the heaviest bombing during WWII, and I don’t know if all that crumble I saw was a remnant of that or just a result of the usual Italian building decay. Either way, it was fucking cool. There’s a lot less immigrants than in nearby Pigneto, and the neighborhood seems to have moved deeply into the third stage of gentrification: when the local business begin catering to the new residents. San Lorenzo’s proximity to the enormous La Sapienza university means there’s tons of students and tons of artists, with a proportionate ton of trendy stores and cool record shops and cafes with wifi.

And a whole mess of graffiti and street art.

I hopped off the tram when the walls began to resemble a two year old’s furious crayon scribbling.

I was delighted to see some good ol’ Space Invader the moment I got off the 14. He’d recently come to Rome, and has an upcoming solo exhibition in the city. Word has it (ok, Jessica told me) that Roman street artists are pretty stoked about Invader’s, um, invasion (I hate myself for using that pun)—hoping it’ll lend a little more attention and validity to their own work.

I wandered about a bit, until I found what I was looking for: Something Extremely Cool. Along Via Delgi Ausoni, on a wall surrounding the block-long Fondazione Cavalieri di Colombo, was the best street art I found in the city. It was like the Clarion Alley of Rome.


Hey, Ekua, check it out: a whole wall of Hopnn!





Okay, so the picture doesn’t give you the full effect, but a shadow/inverse of the stencil was actually put on the sidewalk in front of the wall as well—so it felt like you were walking through some weird mirror of the piece. Cool ass effect.




Too cool for just one picture…

This reminds me of Retna:



I’m not totally sure what’s going on here, whether the figures were wheatpastes that got taken down, or if that was an effect was created intentionally—but a pretty fresh, haunting effect, especially given the message written:

But to be fair, most of the stuff on the walls in San Lorenzo looks like this:

Okay, so I’m gonna be the asshole and say it: this is not aesthetically pleasing. But it reminded me of this conversation I had with Pedro at Fame Festival, about the need to create urban spaces designated for street art, like they have in Melbourne or in that tunnel in London. I can totally feel people when they complain about piss-poor chicken-scratch tagging all over their neighborhoods; it’s ugly. But cities need to have some kinda strategy towards graffiti that goes beyond just prevention.

When I was growing up, the Oakland Public Schools had a full-time employee whose sole job was to go around and paint over graffiti on all the school campuses. Which seems like a damn waste of resources. The sad thing, to me, is that these kids obviously have something to say, something they wanted to communicate, and no other way to do it. I think it’s important to create those spaces, walls and zones where they can throw up pieces—to give kids the space to say what they need to say. (I’m assuming this is what’s being discussed in this news coverage of Pedro’s Crono Lisboa project…)

Because you never know which one of them just might grow up to be a dope street artist. And because it limits the amount of tagging elsewhere. And because it looks cool as shit.

I’m not sure what all that has to do explicitly with San Lorenzo, except that I was thinking about that as I wandered around the neighborhood. Here’s some more stuff I spotted:

This C215 piece was actually on the wall of a church. It blended so well I wasn’t sure if it was street art or the church’s actual art work until I saw the signature logo:


Lots of stores had pieces on their shutters…




But I think my favorite might have been pieces that worked with the crumbling facades of San Lorenzo. I get pretty stoked on well-done site-specific street art, when the environment and the art interact with and inform each other…



Walking around there, damp-footed and achy-throated, I had to say a little thank you to San Lorenzo, for giving me one last cool adventure on my trip. And for reminding me that Rome is more than history and monuments—that it’s a damn big city, and a damn great city, and that there is contemporary culture—just beneath the surface, below the rubble, just a short tram ride from the center.

Filling the Fame

The hunger, that is.

Okay, so let’s make a deal. I won’t torture you all with never-ending posts about Grottaglie/Fame Festival/one of the best travel experiences of my life IF you all check out my coverage of the festival on the following links:

Hi-Fructose Basic summary with some pics

Hi-Fructose My interview with Fame organizer Angelo Milano.

Huffington Post More narrative coverage of the event, my favorite of the write-ups I’ve done so far.

Since I have no way of actually enforcing this deal, so we’ll work on the honor system. Okay? Okay.

(And, yes, I’ve been a busy girl. Loving my Netbook, and loving free wifi!)

Grottaglie Or Bust!: Fame Fest ’10

Siesta-dazed and still covered in little bits of glitter, I’m holed up in my hotel room in Grottaglie. Laptop on my lap, balcony door open a crack, listening to the moan of the fan, I don’t know where to start.

I could spend the next two months writing about this weekend, here in this random little Puglian town, wedged between plastic-tarp-covered vineyards and industrial, cloud-coughing skylines. It’s at times like these when you realize just how insufficient your own words are—how close they can sometimes come to capturing this thing, this thing you’re always circling and chasing, but that ultimately always goes “fluttering through your nets,” as Virginia Woolf said.

This weekend has been a little of everything I love in travel: discovering killer art, adventuring around abandoned buildings and ancient caves, eating great food, meeting awesome people. I came here for the opening of Fame Festival, a DIY street art event put on by the one-man-powerhouse/party Angelo Milano, that is slowly transforming the forgotten little town of Grottaglie. I’d been following the build-up on various art blogs, and it seemed like a pretty damn good excuse to go on an adventure.

There’s about 100 different angles to write about this from, and I’m sure I’ll be torturing everyone with posts for months on end. So instead of giving the 3000-word play-by-play (you’re welcome), I’ll give you the highlights. And some pictures.

Fame Festival
“Success, celebrity” in English, “hunger, starvation” in Italian, Fame Festival is the blood, sweat and glitter (more on that later) of one dude, Angelo Milano. Three years ago, he started inviting international artists to his little hometown for short residencies. The artists produced prints at his studio, Studio Cromie, produced ceramics using the town’s ancient ceramics studios, and threw up street art pieces all over the city. The festival has grown, gained a fair amount of notoriety, and a small crew of artists/collectors/enthusiasts/fanatics make the mission down to Grottaglie for a complete and total adventure.

Angelo welcomes you with all the enthusiasm and graciousness in the world, arranging hotel rooms and rides from the airport. On the evening of the preview, he takes the gang load of visitors back to his grandmother’s house, where his dad shakes your hand and his mom cooks a huge traditional Italian dinner. The opening party is complete with DJs, Puglian wine and a diverse mix of locals and art lovers; you then trek across town to Studio Cromie, where Angelo goes ape shit on the dance “floor,” dumping about 8 bags of glitter on everyone and generally having about as much fun as humanly possible.

You see everyone stagger around town with glitter stuck in their hair the next day. You’re given, on preview night, a map of the city marked with all the street art pieces, and you wander around, ticking off the 60+ list and snapping photos. It’s like a treasure hunt.

Coolest part: adventuring around an abandoned monastery filled with art.

Grottaglie
The town itself is awesome. Not in a knock-your-socks off way, but in a slow, subtle way that sneaks up on you. It’s got an old town, complete with winding roads and a couple UNESCO sites, as well as a new part, devoid of billboards and with only one corporate chain. The whole town siestas from 12-4. You can get dinner at a restaurant for 6 euros. Old women say, “Ciao, bella.” Teenagers hang out in cafes til 2am.

The city’s surrounded by ancient caves that were inhabited until just a few decades ago, when the Italian government kicked everyone out. You can go and poke around in them, see the remnants of old cooking areas, frescos peeling off the walls.

The Peeps, and The Adventure
So what kind of wingnuts travel all the way to bumfuck Puglia for an art festival? Awesome ones. I met so many fresh people, one of those this-is-why-I-travel experiences that you know is going to linger with you for a long time.

There’s also the adventure aspect. No guidebooks mention Grottaglie. The bus from Naples dropped me off on the side of the road; luckily I’d had the wherewithal to print out a Google map the night before. You traipse around the random town that epitomizes off-the-beaten-path, and it reminds you, again, why you travel.

Street Art
I’m no expert on street art, but I got to meet a lot of people who were. And it’s clear that we’re on the brink of something, something bigger than just the art world. Street art is a kind of dialouge with a city, and it’s changing cities. Street art as architecture, urban development, tourism—there’s a lot to discuss.

But right now, legs crossed on this hideous hotel bedspread, I’m feeling incredibly tired and incredibly grateful. I gave myself an extra day here, to hang out with the wifi and sleep, before I take off for Dubrovnik tomorrow. But even if I were going home tonight, it would have all been worth it. Fame Fest was one of the best parties I’ve ever gone to, and one of the best adventures a traveler could hope for.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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