The tall and firm columns, porticoes and romantic colors of Bologna are a clash between modern and medieval. As you admire the small shops and restaurants that line the way, you may notice the graffiti and tags that contrast with this environment. Who knew that street art, seen as a form of delinquency in the United States, could in this city foster a community so people-powered and progressively involved?

Street art is a form of self-expression and defiance; a collection of tags, graffiti and murals that use the walls of a city to make statements. Political statements on the walls serve various roles: some are a reminder of Bologna's Communist past; others are unwelcome writings that mar a beautiful city.

“They write about their beliefs, their struggle, and they share it with the world,”explained Alessandro Ferri, a renowned Bolognese street artist who goes by the name“Dado.” Ferri says that modern street artists use their work as an extension of their political beliefs, in hopes of raising awareness of social issues.

“You need heart to change the world--not new messages,” Ferri said, as he worked on a piece at his studio, sketching the swooping and three-dimensional shape he is known for.

Some graffiti are so awe-inspiring that admirers argue they merit exhibiting in museums, next to the Modiglianis and Renoirs.

“All masterpieces are better in the place where they are born, but sometimes that is not always possible,” said Camillo Tarozzi, an expert in the restoration of historical art.

In 2016, Tarozzi was a collaborator in Bologna’s first museum exhibition dedicated to street art. He oversaw a controversial operation in which pieces of street art were removed from their places of origin, and prepared for museum exhibition.The exhibition, shown as “Banksy and Co,” in Bologna’s Palazzo Pepoli, from March 18 to June 26, 2016, sparked strong responses, ranging from astonishment to indignance. Some street artists and aficionados objected to pieces being stripped from the city walls.

Controversial exhibition stirs passion among artists and curators

DOES STREET ART BELONG IN A MUSEUM?

Bologna: People-Powered City

Writing by Sade Ford, Samantha Jeannot and Emily Liu

Photography by Sade Ford

Interpreters: Claudia Paolozza and Tommaso Garagnani

Others, though, were happy to see the graffiti preserved for future generations.

“The museum is something to glorify,” argued Tarozzi, “not a graveyard.

University of Bologna Professor Luca Ciancabilla, one of the curators of the exhibition, agrees. Like Tarozzi, Ciancabilla had a great interest in the preservation of these works. Despite the backlash from some artists, he and Tarozzi both maintain that it is imperative that street art be protected from eventual destruction.

Some artists disagree.“I’d rather die than have someone take my graffiti,” said Andrea, an artist and member of an occupied community space in Bologna called XM24.  XM24 is an abbreviation for“ex-market,” referring both to its history as a marketplace and to its address, Via Aristotile Fioravanti, 24. Andrea, who asked to be identified only by his first name, took strong exception to the exhibition. He spoke passionately about working with celebrated Bologna-born street artist Blu.

In protest against the exhibition, they and other members of XM24 erased Blu’s works in Bologna, to register disapproval of the appropriation of their art, and what they argued was hypocrisy over the laws applying to graffiti.

Visiting the Collectives

“End rape culture, unlearn sexism, question gender. Fight back,” announced graffiti in the space XM24 occupies. The building has been occupied for 15 years, and from 2012 to 2016, its presence was recognized by Bologna’s city council.

But now the council is pressing the group to leave the space, as it is prime real estate.  “It is not a place to live, but we take shifts to keep it safe,” Andrea declared. “We will not leave.”

The destruction of XM24 would result not just in the loss of 15 years of accumulated graffiti, but also in the loss of a valuable community space, members argue.

“This area of the city is heavily populated by migrants,” Andrea pointed out, saying that XM24 does its best to help this often-underserved community. The collective offers community-centered and free activities, such as Italian lessons, yoga and boxing.  XM24 is “anti-fascist, anti-racist and anti-sexist,” said Andrea, who says its actions throughout the occupation have proven a willingness to interact with the community, through art, and programs geared toward helping it prosper.  

Labas, a space occupied for five years, is lodged in an abandoned military barracks. Brick walls painted with the words “Labas,” and caricatures and pieces ensconced in the narrow alleyways, made the place look like a storybook come to life.  

Labas was beautiful, and we were invited to explore. Graffiti that promoted strong women, unity and love for the earth were some of the more notable pieces, but what made Labas stand out was the eclecticism of the art on display.

“The artists just come spontaneously,” said Letizia Caroscio, an event organizer and street art enthusiast.  

“We work together with artists to have the same political theme,” said Francesca Zanoni, who keeps the place running.

Zanoni deals with the legalities of keeping an occupied space, a grey area in Italian politics.  

Labas' focus differs from XM24’s.

“We like to focus on sustainability,” said Zanoni, who noted that Labas also shelters homeless migrants, refugees and other immigrants. It also offers kindergarten classes, and free community events.

“Street art is meaningless if it’s not where it was made originally,” Caroscio argued. “The artist was inspired by its original place.”  

What Labas does is important to the street art community, and its notoriety has been spreading. But recognition from the city council is lacking.

“We want to be acknowledged by the council for what we do,” said Caroscio, who wants to have the right to use this space, and not be threatened with ouster in favor of a business.

Even if at first glance, it appears to be nothing more than an annoyance or a political message, street art shows that someone has been there.  It’s evidence of a community, and these pieces of art bring each place to life. Despite their different agendas, and questions of street art’s legitimacy and legality, most interviewees agreed that street art is a part of Bologna’s culture. Each artist contributes to the atmosphere of the city – and the constant presence of street art, overflowing with emotions and beliefs, brings locals and artists together.

Painting inside the street art squat Labas.

"My love won't die." Graffito by the street artist Freak, outside of the squat XM24.  

Graffito inside the street art squat XM24.

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