How Venetian Artists Keep Their City Alive
(Vatican Stamp with art appropriated from Alessia Babrow)
In spring 2020, Italian artist Alessia Babrow got a real shock when the Vatican issued an Easter stamp using a piece of her street art.
Babrow had been posting a series of images up on walls and corners all over Rome for a project she calls “Just Use It,” but the wording didn’t mean anyone could then take her art for their own purposes. As reported by international media outlets, Babrow puts hearts on all the great religious figures such as Buddha, Ganesha, and the Virgin Mary and overlays the words “Just Use It” to remind people to “promote intelligence and the brain of the heart.” She never expected anyone to twist that phrase and use her art without permission. These pieces are even signed by Babrow so the Vatican should have known better. Babrow is now suing the Vatican Communications Office for 130,000 euros (about USD 160,000).
This squabble reminds me of how much I love the street art and graffiti blasted all over in Venice.
(Verified Bansky Venice 2019)
For some, the stuff painted or posted up on the walls and buildings of Venice is an abomination. Venice is a 1600-year-old Medieval city and one of the most beautiful cities on earth. Its architecture combines periods and presents a phantasmagoria of palazzi, churches, and civic buildings that can bring a person to tears with their beauty. But for me, that history and its living presence is enhanced, not degraded by pop art.
This kind of street work demonstrates that Venice is not just some museum but a living breathing place full of Venetians who love their city and want to preserve it but also want it to be an energized, edgy, modern place. The street art also echoes the more formal art scene manifest in the Biennales of Art and Architecture, as well as the many ongoing grand art shows at museums and private galleries. These venues flood the Venetian landscape with “official” art of every kind. Some hope that digging in even deeper as a happening place for historical and modern art might save the future Venice as it tries to move away from the dependence on tourism and bring in a different sort of seeker.
There is also a community of contemporary Venetian artists producing extraordinary and captivating works right now. For example, print shops such as Small Caps or Plum Plum Creations produce pieces that don’t just serve as souvenirs for travelers; they also hold up in their own right. I should know, my apartment is full of them. I also have several prints from a shop that I happened upon near the church Zanipolo. My favorite is a long shot from the north of town out into the lagoon with the typical pilings marching in a row to nowhere. That print makes me miss Venice more than any image of a gondolier.
Many local artists stand on street corners with their wares and while much of it is repetitively tourist-driven (really, another gondola picture?), there are others to be discovered. One day I wandered back streets and saw a young woman with her easel selling small postcards she had painted. The artist was an immigrant from Ukraine and she trying to pay her way in the city. The work was wonderful, and I bought one (ok, a gondola and gondolier but not like any of the others around town) and it’s now framed and on my wall.
Artists also, like Babrow, leave bits of their work on walls. Some of it is political, some whimsical. Others are rageful as they address the overwhelming crush of mass tourism and the effects of climate change that are ruining the city. One stencil of a man and child pulling a toy vaparetto says “We Demand to See the Horizon,” and the “we” here are Venetians.
(The right to the city is priceless)
These are cries of pain, demands for aid for the city. They are arresting because they come from Venetians, not The State or organizations that promote the Biennales of “high art.” For me, this kind of art is rawer, more immediate, and so more effective.
Sometimes the street art message is both funny and meaningful. When I was there before Covid, someone had put small paintings all over town. Each one was a take on some known figure, such as the Virgin Mary, but all of them were wearing scuba masks which addresses the issue of high water.
Other times I am stopped in my tracks by philosophical points that show up on walls and change my day.
(Every storm begins with one drop)
And sometimes it’s just pictures, graphics, and comics, all well done and fun.
All this public free art represents the Venetian mindset, the love, and pride for the real Venice that is often overlooked, ignored, or disdained by most tourists. Yet it’s right there, in your face, for all to see.
(All photos except the Babrow Jesus by Meredith F. Small)