The second city on my '18 European trip was the birthplace of Western civilization: Rome. The first ever metropolis was a destination not only because of my Italian heritage, but because it is the original city. Way before the Big Apple, there was only Rome.
While we visited the traditional tourist attractions: the museums of Vatican City, the Sistine Chapel, Spanish Steps (Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti), and the Pantheon; I still made sure to get low, and always look up high. This trip was to celebrate my friend & my milestone birthdays this year. Two friends sightseeing, eating delicious food & drinking delicious wine in the birthplace of our ancestors. I didn't want to overwhelm her with my urban art hunting obsession, so I kept my search within our routes. Since I wasn't looking for location specific murals and large scale pieces, I found something much different instead.
There was a collection of consistent faces throughout my 5 day visit; just as you would find multiple Phoebe & rae_bk pieces in NYC - Rome has its familiar faces too. At the end of the article, I have a special Q&A with one artist who invited me to a Sticker & Sneaker event to close out our trip! But before that, take a look at the streets of Rome, see what my lens saw, and who I met along the way.
The first of my notable neighbors is Bibbitaro, and his 3 dash-eyed funny face. This artist hails from the Northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia. Most of the pieces I found were right around our Airbnb, on Via Acaia, 24; but as we traveled around, I found him tucked away in all sorts of locations! After I got home, looking back through photos, I found him in La Tabacalera as well! I love the variety of stickers, wheatpastes, quick collabs, and larger colorful pieces. There is so much more, please take a look through his colorful instagram. I'm only further driven to find more of his happy faces all over the world!
Alongside a 3-eyed face I also found EXIT ENTER, a Florence urban artist. As I discovered "after-the-fact" with Bibbitaro, this figure can also be found worldwide, and in so many unique positions depending on the surface. The simplicity in street art and graffiti (especially illegally), is due to time constraint. The characters align with the idea of limited strokes, but emotion is still evoked with these stick figures. There is feeling and intention within the movement of each piece. Give this artist a follow "Free Art for Free People", you will definitely find them on your next trip abroad!
As our walks around the city continued, I found multiple wheatpastes with the same "QWERTY" tag, but there were different series repeated. One was a child reading an over-sized book, another was Jesus depicted as a "migrant for life", a female face with QRcode eyes, and a paracas skulled figure in a cage. As my research continued, I saw where the social commentary threaded all of these topics together.
From the artist's website:
After a fifteen year journey, made of art-exhibitions, art galleries, art magazines, books of poetry, inaugurations; finally tired, disgusted by the rules of the institutional artistic environment… the QWERTY project is born. The confluence of streets, in one street, starts from QWERTY. It’s the opposite direction: from art galleries to the street. An artistic revolution, the conjunction of visual art, poetry, minimal art, parasitic art, made of quickly created productions, recognizable, but above all an art which is itself …simple.
QWERTY stands for the positions of the keys in the alphanumeric keyboard, this sequence was patented in 1864. It is the only word you can compose on such a keyboard, QWERTY is the most used password.
QWERTY is the contemporary human being, he is getting drowned in a virtual ether, but still needs to get near the real life of a flower. It’s a man who roars, and knows that wherever his roaring can be heard, there can also arrive his clutch. The world changes, when codes change.
The next artist I discovered on the Italian city streets was a very simple profile & a more intricate pair of sneakers, both claimed by the artist K2M. Rome is this artist's hometown, and more than 10 years in the game he started putting up collages, but found his big nosed face to be the familiar addition to a collab wall. When you see more than a few paste-ups, you can be sure K2M is tucked in there too!
Clet is from France, but currently living and working in Florence, Italy. While not entirely legal, the whimsical alterations of Europe’s road signs take care not to alter the main function of the originals. The artist uses stickers to not damage, but to wake people up and create a dialogue. Like many of us traveling to Europe in 2018 we see the juxtaposition of old and new. He was struck by the incongruity between the beauty of the Renaissance city of Florence and the road signs peppering its streets. His work can be found in many major cities around Europe.
No trip to a major European city can be complete without finding at least one Space Invader, and I did. Although Rome has been hit with a total 3 invasions, 75 invaders, with a possible 2,370 points - I only found one. But the 20 points I collected was on my most favorite night of the entire trip. We drank wine and ate in this quiet plaza in Trastevere, away from the tourists. Afterward we walked around finding pieces of art on every corner.
ROM_61 from the 2010 Italian Invasion
The glue that stuck a lot of these wheatpastes to the wall were provided by, or invited by one very special sticker artist. Merio, AKA Merioone and his Fish Invasion is the aquatic version of Ratanic, and he is happy to invite others to join in his fun.
His invasion started during a visit to NYC. It was because of this connection I was introduced to him before my trip, and was able to meet him while I was there! He invited us to Ginnika, a Sneaker and Urban Art Expo, being held at Ex Dogana; a 23,000-sqm space located in the S. Lorenzo district. This multi-faceted indoor/outdoor venue hosts concerts, festivals, workshops and contemporary art exhibitions. It is also home to the city's planetarium, and acts as a cinema and night club.
We were told to meet Merio at the Skateboard wall, and I had so much fun checking out what all the cool kids, AKA hypebeasts were into there. (sidenote: more Supreme than I could handle.)
He took the time to answer a few questions, and gives us a look inside the sticker culture of Europe.
Erica Stella: What is your background in graffiti, art school and/or both?
Merio: I’ve been attracted to art since I was a kid, I used to draw and collect art books. When I grew up I started to be interested in graffiti. Since my own city, Rome, is very active (from my point of view), I started to tag every sheet of paper with lettering, and then I moved to the wall; it was like an addiction. I started studying visual arts in school, and it gave me inspiration to start a new path.
ES: What does your message "Don't Sleep" says about you, and your art?
M: I don’t like promoting social messages, but my slogan “Don’t Sleep” stems from an Italian saying “chi dorme non piglia pesci”. In English translates to “the early bird gets the worm”. If you want to achieve an objective, you have to work hard on it. Nobody gives you anything for free, so wake up and do it!
ES: I read somewhere that the fish character in your stickers and wheatpastes refers to your astrological sign, Pisces. Is that true? And how long have you been drawing them?
M: Yes it is true. I've always been curious about astrological signs, and mine, Pisces, represent me a lot. I began drawing my fish three years ago during my holiday in NYC. It was love at first sight. After I finished vectorizing it, I decided to print it on sticky paper and told myself “I will paste it everywhere!”, so, the fishes invasion was born.
ES: Tell us about your experience in NYC, how does it compare to other urban cities today?
M: NYC mean much to me. It is the city where it all started, and it was a great experience. NYC has something special, and for me is one of the top city for art in general. There is high level of sticker art. I think anyone who creates and pastes stickers must be there, at least once in his life. I’m sure I will come back to soon!
ES: What are the biggest similarities and differences between NYC and Rome street art cultures?
M: It's not easy to compare two big cities, they are totally different. NYC is a city at the leading-edge of street art, even though Rome is growing, it doesn't compare from my point of view. Regarding sticker art, Rome is showing a great increase in stickers and there are more and more foreign artists who are coming to Rome to make their mark.
ES: What other countries have you traveled to, what is your favorite, and what is next on your list to explore?
M: In the last three years I invaded 25 different cities all over the world. I went to Argentina, Japan, China, Uruguay and I visited the main European capitals. My favorite city is Tokyo: it is an out of the ordinary city. You can find stickers everywhere! I have a thing for this city because I am fascinated by the Asian culture which influences many of my works. For this reason, I am planning to organize a new tour in Asia what I will announce soon!
ES: Please let us know about it! Does the fish have a name?
M: I never named it, everyone can call it as they wish. Some people call it “the big lips fish” and it’s funny. He is an invader ninja, a soldier, its aim is to be everywhere. No time to be wasted!
ES: You were so helpful to me while I was traveling in Rome, with artist's names and locations of pieces. Even when I was in Madrid, you also helpful. The anarchist personality, and illegal activity associated with what we do, would mislead an outsider to think the culture wouldn't be friendly and open to helping each other. What motivates you to stay positive? Do you ever feel like the "good deed" rewards don't come back around to you?
M:I like to support artists when I can. With the World Wide Project we showed how all together we can do something bigger and awesome. I’m not the only one who’s like this though, and for me its a good way for increase the movement in my city.
Fortunately in rare cases, do I feel like the favor is not reciprocated. but I don’t care, I may be wrong with some people, sometimes. It’s not always black and white.
ES: Do you think the public is coming around to the idea of street art culture?
There are people who like and appreciate what we do and others who associate sticker art with a illegal activity. But I think that this is part of the game! Most of the times, your sticker is peeled off not only because people don’t like it: in fact, there are people who peel it off just because they want to collect it! Anyway, what I do is mainly done for me and my main aim is to leave a mark wherever I go. What motivates me most and makes me feel positive is the fact that many people who see my stickers, contact me and appreciate my work.
ES: What kind of music do you listen to while you are working?
M: There isn’t a specific kind of music I listen to while I am working. It depends on how I feel that day. I can skip from the 60's Italian songs to trap music.
ES: Tattoos. I can't remember if you had any of your own, but have you picked up a tattoo gun yourself? (and/or) have you seen anyone get a permanent Merio Fish?
M: I like tattoos a lot but I still don’t have them on my skin. I have not still seen anyone getting a permanent Merio Fish tattoo but once I will have finished my worldwide invasion, I can think of starting invading people!!!
Thank you again Merio, for taking the time to answer some questions for our audience, and for showing me some Rome street art hospitality.
I don't have travel plans in the near future, but stay tuned for the next "On The Road" post here on Sold Magazine. The Sold Crew gets around! And on your next vacation, take a walk down the wrong street & keep your head up - you might find something new!