Travel Journal: Graffiti In Milan

If Hollywood directors were looking for someone to portray a graffiti artist — think dark, brooding and probably hooded — then Federico Chiozzi most certainly wouldn’t be cast. Clean cut and soft spoken, with an easy laugh, he chats as comfortably about his next-day plans for alpine skiing as he does the historical significance behind the graffiti movement.

Chiozzi, who started to paint in his teens, has a firm role in the facilitation of Italy’s graffiti culture: In the late ’90s, he and friends co-founded the first graffiti magazine in Italy (and two subsequent publications, all now defunct), and began working with both local and international artists — Mike Giant, Jo Ratcliffe and Dmote, among others — to both help share news and designs, and to help legitimize the culture through history and analysis.

Nowadays, Chiozzi and crew are at the helm of another entrepreneurial venture: through Spectrum, an online and brick-and-mortar store in central Milan, they have become the largest retailers in Italy of products connected with the graffiti world. Routinely, they host artists for “jams,” collaborate with musicians, and contribute to requalifying abandoned spaces. Milk Made sat down with Chiozzi, now 33, to talk about street art forms and the controversy surrounding them in one of Europe’s richest cities: Milan.

Milk Made: You’ve got one minute to explain the differences between graffiti and street art to someone. What do you say?

Federico Chiozzi: The main difference between traditional graffiti and street art is that graffiti is based primarily on letters. You write your name to get fame. Let’s say that if graffiti is done mostly for showing the other writers that you’re the best, that you have covered the city and have done the best piece in the best places at the best moments, then street art is about showing something to the biggest number of people mostly not involved in graffiti.

MM: When you look at something, it’s different from when I look at something. To you, what makes something good?

FC: If I look at typical graffiti, I want to understand what’s written. I love the shape of the letters. Street art stuff is different. I see it more as I do an illustration, and it needs to have a really strong message behind it. There’s also the recognition of the piece, and the place where it is. If the same piece is in an abandoned factory compared to a highway where one million people see it every day, that changes things a lot.

MM: Right. And certain places are obviously more complex and difficult to access. What happens if you’re caught?

FC: It depends. At the beginning it was only a fine. Now they are becoming really, really angry and trying to give graffiti writers a sort of persecution. It’s pretty bad, because the next level of criminality in court is the Mafia, so it makes no sense for Italy. If you are talking about a country that has no problems—Switzerland, ok—but in Italy, giving this kind of sentence to graffiti writers makes no sense.

MM: How would you characterize the mood toward street art forms in Milan?

FC: If you stop one person outside here and ask them if they like graffiti, 95 percent will stay yes, if it’s colored or on some areas that are permitted. People want to have the Ferrari, but can’t understand that there’s a world of cars behind it.

Excluding trains and hall of fames — legal walls and big productions — the graffiti you see on the streets is hard to understand. But this is the stuff where everything started. It wasn’t started on a legal wall. It started with tags and throw ups. In my opinion there’s a lot of excellent stuff out there, but also the worst stuff ever. If it’s a starting point for everyone — really, no one is born a Picasso — then you see the worst stuff. This is the main problem with city councils here that are really angry.

MM: What if I want to write something, or do an illustration on the side of the house that you own? Can I knock on your door and ask, and get permission?

FC: In Italy, you have to understand that we have really, really strong laws on everything. And almost no one respects them at all. It’s a problem for everything, and it’s really a mess in Italy to understand what you’re allowed to do and what you’re not allowed to do. In the suburbs, on factories and warehouses and walls, if you ask the owner’s permission and get written permission, police can arrive and stop you. You might not have any problems, but it’s not certain. The laws are always getting worse and they’re not 100 percent clear.

MM: So would making things clearly legal solve a lot of problems?

FC: I don’t think so. It doesn’t solve it at all. Graffiti was borne a certain way, and there’s a reason it’s borne like this. I don’t want to be too historical, but something similar was done in the Greek and Roman ages with graffiti. It [graffiti] will remain forever.

MM: What are your impressions of graffiti culture across Europe?

FC: The fewer problems a country has, the more they seem to focus on graffiti. [Laughs] Right now there are the first lights at the end of the tunnel. The Swedish Minister of Culture said graffiti is only vandalism and there’s no reason why it should be encouraged or accepted, and so on. One person replied to that, the Finnish Minister of Culture. He said that nobody could sentence something so hard and so fast. We’re talking about a historical movement and one that’s quite revolutionary. Solving the problem with a sentence like this is too easy and too superficial, and a cultural minister doesn’t have the know-how or skills to sentence an idea like this. I’m curious as to how people will see these street forms in 20 years.

MM: What about the U.S.?

FC: The United States is an interesting place to look because they started so many years ago and they’ve got waves of graffiti and street art. Right now there are a lot of people that are against it, but if you go to Art Basel in Miami, half of the stuff has links to the graffiti world. Maybe it’s traditional graffiti or maybe there are new forms from that, but it’s had a strong impact on art.

MM: Let’s talk favorites. Favorite piece?

FC: Personally speaking, the stuff I love to see most are trains. If you go to a train station you can see the best aspects of graffiti. It’s something that moves and goes to another city where, maybe, you won’t ever go in your life. To me, it’s some of the most beautiful.

MM: The art travels.

FC: Exactly, exactly. There are not many artistic movements that are associated so strongly with a moving object. You can organize shows in 100 galleries around the world, but you have to go to the gallery to see the show. With this, the art comes to you.

MM: So is there any place you think people shouldn’t spray?

FC: For sure. There are some unwritten “good habits.” People should not paint on historical buildings, and this is one of the main problems in Italy. In almost every city, there’s a historical center with old buildings and so on. Pretty often, younger artists don’t think a lot before. Maybe they don’t think at all about where they’re writing. The other unwritten practice is that you can’t cover other people’s pieces unless you are objectively really much better or you are doing a much bigger piece.

MM: You mentioned to me earlier that Italian artists are really just starting to become known internationally. Who’s someone to look out for?

FC: The main person, in my opinion, is Blu. He’s someone that’s putting up big messages on huge surfaces like old houses. He could be the perfect merger between a graffiti street background and a really nice message behind it with the possibility of having strong success in a gallery or something on a commercial level.

Spectrum, the graffiti and street wear shop Chiozzi co-owns, can be found at Via Felice Casati 29, Milan.

Photography by Katherine LaGrave

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