At the recent private preview of the OUTDOOR Urban Art Festival in Rome, we were approached by two men in their 60s while we stood outside of the massive gates of an abandoned house in San Lorenzo. While uninvited, they were welcomed by curator Francesco Dobrovich, and we embarked on a tour together in which the men expressed an incredible knowledge of the Roman street art scene, from where to find emerging artists to discussing the previous edition of the festival itself. This demonstration made clear that the festival is a very present institution in town.
But what is the role of Rome in this realm? “Rome does not have a leading role in the landscape of street art,” says Dobrovich, “[That role is] played by New York and Paris. It’s definitely on the rise, thanks to its great tradition of writing and the strong success of operators that are emerging internationally. Rome is undoubtedly the reference point in Italy, a role that is being built year after year, with a growing number of international happenings.“
This is the fifth edition of OUTDOOR, so the curators felt they had to make some kind of change—an update in the formula. For this reason, the exhibition is titled “Moving Forward” and the location is no longer a street or square, but paradoxically an indoor space, and a huge one. The building is a former customs house in the San Lorenzo neighborhood, completely abandoned for five years and scheduled to be partly demolished in the coming months. The 5,000 square meters of surface have thus become a sort of huge blank canvas, to be interpreted by a group of 15 invited artists from six different nations. The spacious and completely empty space doesn’t feel like a traditional exhibition, but more like a real biennale, made of national pavilions. This is a dream for every street artist—an abandoned but safe environment, somewhere to be free to create alongside other peers. It’s an area for rigor, self-expression, discipline and art.
As a result, visitors feel out of time and out of space. This could be in any world capital, and the sense of time is lost when walking around the decorated rooms and corridors. Creativity is the true and only protagonist here, without barriers. There are no boundaries between sculpture and painting, collage and spray, furniture design and architecture, music and poetry.
The Blaqk group from Greece has painted an entire room, from ceilings to floors, doors to windows, without leaving one single inch in its original form. They also added a swing and slide, portraying the idea of a playground.
The conceptual characteristics of Dot Dot Dot are recognized all over the world. In Rome, the Norwegian artist uses his signature of adopted corporate graphics and logos to recreate a square made of circles, producing the words “street art.”
The female side of the movement is also well-represented. Painting and mythology are inspiration for Faith47, a South African street and studio artist who isn’t afraid to experiment with any kind of material or medium. From Japan has come Lady Aiko, famous for her collaborations with Takashi Murakami and Banksy. The surreal and cartoon-like style of Italian artist Laurina Paperina plays with dreams and nightmares, using childish icons and monsters.
Thomas Canto and Davide Dormino both tread the thin line between drawing and sculpture. French artist Canto chose ropes and paper to give life to a sort of 3D graffiti, while Udine-born Dormino utilizes iron wires that seem to extend from the abandoned tracks of the industrial site.
The largest room is the battlefield of Brus, Ike and Hoek, who worked side by side in a colorful and complex narration, involving environmental interventions. The same abundance is found in the repeated faces of Galo, which completely cover the reinforced concrete of a long and slightly scary corridor.
The next room is a concert space, occupied by Buff Monster and his pinker-than-pink blob, which rests in limbo between creepy and cute.
The bar designed by Omar El Asry is also a noteworthy piece. Its futuristic and almost digital taste contrasts with the origin of the material, which is solely comprised of recycled wood.
During our visit, Dobrovich tells us about the relationship with the international artists. “Rome is always a fascinating destination for an artist,” he says. “Even a visit to the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi to see Caravaggio can be an unforgettable experience; something that’s hard to say no to. In addition to this, thanks to the credibility our team has built on the international scene, it’s easier to establish and maintain connections with major artists. [And] the role of the embassies together with the format of this fifth edition, unique at the international level, has made the relationship easier than in past years.”
The beauty of such a project relies on it being ephemeral, but not because the paintings are going to be covered by new ones, but because this is the best and latest expressive moment of this space, which will soon disappear. In Dobrovich’s words, “It seemed important to start from a basic element dear to every artist of street art: ephemeral art expression. The expression every artist is trying to show on the street, aware that the work could be visible just for a while, even if only for a night.”
Images courtesy of Paolo Ferrarini and OUTDOOR