Venice Vernacular Signage

This Way to San Marco: Urban Reading and Vernacular Signage in Venice

“The city is a discourse, and this discourse is actually a language: the city speaks to its inhabitants, we speak our city, the city where we are, simply by inhabiting it, by traversing it, by looking at it.”
Roland Barthes, The Semiotic Challenge

Reading from Above: The City as Text
Urban environments lend themselves to several types of readings, which they can enable or obstruct. One can view a city from an airplane and reach an understanding of its topography and layout. Equally, urban landscapes can be explored through images captured by remotely controlled aircrafts, whose civilian usage is increasingly popular yet problematically unregulated. Tall points in the built environment offer bird’s eye vistas of cities, providing a welcome sense of orientation and scale but obstructing the myriad complexities which characterize the city at street level.
The campanili are arguably the best viewing platforms in Venice, their height only surmounted by the regular, yet dismal passing of the grandi navi through the Venetian Canal Grande, with their feeble flashes of passenger cameras. The view from the campanile of San Giorgio Maggiore enabled one of the most highly affective moments of my Venetian experience, when I realized how tiny a territory could generate such enchantment, mystery and eagerness. The permanent anxiety of so-much-to-be-seen-and-experienced could now be quantified spatially, it starts there and ends there, with a deceptive sense of clarity. The reading from above attempts to trick one into believing they are familiar with the city’s vocabulary and references, and can gain an understanding of the urban text. This alluring illusion keeps inviting visitors high up on the peaks of the city, only to reveal a totalizing perspective of an environment that was rendered fully beyond reach.

Image1. Cruise ship passing the Grand Canal during an organised protest

Image2. The SW side of the main island from the campanile at San Giorgio Maggiore, with the nave and dome of Palladio’s church visible in the bottom left corner
A different bird’s eye experience was enabled by the roof terrace at the Molino Stucky Hilton on the island of Giudecca, Venice to the left, and the ordinary roofs of the Giudecca residences stretching long in front of you. Giudecca, with its struggling urban fabric and lack of glamorous architectural or hospitality attractions, presents itself as little more than a series of clay roofs, burning bright under late summer sunsets for the amusement of Hilton tourists. Little do they know about Giudecca’s degrading housing stock and slowly revitalizing industrial estates, its strong community of local artists and activists and their fights for activating what they perceive to be a perished city. This reading enables no understanding of the struggles and wonders of life in Giudecca, but it can provide a context, a basis for our mental map which planner Kevin Lynch famously called “the image of the city” (Lynch 1964).

Image3. Giudecca rooftops stretching far in the evening sun, view from the rooftop of Stucky Palace

Image4. Private gardens and politics occupy public space when approaching Giudecca from street level
Lynch argued that appearance was crucial for the way we understand and navigate cities, and proposed that orderly and legible urban environments are essential to a pleasurable experience of the city. The easier it is to read a space and decode its configuration (ie speak its language), the more beautiful its urban environments and the more pleasurable the experience of being there – so Lynch’s argument went. At the same time, the more illegible an urban space, the more anxiety it is likely to cause, as it fails to show a planned and orderly foundation and seems to be the result of incontrollable, anonymous actions. A view from above permits the legible features of the urban environment to stand out, and therefore enables the measurement of the “legibility” or “imageability” of that environment. Standing at its top, Venice appears as little more than a finite collection of architectural gems, domes, spires and towers neatly surrounded by the waters of the lagoon. Approach it on foot though, and Venice will pose an entirely different set of challenges to its legibility and imageability.
Reading from Below: Text in the City
Venice is a city of mazes and wanders, of failing maps and disorientation. It presents itself through a richness of communicative displays, of shop signs and street names, monument identifiers and institution plaques, posters advertising art exhibitions and banners protesting tourism and cruise ships. Restaurants often display their offers on multilingual designed A-boards, house numbers map the territories of the six Venetian sestieri and the densely-clustered aerosol tagging seems more vulnerable to the elements than to any wall cleaning initiative. Traffic signs are rare and delightful to come by and the occasional memorial advertisement for recently passed parish members are sobering breaks from the visual spectacle of the surface communications of the city. Reading Venice from below entails a navigation of all these signs and markings, temporary or durable, sanctioned or not, with meanings legible for locals, tourists or neither. The city sometimes displays codes or messages that are only meant to be deciphered by construction or urban infrastructure professionals, excluding even locals from some of its inner workings.

Image5. Street numbers and an ad-hoc public notice board covered in torn, weathered posters

Image6. Sign regulating behavior in Piazza San Marco by listing forbidden activities

Image7. Faded aerosol marks and fresh exhibition posters

Image8. Dead end road sign to prevent people from walking further into an enclosed courtyard

Image9. Building codes which are visible to all passers-by, but legible to very few
This range of signs can be described through what semiotician Martin Krampen calls the “verbal crust” of the city, a layer of communication pertaining to the view from below and from within (Krampen 1979). The verbal crust, or the text of the city, is different from the city as text, which could be read or comprehended from above. Significantly, it also displays visual and material properties, as the verbal crust of the city always appears to us in specific forms and places. Linguist Rodrigue Landry and social psychologist Richard Bourhis took up this concept as a foundation for their semiotic theory of texts in urban spaces, which they called the linguistic landscape (Landry Bourhis 1997). Linguistic landscapes are the sum of textual inscriptions present in an urban area, which span a variety of media and languages, therefore offering an insight into urban sociology, geography and culture.
“The language of public road signs, advertising billboards, street names, place names, commercial shop signs, and public signs on government buildings combines to form the linguistic landscape of a given territory, region or urban agglomeration.” (Landry and Bourhis 1997: 25)
Reading a city from below therefore implies immersion within its unique patterns of semiotic communication, which form distinctive textual and visual environments and hold clues about urban politics and sociologies. Material surface interventions feed back into the larger cultural powers that characterize urban spaces, and are also a reliable means of access to these powers. Our right to contribute to the dominant reading of urban environments can be interpreted and measured through surface interventions. Making one’s presence apparent in the intricate dynamics of urban surfaces always depends on cultural determinants, but it also has the power of becoming a cultural determinant itself.

image10Image10. Layers of graffiti create a barely legible linguistic landscape whose presence has an intensely visual quality

Image11. Painted street sign reveals its older version underneath the cracking paint and adds depth to the verbal crust of the city
→ San Marco ←: The Sign Is the City
As I was photographing the linguistic landscapes and surface markings of Venice, I became increasingly aware of an entire semiotic class of hand-made directional signage, most of which is made to orientate Venetian wanderers towards the city’s main landmarks: Piazza San Marco, Ponte di Rialto, the Arsenale or the train and bus stations at Ferrovia and Piazzale Roma. While sometimes helpful for wayfinding across Venice, these signs do more than second the official yellow directional plaques: they reveal the locals’ preference for not being approached only to be asked for directions, they disseminate local geographical knowledge and they embellish the surfaces of Venice with an array of unique visual and material forms. Most of these signs are handmade, printed on paper and affixed to walls, sprayed through stencils or written directly on Venetian stones: they are as many traces of interactions with the city, and of locals taking ownership of their urban environments and shaping them for personal and collective benefit.

image12Image12. ‘Walk ‘til the end’, chalk message raising interest and curiosity

image13Image13. ‘Sinagoghe – Mostra d’arte ebraica’, bilingual directional sign in the Jewish Gheto neighbourhood

image14Image14. Directions to Rialto in blue stencil on wall, white metal plaque and pink sharpie on paper

image15Image15. ‘WC’ sticker pointing direction to nearest public toilet

image16Image16. Multiple directions sign on blue paper with added map for reference
The benefit of these signs for their producers is different from that of advertising, as it does not promote or locate a commercial venue; it is different from that of street signs, as it is less guaranteed to offer reliable information and is not a sanctioned visual representation of local administration; and is different from independent markings such as graffiti writing, as its visual form is meant to be readable and points towards a common recognisable landmark, rather than an individual creative expression. Although they borrow graphic elements from each of these other categories, the hand-made directional signs constitute a distinct mode of communication in Venice. They are a form of text in the city whose production and reading do more than support urban navigation: they foster urban participation, they create a regime of written communication between locals and visitors, and they provide material evidence for a living, continuing interest in the city. People engage in the production of these signs independently, yet they form a collective feature of Venetian surfaces, and they contribute to defining its culture.
sm1Sm1. San Marco (1). Three possible directions, aerosol on render

sm2Sm2. San Marco (2). Left is only option, black sharpie on stone

sm3Sm3. San Marco (3). To the right, legible and neat printed ink on paper, taped to wall

sm4Sm4. San Marco (4). To the left, faded red ink (above) and black stencil (below) on brick

sm5Sm5. San Marco (5). Forward/ to the right, S. Marco, erased black aerosol on brick

sm6Sm6. San Marco (6). To the right, S. Marc/ San Marco, freehand and stencilled black aerosol on render

sm7Sm7. San Marco (7). Straight ahead, white metal plaque installed symmetrically with one for Rialto direction

sm8Sm8. San Marco (8). To the left, part of multiple signage, black sharpie on paper, taped to wall

sm9Sm9. San Marco (9). To the right and up, Per S-Marco, white plastic plaque on brick

sm10Sm10. San Marco (10). To the right and straight, Per S. Marco, metallic yellow plaque on render

sm11Sm11. San Marco (11). To the right, SA. MARCO, black aerosol on render

sm12Sm12. San Marco (12). To the left, Piazza San Marco Square, black sharpie on cardboard affixed to brick wall

sm13Sm13. San Marco (13). Both ways/ Either way, metallic yellow plaque on render

sm14Sm14. San Marco (14). Both ways (right erased), Rialto S. Marco, black sharpie on render

sm15Sm15. San Marco (15). To the left, Per Rialto e S. Marco, metallic white plaque on brick

sm16Sm16. San Marco (16). To the right, graphite on paper affixed to artist vending stand

sm17Sm17. San Marco (17). To the right, St. Marco, yellow aerosol on graffiti-covered render
Reading cities can be both a process of production and contemplation, of zooming in and out to focus on particular places, stories or images. Starting with impressions from two bird’s eye Venetian vistas, from the campanile of San Giorgio Maggiore and the rooftop terrace of the Stucky Molino Hilton, this essay then presented ground level photographic observations of surface signage and communication, together with an image collection of Venice’s unique vernacular directional signs. The orderly narrative of Venice seen from above became significantly entangled when read from below, navigating its rami and fondamente and deciphering its layered linguistic landscape. Urban readings were traced from engaging with the city as text to engaging with text in the city, both of which were illustrated in annotated photographs that capture these different modes of seeing and reading.
Urban surface signs are not just mediators for the identity of a city, but they form an intrinsic part of that identity, both materially and culturally. Independently produced, vernacular signs are all the more interesting because they reflect people’s direct engagement with the city through very specific and unique means of expression. Discovering and documenting Venetian street signs has been central to my reading and understanding of the city, and it has offered numerous moments of unexpected diversity and joy in my daily urban wanders. Moreover, it has directly informed my image of Venice, which I now picture through its surface signage as much as I do through its geographies, smells and atmospheres. The verbal crust of the city is also visual, material and territorial. The signs of Venice are the city.

Image17. Signage to regulate communication: You are not the only one. Nø free infø, No Tourist Bureau, No Info Point. Respect.
Roland Barthes, The Semiotic Challenge, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988: 195
Martin Krampen, ‘Meaning in the Urban Environment’, Research in Planning and Design (5), London: Pion, 1979
Rodrigue Landry and Richard Bourhis, ‘Linguistic Landscape and Ethnolinguistic Vitality: An Empirical Study’, Journal of Language and Social Psychology (16), no. 1, 1997
Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City, Cambridge, Mass; London: MIT Press, 1960


Venice Gave Me a Superpower: My 2015 Biennale Experience

I came back from the Venice Biennale preview a few days ago and I’ve been feeling different ever since. All the art I’ve seen has been giving me extremely vivid dreams and I feel like I’ve gained a superpower, which is to store lots and lots of beauty and let it be quietly within me. I feel happy and privileged and have majorly boosted my belief that art possesses an unequaled power of transformation and revelation. IMG_20150508_131826076 This is not a Biennale review, but a collection of impressions and thoughts that I believe have made me a richer person. It also comes from someone who has never been to the Biennale before, so might contain details which veterans will find superfluous. But if you plan to go and want some starting points, here is my version of this wonderful, wonderful event. IMG_20150507_140700752_HDR It makes a very big difference to be there for the preview. This is already useless information for 2015 but should be considered for future editions: there is a strong general feeling that all else pales in comparison to the atmosphere in Venice during the Biennale preview.

Take each and every piece of art that is in Venice during the Biennale and move the whole thing to anywhere else in the world, and it won’t have half the impact it has right where it is. The magic of the palazzos, the unchanged urban infrastructure, the rhythms of the city and the constant joy of encountering yet another unexpected gem could not be equaled in any other location. Nor could all the Spritzes, lunches and dinners that make all the walking and art viewing possible.

What brilliance to see so few white cube spaces and realise how much this impacts on how one perceives contemporary artworks – not only because of site responsive works, some of impressive scales, but also because of the visual and spatial relations that get created between the opulent palazzos and the art that is of the present. This can blow one’s mind in many different ways.

The Giardini and Arsenale have so much work, that the only way you can realistically see and experience everything is to allow for two days each (I did it in one day each). This probably still wouldn’t allow you to see most of the video work, but I would dare anyone to actually sit down and watch all the moving image that is available throughout the exhibitions! Conclusion: video art = bad idea in a show of such breadth, with very very few exceptions (one of which detailed below). Do not make the mistake of thinking that Giardini and Arsenale are the main Biennale venues, they are merely the biggest, most densely-packed ones. All the exhibitions scattered throughout the city are equally important to see and for most people who will have a limited amount of time to spend in Venice, choosing these is a bit of a lottery – albeit a potentially well-informed one.

I feel reluctant to write about my favourites and I strongly feel that this story would have been completely different had I written it two days ago, or if I write it again next week. In a way the equation is simple, the best = the most memorable for each of us, but it is hard not to let political or national affinities guide one’s preferences, apart from the obvious personal taste in art. The Biennale is very good for educating and clarifying taste, as you readjust your attention spans according to the most unexpected criteria, learn how to look and expand your standards, and accumulate sights, textures, ideas, information, impressions. Everyone should have the experience of being exposed to art in this wonderful way.

Reluctance aside, perhaps my stronger affinities were with the two national pavilions that showed liquid-based installations, Switzerland and Tuvalu. I found these tranquil and well-paced, immersive enough to entice the senses as well as the mind, and I have very clear memories of the smell and feel of the environments. I must have spent at least 30mins in the Tuvalu pavilion, in two separate sessions, and I wish I had gone back to the Swiss one for a revisit.

I am very proud of the Romanian pavilion for showing Adrian Ghenie’s painting and nothing else. After seeing so many national pavilions and collateral exhibitions fail because of too loose curatorial concepts (many overkills, excessive accumulations, failed juxtapositions of too many artists etc), Romania’s was one to stand out through clarity of concept and outstanding painting works. As much of a Ghenie fan as I was, this exhibition has not only made me an even bigger fan, but also a proud Romanian. And what courage to just show painting in a world of installations, videos and other objects – I believe there is consensus about the sharpness of this choice.

Other wins: the Japanese key installation, the Korean videos, some of Italy’s (excessive) representation, the massive Chinese outdoor dragon sculptures, the blue sand in the Kosovo room, the British representation with Sarah Lucas, the different Russian environments and the uncanny sculpture, as well as the architectural and sound installations at the Nordic Pavilion. Oh and I also liked the Joana Vasconcelos installation in the watchmaker-sponsored Biennale pavilion.

Fails: all overloaded pavilions that lacked a tight curatorial concept (sadly too many to name), Austria (where it took me a while to understand whether there was anything there or not, and what exactly that was), Germany (needlessly convoluted use of space) and Australia (felt like a visit to the natural history museum).

Off-site favourites: installation by Liu Ruo Wang as part of the San Marino – China Friendship Project, with a pack of sculpted wolves that can give you nightmares; gorgeous minimalist, patterned Korean painting Dansaekhwa that felt like a breath of fresh air; clean and tight Danh Vo-curated Slip of the Tongue at Palazzo Grassi, despite not being enthused by most work in the show; and a decent amount of work in the Personal Structures exhibitions, especially the ones at Palazzo Bembo. Regarding exhibitions not on this list, readers should assume I haven’t seen them and not judge the list by its exclusions.

There was an official collateral event called The Bridges of Graffiti, whose highlight by far was the fabulous life size video installation of a running painted train. There were also other well composed works but overall the show seemed too thin, like there was not enough work put into it, or the work hadn’t been properly finished. A nice surprise during our visit was running into Futura and taking a photo with him.

A special nod goes to Aussie crew of Black Art Projects and artist Reko Rennie’s Regalia piece in the courtyard of Palazzo Mora – our conversations, shared visits, spritzes and meals have made the whole experience even more rewarding.

I will close with my absolute favourite thing at the Biennale, which is the video piece I was referring to earlier on, 001 Inverso Mundus by Russian collective AES+F. This is one of the best things I have seen in my life. An epic, mind-blowing video installation of gigantic scale and sublime grace, whose conceptual scope and exquisite execution almost had me in tears and gave me an overall personal upgrade. You can read about it here, or buy a ticket and go to Venice until late November to see it and gain your own superpower, there is nothing quite like being there.


AES+F/ image from website

Studio189 Spring Ball

I have recently set up a new creative venture with my friend Fay Trier, running creative soirées from her stunning flat in central London. The project is called Studio189 and it was conceived as an alternative to conventional artistic experiences by offering a more intimate setting and make sure we get people connected. Private soirées in residential settings are increasingly popular in London at the moment, but we want to make a difference through quality of space, artistic programme and guests.

Studio189 SB invitation

Our next event will be a Spring Ball happening on April 25th, details below. Tickets are selling fast so get one now if you want to join.

The Spring Ball is a creative soirée hosted by Studio189 in an exclusive Central London location. For one evening only, the Studio will be open to a limited number of guests to celebrate art, music, words and the arrival of spring.

Join us for:

An exclusive erotic art viewing featuring painting, photography and collage by Femke van Geffen (NE/UK), Héloïse Delègue (FR), Julia Bellamy (GE/UK), Santiago Torres (CO/FR) and Sonia P. Sanchez Lopez (CO/UK)

Live music in our beautiful city garden with mezzo-soprano Adriana Festeu and guitarist Raj Curry

A deliciously naughty spoken word performance read by Alex Woodhall and written by Michael Clarke.

Tickets include complimentary drinks and canapés, an exhibition catalogue, 10% discount on any of the artworks on display and a Spring Ball goodie bag.

Open bar. Dress code: elegant, spring, erotic. Art prices range £50 – £2800, ticket price gets ten percent discount. Address to be revealed upon confirmation.

About the organisers:

Studio189 is a provider of high-end soirées of art, music and spoken word in a unique London studio.

I Know What I Like is an arts facilitation organisation providing social, curatorial and educational art programmes from various locations in London and beyond.

Tickets here:

Graffiti Sessions

Mr. Sable painting outside the Bartlett at 140 Hampstead Road by Sonia P Sanchez Lopez

Mr. Sable painting outside the Bartlett at 140 Hampstead Road by Sonia P Sanchez Lopez

UPDATE: Guardian Cities released a new article on 7 January 2015 following from the Graffiti Sessions conference: Is urban graffiti a force for good or evil? Read the piece by Athlyn Cathcart-Keays here.

I feel exhausted, grateful and anxious about the great responsibilities we were left with after the Graffiti Sessions event, both as a team project and in terms of my own research. This post is to share some of the main points that were made during the conference, both by invited speakers and by audience members. This is by no means an exhaustive list of arguments and ideas, and I cannot emphasize enough how this project was a collaborative effort from speakers, audience and organisers alike.

Tom Oswald by Luana Kaderabek

Tom Oswald by Luana Kaderabek

Tom Oswald, graffiti writer and director of Underbelly, a film about graffiti on the London Underground: Graffiti can teach its practitioners skills like companionship, goal orientation, fast response, dedication, self belief, team work and commitment. Imposing custodial sentences on graffiti writers (prison time) rather than community punishment only stunts their development, instead of encouraging them to apply these skills to mentor and inform children.

Cameron McAuliffe and Robyn Buseman by Alice Hellmann

Cameron McAuliffe and Robyn Buseman by Alice Hellmann

It was widely agreed that restorative and community-based justice are preferable to prison sentences in dealing with graffiti, and incarceration for graffiti writers should be abolished. Robyn Buseman, who leads the restorative justice section of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Programme, illustrated the results of this approach with a number of examples based on bringing together arts, communities and the criminal justice system. She introduced a wide array of outputs produced by Mural Arts, whose 220 employees have been working on producing social change through art for over 30 years.

Alison Young and Ben Campkin by Luana Kaderabek

Alison Young and Ben Campkin by Luana Kaderabek

Alison Young, visual criminologist, author of Street Art, Public City, which I reviewed here, launched the following provocations: tags are no different from corporate logos; damage is a euphemism for challenges to property ownership; illegality has its own hierarchy; street art is the beneficiary of discriminatory criminal justice practices; locating uncommissioned words and images is complex; valuing street art over graffiti is dangerous. She also called for more autonomy, and less undermining of people who respond to cities by wanting to make something else of them.

Ben Eine by Luana Kaderabek

Ben Eine by Luana Kaderabek

“No one cares!” seemed to be the message Ben Eine was emphatically transmitting from the large screen in his recorded presentation. The artist was making a point about how graffiti and street art are now integrated in our cities to such extent, that they have lost their shock value and their capacity of interruption, leading to a point where nobody cares about them like they used to thirty, twenty, or even ten years ago. Ben Eine was given plenty of time to make explicit his conflict with Colin Saysell (see below), recount his train writing days and give a detailed version of the events surrounding the painting that David Cameron gifted to Barack Obama. Indeed, one of these details was picked up by Guardian’s Matthew Weaver in this piece he wrote, much to the disappointment of our team and his readers.

Adam Cooper, Senior Officer for Creative Industries, Greater London Authority: Culture happens by itself but sometimes needs to be encouraged, recognised or protected.

Charles Mynors by Sonia P. Sanchez Lopez

Charles Mynors by Sonia P. Sanchez Lopez

Charles Mynors, barrister, author of what he now refers to as the outdated ‘The Control of Outdoor Advertising and Graffiti’: There are slippages in the law when it comes to definitions of “sign” and “advertising”, so one could arguably build a defense strategy based on these slippages (this is something I have been researching myself and will publish here in due course). Perhaps most importantly, local authorities have powers, not duties when it comes to graffiti removal, and are dependent on frequently low budgets.

Rafael Schacter, Glynn Judd, Tom Fuller and Tom Oswald by Luana Kaderabek

Rafael Schacter, Glynn Judd, Tom Fuller and Tom Oswald by Luana Kaderabek

Tom Fuller, Service Delivery Manager at London Overground Rail Operations: It costs London Overground Rail Operations £150 per sqm to remove graffiti from their trains. They lease the trains they operate and are bound by contract to keep them graffiti-free at all times, any delays incurring in fines and extra charges.

There is an opaque system of contracts governing privatised public transport operations, that not only maximises graffiti-related costs, but also masks the decision-making process that led to the current protocols. Where is the evidence to support the assumption that users of public transport feel threatened by graffiti, and who can be held accountable for operating on this assumption?

Glynn Judd aka NOIR, graffiti writer who was incarcerated for his practice: Legislation puts property before people.

Colin Saysell by Sonia P. Sanchez Lopez

Colin Saysell by Sonia P. Sanchez Lopez

Graffiti writers are viewed by the police as career criminals and graffiti is considered a gateway crime to theft, robbery, assault and drug use; it may lead to mental illness and even death. Detective Colin Saysell is known as the only registered graffiti law enforcement expert in the UK, and his presentation reinforced a number of unevidenced claims about graffiti, illustrating law enforcement’s standpoint in relation to this practice: trust and guidance from the broken windows theory, a belief that graffiti writers are violent offenders (Saysell’s illustrative image was of a man in a hoodie and a baseball bat in his hand), and a manner of conducting investigations which leads to conspiracy charges and vastly disproportionate sentences. UPDATE: Another story picked up by the Guardian from the conference was based on Colin Saysell and his work – see here.

Cameron McAuliffe and audience by Luana Kaderabek

Cameron McAuliffe and audience by Luana Kaderabek

Cameron McAuliffe, human geographer based in Sydney, introduced a number of different regimes of value through which to understand street art and graffiti: aesthetic, economic, subcultural, gender, socio-spatial, regulatory, commodification, temporal, advertising, planning. The relation of street art and graffiti to each of these could constitute a research field in itself, and McAuliffe’s own input was at policy level. His proposals for local council included the formation of a graffiti and street art register (not an approval mechanism, optional and anonymous) and an advisory panel in order to improve graffiti management at local level.

Dotmaster did a video presentation on the NUArt Festival in Stavanger, highlighting the logistical and administrative effort in making a street art festival grow and be proudly accepted by its host city. Lois Acton told the stories of collaborative mural projects she organised together with children and elders.

Patrick Turner, Lois Acton, Jay Edlin and Henry Shaftoe by Luana Kaderabek

Patrick Turner, Lois Acton, Jay Edlin and Henry Shaftoe by Luana Kaderabek

Jay J-SON Edlin brought us first-hand accounts of the 1970s New York graffiti scene, which he says remains largely undocumented. He came as Martha Cooper’s ambassador at the conference and presented some of her photographic work, but he also held a masterclass in 70s wild style graffiti, with a large number of illustrations and anecdotes from the period.

My copy of Lee Bofkin's Concere Canvas, signed by Jay Edlin as Terror 161

My copy of Lee Bofkin’s Concrete Canvas, signed by Jay Edlin as Terror 161

Chris Chalkley heated up all conference spirits by presenting the work he did in Bristol with the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft – an energetic grassroots organisation which continues to change the face of Stokes Croft. This project felt very much like a hands-on, action-driven and not petition-driven series of interventions, turning the area from dilapidation into a culture makers’ hub.

Chris Chalkley by Sonia P Sanchez Lopez

Chris Chalkley by Sonia P Sanchez Lopez

Ingrid Beazley introduced her Dulwich Outdoor Gallery project which has been growing for a number of years, reflecting on the process and consequences of bringing street art in a middle class suburb like Dulwich. She asked a number of artists to paint their own interpretations of baroque paintings from the Dulwich Picture Gallery in the streets, pioneering an atypical mural project in an unlikely area. Ingrid discussed issues such as ownership, access to art and different community responses, and offered her own assessment methodologies for the impact of the Outdoor Gallery.

Ingrid Beazley by Sonia P. Sanchez Lopez

Ingrid Beazley by Sonia P. Sanchez Lopez

Lee Bofkin, who was also involved in putting this event together, presented the different strands of activity produced by Global Street Art, from the prolific Walls Project to their commercial appointments. He made a case for what he called a more painted city and highlighted the role of organisations such as GSA in exposing an increasing number of people to higher quality art by taking on the administrative burden and allowing for artists to paint legally in publicly visible spaces.

Lee Bofkin by Luana Kaderabek

Lee Bofkin by Luana Kaderabek

Devon Ostrom presented his work on public arts campaigns in Toronto, where he set up a billboard tax to fund the arts, generating over $22m so far. Pedro Soares Neves spoke about setting up Urban Creativity as an academic platform for the discussion of urban creative practices. Xavi Ballasz presented his work on street art and graffiti in Barcelona after the city clamped down on these practices. Lucinda Ross talked about Jean Michel Basquiat and the politics of race between the graffiti and fine art worlds.

Rome-based artist Alice Pasquini told stories of interaction through art and offered her first-hand experiences of working as a street artist in different parts of the world. She emphasized public artistic production as an opportunity for conversation and exchange, not only as responses on walls but also as engagements with passers-by.

Alice Pasquini by Sonia P. Sanchez Lopez

Alice Pasquini by Sonia P. Sanchez Lopez

Is graffiti something that occurs only when it is executed in the street? Is graffiti in the age of digital reproduction still graffiti? And is graffiti turning into its own image over and over again? Radical sociologist Jeff Ferrell built a wonderful argument for maintaining the ambiguous nature of graffiti and street art, focusing on their function in contemporary urban environments. He highlighted the context of neoliberal urban development based on privatisation, surveillance and risk management strategies, which leads to consumer-driven societies where urban life is sold back to the inhabitants of the city as urban experience (living in the city). Graffiti and street art are therefore considered legal or illegal according to the way they serve this type of urban development: some serve it, and help drive prices up, contributing to gentrification and exclusion (and are therefore legal), while others are produced outside this system and in opposition to it – and are therefore maintained illegal. The ambiguity of status is what gives graffiti its power, argued Ferrell, who proposed that confusion about graffiti reflects on changes in urban life. “Graffiti is the ghost that haunts the machinery of the neoliberal capitalist system”. As such, it occupies interstitial spaces, and lives a spectral life in a territory of in-between-ness.

Jeff Ferrell by Luana Kaderabek

Jeff Ferrell by Luana Kaderabek

Political theorist Chantal Mouffe defined agonism as a democratic confrontation that takes place among adversaries and not enemies, where difference is accepted and there is no possibility of reconciliation. Agonism generates a multiplicity of concomitant spaces and subjectivities, whose objective is never the creation of consensus, but co-existence in a permanent, productive state of tension. Agonism therefore felt like a useful tool to discuss individually driven and produced urban inscriptions that fall outside a system of permission, commission, collaboration or community consensus.

At the same time, we heard from a number of people about projects born out of local collaborative initiatives, which then grew in scale to the point where they became power systems in themselves. These projects have the capacity of imposing visual regimes on the urban environment, and they often seem not to include any room for contestation (tags get cleaned, works are deemed inappropriate and get removed, and what is perceived as low quality art has a shorter life span than the more apparently aesthetically pleasing pieces). These are indeed considered success stories which contribute to neighbourhood regeneration, but it was felt that there was a danger in the uncritical acceptance of these methods of work, as we might end up reinforcing discourses of exclusion.

Chantal Mouffe by Luana Kaderabek

Chantal Mouffe by Luana Kaderabek

The central dichotomy of the conference was this in my opinion:

we either agree to agree when it comes to the production of publicly visible inscriptions: work on projects within the system, adapt to power institutions and attempt to transform them from within. We produce collaborative work based on permits, authorisations, commissions and a certain consensus towards positive impact;

or we agree to disagree and work independently outside institutions, by excluding them through critical creative practice. The work does not require permission or consensus and does not claim to contribute to what is perceived as a bigger common goal.

There is no right answer to this question, only a multitude of welcome arguments. As Jeff Ferrell would say, the power of this issue lies in its ambiguity, not in trying to solve it.

Jeff Ferrell and the spectre of graffiti by Sonia P Sanchez Lopez

Jeff Ferrell and the spectre of graffiti by Sonia P Sanchez Lopez

Thank yous with reasons:

The team at Central Saint Martins’ Design Against Crime Research Centre, led by the force that is Lorraine Gamman who relentlessly pushes all of us to more challenging places; the eloquent Adam Thorpe and his powerful on-the-spot syntheses of conference discussions; and my number one partner in putting this together, tireless Marcus Willcocks; Dani Davies and Chloe Griffith, who probably put in most hours into making this happen, Milena Kotseva and Emma Jonsson who made the three days run smoothly; Joao Infante and Vlad Borlea who did the filming; and our photographers Luana Kaderabek, Sonia P. Sanchez Lopez and Alice Hellmann. Also thanks to the Socially Responsive Design and Innovation Hub which offered generous financial support for the conference, and to the Graffiti Dialogues Network, both based at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London.

My PhD supervisors Iain Borden and Ben Campkin for supporting this idea from the beginning (two years ago) and helping with the organisation. I was very glad to have them both there for the entire three days, although I am aware that all the notes they made will forever change the nature of our doctoral meetings! Shane Johnson from Security and Crime Science at UCL who helped us with getting our first bit of funding and has been supportive ever since; James Paskins and the UCL Grand Challenge for Sustainable Cities, who not only funded our project, but also featured it as part of their research project highlights for 2014; Jordan Rowe at the UCL Urban Laboratory for sorting out complex logistical issues; Rafael Schacter for his critical spirit, excellent chairing and for bringing 50% discount flyers for his new book; Elizabeth Lee from UCL Estates for her generous interest and support of our idea to paint on UCL hoardings as part of the conference; Fiona Davidson from UCL Communications who facilitated the hoardings painting as part of the Transforming UCL project; and Alan Penn, Dean of the Bartlett, for offering a generous amount of money to this project and for the best tweets of the three days:

Linzi Whitton and her big team at the Southbank Centre who supported our idea and produced it flawlessly on the day; my friend Lee Bofkin who was the first driving force behind this whole thing and who aptly negotiated a number of interests, conditions and constraints for organising the painting of the 140 Hampstead Road hoardings; an artist that is very dear to me, Clement Lalande aka Mr. Sable, who had a number of creative inputs for the Graffiti Sessions: he designed the image for the official conference poster, which we sold in a limited edition print run of 100 (a few still available via the conference website); he painted two sides of the 140HR hoardings, part of the Transforming UCL project; and he ran a painting workshop with conference participants on boards in the Bartlett yard. He is also an artist I represent through I Know What I Like, and whose work I wrote a bit about in the past. Thank you to Sterling, Sky High and Meka, who bore through twelve hours of terrible cold to paint their own massive piece on the side of 140HR. May this be just the beginning!

Best ever!!! audience, with interested, interesting people who came from from countries like Germany, Italy, Brazil and Belgium especially to attend the Graffiti Sessions, and who made well informed, relevant and meaningful contributions throughout the duration of the conference. My biggest thank you goes to all the people who participated over the three days, causing passionate reactions, unrest and contestation and assuring that we had a tense and productive unravelling of events.

Presenters’ slides available here:;

Full photo gallery available here:;

And video recordings of presentations to be available soon via the conference website:

Competing Urbanisms Workshop in Melbourne

The graffiti research scene in Australia in general and Melbourne in particular has attracted my attention for a number of years, through the published work of Alison Young (and her co-authored papers with Mark Halsey), Kurt Iveson, Lachlan MacDowall, Kim Dovey (especially through his collaborative research on graffiti with Simon Wollan and Ian Woodcock – available here and here) and Cameron McAuliffe. They form part of a mature graffiti research culture that feels very well embedded into the local policy-making context, and have been working with graffiti writers, street artists and local authorities for years in order to develop more progressive understandings and management strategies for street art and graffiti.

Photoshoot in Hosier Lane

Photoshoot in Hosier Lane

It was an honour to be invited to take part in the Competing Urbanisms workshop organised by Alison Young, Lachlan MacDowall and David Mence at the University of Melbourne in early November 2014. The day was about the publicness of cities as much as it was about the practice, management and conflicts between street art and graffiti, with presentations from a number of artists, authors and public sector representatives. In a way, it was a good kickstarter for discussions we were planning to have at the Graffiti Sessions conference, with the obvious differences between a one-day, intimate and less formal gathering, and a major three-day international event. However, I would like to emphasize the success of inter-institutional dialogue in the Melbourne research culture, and note how much we could learn from their way of doing things here in London. Not only were a third of the people there representing different local authorities, but they were also very well embedded in conversations about the cultural values of street art and graffiti and the provision of spaces for their practice and contestation. Simply getting some authorities to sit at the table felt like an achievement for our London-based event, so I can only be very grateful to have Alison and Cameron here in December to perhaps share more of their way of doing things.

Car Park by FAD Gallery in Chinatown

Car Park by FAD Gallery in Chinatown

The paper I presented was called “Show and Tell: The Role of Walking Tours in Configuring London’s Street Art Scene” and was the result of some research I did last year on London’s street art tours industry. This was the first time I presented this material and it was well received; and I will publish it on this website once I get to refine it further.

Car in Fitzroy

Car in Fitzroy

Will end by mentioning a few other people I met, and whose work I would recommend to anyone interested in urban walls, street art and graffiti, or informal urban practices and their role in cities, galleries and urban branding. The keynote of the workshop was given by Andrea Mubi Brighenti, whose work on visibility and territories is essential to my own research; Paul Gough’s whose book Banksy: The Bristol Legacy, is now available to purchase; and CDH, who guided me through the city and whose street actions and conceptual street work is full of meaningful provocations about the place and quality of Melbourne’s inscriptions. Thank you Melbourne for an excellent experience.

View from a car park in Fitzroy, overlooking the Central Business District

View from a car park in Fitzroy, overlooking the Central Business District

100 Days of Leake Street at Cities Methodologies

100 Days of Leake Street has been selected to take part in the annual Cities Methodologies exhibition between 28 and 31 October 2014. The project was presented in the form of three life size looping projected videos, accompanied by three panoramic photographs of Leake Street Tunnel.

Cities Methodologies is organised by the Urban Laboratory at University College London and aims to bring together a number of international exhibitors each year, all focused on innovative methods of researching cities and the urban environment.

Research outputs showcased at Cities Methodologies in previous years include films, participatory photographic projects, sculpture, maps, sound installations, board and card games, posters and other images and objects that offer a new approach to urban-related questions.

I Know What I Like Group Show Opening Night

The first I Know What I Like group show opened on Thursday 2 October 2014 with a large crowd of beautiful people at the Curious Duke Gallery in London EC1. We showed the work of fifteen contemporary international artists working with 2D media like painting, collage or photography.

This was the first in a series of arts facilitation activities that I Know What I Like has planned to make a difference and improve the way people encounter, understand and appreciate art.

You can subscribe to I Know What I Like updates here:

Story of I Know What I Like to reach 140,000 arts professionals world wide

I have recently been interviewed as Director of I Know What I Like by Art Media Agency about the organisation, its history and goals, and also about the inaugural I Know What I Like group show.

Art Media Agency is an international news agency focused on the art market, which produces articles on all aspects of the art world, including galleries, cultural policy, museums, artists and auction houses. Its free newsletter goes out to a readership of 140,000 art world professionals world wide.

Read about the early days of I Know What I Like as an art book club, its members and discussion topics, and find out what to expect from the October group show in my Art Media Agency interview. 

The Graffiti Sessions


I am proud to announce the Graffiti Sessions, the biggest street art and graffiti conference London has ever seen, which will take place in December 2014. This event ties in directly with my PhD research, and I have been preparing it for almost two years, together with colleagues from University College London, The Urban Laboratory, The Graffiti Dialogues Network at Central Saint Martins and Global Street Art. Our ambition was to create an open international event, bringing together artists, writers, community members, urban managers, authorities, academics and policy makers to discuss and create the futures of street art and graffiti.

The Graffiti Sessions will take place from 3-5 December 2014, at The Southbank Centre, University College London and Central Saint Martins. See all programme and speaker updates here.

The event comprises a three-day series of talks, workshops and panel debates exploring the evolving roles of graffiti and street art in the urban environment. The aim is to challenge deep-rooted preconceptions that have until now limited the progress of both policy and practice related to street art and graffiti. Bringing together key institutions and individuals, we are hoping that the project will establish a sustainable discussion forum for the exchange of a broad scope of viewpoints on street art and graffiti, and for the evaluation of their impacts on the quality of life for urban communities.


The Graffiti Sessions were funded by the Grand Challenges for Sustainable Cities at UCL (funding body which supports inter-disciplinary research projects addressing global issues), the Socially Responsive Design and Innovation Hub (SRDI) and Research Office at Central Saint Martins at University of the Arts London, and the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL.

Registration is now open and early bird tickets have a limited availability, so I would suggest getting a ticket as soon as you can. We are all working very hard to make this an excellent event.