A tourist walking up the steep, narrow, cobblestone paths of Urbino toward the Palazzo Ducale to see the art work of Renaissance masters such as Raffaello, will also see a 4-foot-tall stencil of Maradona, the famous soccer player, spray-painted on the wall of a building. In a city of historic monuments and charming piazzas, streets ridden with graffiti are easy to find.
An age-old war is raging between free expression and architectural preservation in Urbino. One side supports the use of graffiti in most places, and the other wants it out. The latest battle was initiated by a proposal for a national law to increase the penalties against graffitists.
According to the current penal code, those who destroy public or historical buildings are subject to up to one year in prison or a fine of up to 300 euro ($426 USD). The penalty can be suspended if the damage is repaired.
The new law would lower jail time to one to six months, but increase the fine up to 1,000 euro ($1,421 USD). And people who sell non-biodegradable spray paint to underage children could be fined up to 1,000 euro.
The debate centers around the success of previous laws. Some say more laws lead to more street art, while others say legislation is a step in the right direction toward preventing the crime. Others think it might be smart to create a designated space for writing on the walls, while their opponents think skillful street artists will still use whichever preferred canvas they set their sights on.
Opinions vary even among the divisions of Italian law enforcement.
Officer Sandro Garbugli of the Polizia Municipale says, “It’s an economic problem.” He explains that if the police cannot find the graffiti artist, they have to clean the graffiti. There is not enough money to follow these artists around with a mop and bucket.
Maresciallo Aiutante (Assistant Marshal) Roberto Saveri of the Carabinieri, the national police force, says it’s not a big problem. In a relaxed tone he notes that most graffiti, especially on general city walls—as opposed to historic buildings—will not be cleaned up anyway.
Saveri, who seems unapproachable when sitting at his desk in his severe blue uniform, pauses before he answers questions about graffiti, making it clear he considers this a minor issue.
“Do you think these new laws will begin to solve the problem?” he was asked. In reply, a dramatic shrug and a search for words. With the help of an interpreter, he says, “I don’t know.”
When asked, “Once the new laws are enforced, will it affect existing graffiti? Will art work on the outer walls of the city be cleaned up?” He gives an even bigger shrug. With his head tilted down and to the side, he exhales to express uncertainty, then with eyes closed shakes his head and provides a one-word answer: “No.”
While the Carabinieri had more information about the proposal, the Polizia Municipale seemed to have closer experience with the local effects of graffiti. Officer Garbugli of the latter office said there have been many complaints. He also believes new, heightened penalties for artists will begin to solve the problem.
“If the punishment is harder, is stronger, this will reduce the problem, probably,” he said.
Police officers, shop owners and graffiti aficionados throughout town seem to agree that there is a time and a place for graffiti.
“It depends where the graffiti is,” Garbugli says. “For example, at the train station, if it’s a modern structure and it’s beautiful, artistic graffiti, it would be interesting and a particular form of art. But in the city center, near the Ducal Palace on historical walls, it is only vandalism.”
A lot of the vandalism in town is defamatory against the church, explained Ivano Penserini, the painter who cleans the graffiti in town. He said it’s imperative to clean that kind of vandalism within a day of noticing it.
Penserini went on with his opinion of the city walls: “Urbino is an historical city so every wall is an historical wall even if it’s not an historical monument or if it’s not a church. Every wall in Urbino can be considered historical.”
One piece of graffiti in an alley off Via Aurelio Saffi is one of the largest versions of this reoccurring graffiti called “UrbinZoo.” Using large, bubbled, white letters as the centerpiece, the artist chose to use characters unrecognizable as any specific animals. One has shifty eyes, the other an angry stare.
Cheryl Ferguson, a long-time inhabitant of Urbino with a dislike for graffiti, could still see the message in that work. “When you’ve lived here for five years, well, it’s a zoo. I would say it’s a zoo …not just busy but chaotic. Whoever came up with the idea was spot on. I like it.”
Kevin Catona, an American student and someone who appreciates graffiti, interpreted it as, “When somebody says it’s like a zoo in here it means more like crazy, so maybe this was a reflection of how they felt about Urbino and maybe the direction it’s going in.”
The residents of Urbino seem to be in accordance that preservation of their historic walls is a priority. Most people interviewed also agree a designated area for graffiti would be appropriate, but no one can say if graffiti artists would actually follow a rule regarding their art form.
For now the lawmakers and artists will have to continue their dance.