If you follow The Crowded Planet, you’ll know we’re great fans of street art. From Athens to Berlin via Vilnius, we always strive to bring you the very best art we find on the streets. But what about our very own city? Here’s a post about Milan street art for this week’s #MondaysinMilan!
Me & Milan Street Art
Why am I such a big fan of street art? Well, to know the answer we need to travel back in time to the late Nineties, when I was a teenager living and (not) going to school in Lambrate, a neighbourhood in the east of Milan. At the time, street artists were the epitome of cool. I used to see famous artists of the time like Styng paint on the railway wall around the corner from my house, usually at night, sometimes on those lazy Sunday afternoon when most people were listening to the football on transistor radios.
At school, the coolest kids were always ‘b-boys’. Oversize t-shirts, baggy trousers, giant puffy sneakers. Marker pens casually poking out of their cargo pockets. They never paid attention to classes, preferring instead to sketch their new ‘pieces’ on paper, waiting for the night when, spray cans in hand, they would splash colour over the drab concrete of Milan.
I was friends with some of them. I remember their tags, and the names of their crews. Athe, Stok, Kono, Daz, Omer. One of them even dedicated one of his pieces to me, writing my surname next to it. Some of my old street artist friends have families now, one is a long-term traveller, another a professional artist.
I was never good enough to become an artist myself. One day, though, I did buy a silver spray-can, just to see what it was like. I painted my ‘tag’ (that I had just created a few minutes before, and came with a heart for an ‘o’) on the wall of a metro station, only to be caught by the guardian and let off with a warning.
Since then, I have stopped thinking of becoming an artist – after all, I can hardly draw a stick man. But I haven’t stopped chasing street art around the world. From revolutionary art in Cuba, to anti-American murals in Iran and cool stuff around cities, I’m always on the lookout for painted walls.
A brief history of Street Art
Milan is covered in ‘tags’, sometimes called ‘graffiti’, those ugly scribbles covering pretty much every free square inch of wall around the city. I think we’ll all agree that tags are ugly. But that’s where the amazing street art that turns our heads comes from – from those ugly tags.
The first street artists came from the New York scene of the Sixties and Seventies. The city was seen as a representation of institutions and economic power, and by ‘tagging’ walls with their signature, young people externalised their feelings of inadequacy and rejection for this new world order. Part rebels, part outcasts, these pioneer street artists wrote their names on the walls, over and over again.
Their signatures became more and more elaborate, with distorted letters and colour effects. These are the so-called ‘bubbles’, a more complex interpretation of a simple ‘tag’. My friends in the Nineties, and the cool street artists that painted around my house, were big fans of ‘bubbles’ – that was pretty much all the street art I knew, up until about 10 years ago.
I can’t remember when the big pieces we love so much started to appear. They were probably born around ‘centri sociali’, our local version of urban squats. Maybe it’s because the police are a bit more lenient around there, or because ‘centri sociali’ tend to be in the outskirts of the city, sometimes in dilapidated areas, and people just don’t care. Fact is, sometime in the last dozen years, the big, colorful pieces that we now call ‘street art’ started to appear even around the walls of my beloved city.
Sometimes illegal, sometimes commissioned. Sometimes shiny, sometimes faded. Sometimes arrogant, bold and assertive, sometimes moving in their simplicity or their message. We love them all.
Where to see street art in Milan
Any tour of Milan street art can only begin here. Leoncavallo is one of the largest, oldest and most famous ‘centri sociali’ in Milan, opened in the Seventies not far from my home in Lambrate. In 1994 it moved to Via Watteau, in the neighbourhood of Greco, in the northern part of town.
The area around Leoncavallo has the highest concentration of great street art pieces in Milan. From large-format pieces on the wall opposite the entrance and around the nearby railway bridge, to smaller pieces painted all around, this area is a real street art mecca.
One artist deserves special mention – Mr Blob, author of this piece dedicated to Five Pointz, the now-demolished street art hotspot in New York. Mr Blob hails from Taranto, a town in Southern Italy, sadly famous for its polluting steelworks factory. The way he paints humans is unique, with copper-skin, distorted faces, big grins and goggly eyes.
Spend some time walking around, making up your own stories, reading the messages and trying to interpret the art as you see fit. If you’re still around in the evening and you’re a party type, check out the alternative music on offer, and have dinner at the Pop restaurant.
Quartiere Isola is a close second for best street art in town. I have dedicated a whole post to the area, including street art, traditional and modern architecture. Being a residential neighbourhood, the street art is more ‘subtle’ and less ‘in your face’ compared to the Leoncavallo area.
Walk around Isola on a Sunday, the best time to see street art as there are several pieces painted on shop shutters. I’m sure you’ll notice Arnold’s face, the signature of Mexican-born artist Zibe. The artist has been painting Arnold since 2000, to homage a dear friend of his who committed suicide. Arnold becomes the archetypal ‘loser’ with whom Zibe bombards the walls of Milan, a city that is historically kind only to high-achievers.
Isola is also famous for its collaborative pieces, commissioned by local businesses, where several top street artists worked together, using their signature imagery. One is in Piazzale Archinto, just outside an auto-repair shop, with Zibe’s Arnold dominating from the centre. next to it you’ll find Ozmo’s Lady of Guadalupe, Microbo’s micro organisms (‘microbo’ means ‘germs’ in Italian) and Santi’s balconies, seen as the place where you can watch the city, without beings seen.
Not far away, in Via Sebenico, you’ll find another collaborative piece painted in blue tones. Here, it’s even harder to know where a piece ends and one begins. You’ll see Microbo’s germs floating in a world of abstract blue figures, dots and swirls. Keep your eyes peeled around the neighbourhood. There’s a stencil here, a sticker there, a paste-up around the corner. Or at least, there was yesterday. Tomorrow, who knows?
3) Porta Ticinese
Porta Ticinese is amazing for street art on so many levels. It’s one of the best places to go in Milan – during the day to walk around the park in Piazza Vetra or to shop at many alternative boutiques, at night for a beer around Colonne di San Lorenzo.
If you’re arriving from Colonne, the first thing you’ll notice is the 40 m-long wall just next to San Lorenzo church. It was painted last May after being commissioned by the church itself, and depicts two millennia of Milan’s history. There’s Alessandro Manzoni, Milan’s most beloved writer, Leonardo da Vinci portrayed by Mr Blob in the act of inventing the spray can, the war between Sforza and Visconti, Napoleon on his legendary white horse and Giuseppe Verdi, the composer.
Keep walking down the Corso, leaving the Colonne behind you, and you’ll find more street art. Shop shutters covered in poems. Urban art made with recycled materials. Ironic posters, like the rebus-like one below. This project is called Via dell’Ironia, and it’s the brainchild of a local shopkeeper who involved other shop owners and students of the Brera art college in this project, turning the street in a creative space where everyone can communicate what they wish.
All the way at the end of Corso di Porta Ticinese, turn left in Via Santa Croce, home of Centro Sociale Zam, for more large-scale pieces similar to those around Leoncavallo, in a street that is one of the prettiest in Milan.
4) Porta Romana
If you fancy seeing a bit of institutionalised street art, head over to Piazza Cardinal Ferrari near Porta Romana. You’ll find the Wallart project, involving some of Milan’s most famous street artists to celebrate the 140th anniversary of orthopaedic hospital Gaetano Pini. Orticanoodles was commissioned to paint orange/brown portraits of Milan’s recently-deceased most illustrious citizens, from Maestro Abbado to poet Alda Merini.
Right next to it there’s a black and white calligraphy work and near the hospital itself, a couple of streets away, a psychedelic work painted by Pao, one of Milan’s most iconic artists famous for his penguins painted on concrete bollards.
The whole area is a far cry from the raw, unfiltered creativity of Leoncavallo, but it’s still worth a visit.
That’s where my fascination with street art began, that’s where the tour shall end. The ‘bubbles’ I saw being painted on the railway wall are now peeled and chipped away by the elements. The railway tunnel, another street art hotspot twenty years ago, is dilapidated and covered in political slogans.
So, why am I sending you to Lambrate? On the railway wall in Piazza Monte Titano, there’s a work by Blu, one of the world’s best street artists and famous for criticising capitalism in his works. The Lambrate piece shows giant bicycles crushing tiny cars, a sarcastic overturn of what happens daily in this bike-unfriendly city. The piece was painted in 2008 and is in pretty bad condition nowadays. So go see it, before it’s gone.
Thanks WAAM Tours and Your Own Guide for telling us all there is to know about street art in Milan!