Florentine Graffitism Black on White – Part I

Florentine Graffitism Black on White – Part I

by Tommaso Dorowin and Asia Neri. With the contribution of Zero-T and Kein

Metropolitan in Santa Maria Novella

When we read about the history of New York Graffiti and how this culture spread to other regions, we always talk about the great cities of northern Europe. As for the Italian graffiti scene, numerous books, articles, magazines and documentaries have been published that showcase the best-known underground scenes nationwide, as well as the role of the major players, despite the relevance of Florence as a city in terms of the fostering of the development of this phenomenon. A fact credited by Chob and Gec, well-known Bolognese writers and creators of the format called Piede di Porco (transl. Crowbar): in the sixth episode of their video-podcast, they delved into the origins and developments of Florentine writing, shining the spotlight for the first time on the artistic relevance of its protagonists! Chob and Gec demonstrate how the signatures of the first season of Florentine graffiti art left an indelible imprint, not only for the generations immediately following but also for the scenes that still inhabit the urban fabric. However, is there any written content that traces the early stages, legends and experiences of this context? This article aims to be the first text, written in black and white, with the purpose of documenting the cultural ferment of an Italian city that, even today, continues to exert a decisive influence on the development of a movement on a national scale, and not only that.

The first generation, 1985-1995

The story of Italian graffiti art begins about thirty-five years ago, right here in Florence. Paolo Zero-T is a seventeen-year-old from Poggibonsi attending a course of study in graphic design; his curious attitude leads him to sense the gradual rise of a subculture, that of New York writing. Zero-T falls in love with the energy of hip hop and the first beat in Malcom Mc Laren’s Buffalo gal, featuring Dondi and the breakers of the Rock Steady Crew. The music video for this track was the first unified representation of the five disciplines of hip-hop, two minutes of revelation and, at the same time, big question marks. Between clues and questions, Zero-T manages to pick up on what had been happening for some time in the Big Apple, with the help of films and documentaries like Wild Style and Beat Street. While the Italian writing phenomenon was still in slumber, a visionary curator set a decisive precedent for this nascent phenomenon.

It is 1984 when Francesca Alinovi brings the main exponents of New York writing to Italy in a traveling exhibition: Arte di frontiera. New York Graffiti is the cultural initiative that inaugurates the first season of Italian graffiti art. Exactly one year later, Paolo Zero-T draws his first tag and begins to make a name for himself, introducing himself to the already strongly identified European scenes. Among the European capitals, one of the major scenes was that of Munich, the city where young Dayaki (aka DeeMo) met Zebster, a pioneering figure for graffiti art in both Germany and Europe. “In Italy, Zero-T” suggests the latter to the Bologna-based writer. Sometime later, more precisely in 1989, DeeMo’ and Zero-T founded together the CMC – Colors Melodies Combo, one of the first Italian crews. The two thus got to know each other thanks to a funny, almost absurd, combination of events; a story repeated in the fortuitous meeting with Torrick ‘Toxic’ Ablack in Tuscany.

Since the 1980s, Toxic has been recognized as a leading exponent for the New York art scene and the graffiti movement, establishing his name by joining the iconic New York crew composed of Rammellezee and A One. Thanks to these new acquaintances and continuous experience in underground environments, Zero-T evolves in style and technique dynamically; and in Florence, he is no longer alone. A young Florentine of thirteen years old naively copies one of his drawings on a phone booth: and thus, is born, from a misunderstanding, Zero-T’s historic friendship with JC, his partner in crime.

He combines the study of lettering with the figurative, resulting in his well-known characters that narrate the different disciplines of hip hop, with their iconic characters and unmistakable style code. The attire of his mugsies inspires the fashion world, particularly underground clothing brands. In 1989, the meeting between Paul Zero-T and Luca Benini, founder of Slam Jam, is crucial to the subsequent interaction between the practices of writing and underground clothing. Zero-T’s aesthetics and Luca Benini’s vision arrive at Pitti Uomo; a new proposal, that of Slam jam with international streetwear icons, appears among classic clothing stands. This is the first time ever that the fair in the Tuscan capital hosts an underground clothing stand; Slam Jam proves to be a pioneer of this unprecedented connection, becoming one of the world leaders in street culture. The organizers of the fashion show appreciate their attitude and pursue it: after a few years, Pitti Uomo opens an entire pavilion dedicated to street style. Meanwhile, the New York kings return to Italy, drawn by wealthy brands for new collaborations, including the florentine brand Enrico Coveri.

Zero-T thus continues to weave relationships and exchanges. After touring between London and Paris, he arrives in New York in 1993, where he not only meets his idols, but is appreciated by them and initiates new relationships of friendship and artistic interest that culminate in him joining the historic Rock Steady Crew. Pitti Immagine’s relevance to the graffiti scene is also understood by Dork (Smart), another big name in the Italian scene straddling the first and second generation of writers, tagging on walls and, above all, on railroad tracks. And here we are at the second generation of Italian graffiti art.

Interlude – From a small organization to an international graff-hub internazionale

Florence is the direct bridge between the European and U.S. underground scenes. Paul Zero-T takes his first roots on the Florentine territory but his nomadic lifestyle often takes him to the Big Apple, fueling the exchange between Florence, Bologna and New York. The opportunity to breathe New York air represents a direct contact with the subculture for Zero-T, thus realizing his lifelong dream: to interact and share new experiences with his idols.

It’s the early 1990s, and as you walk around the city you notice new signatures: is there something on the move? Writers are not only coming from the hip-hop scene anymore as skateboarders are also entering graffiti art, especially the frequenters of social centers: in the breakdance room of CPA you can find Wave, at Ex Emerson there is Squamino and so on. But there is a new round of skaters that accelerates the spread of writing on the streets, multiplying the murals and inaugurating the city’s first halls of fame. Dork (Smart), Chero (Bees), and Cura (Guim) are the pioneers of the second generation of Florentine writing, along with the ever-present Ens who joins shortly thereafter. Ens and Dork found one of the most important Italian crews of that period, along with the Milanese Dust, Chief, Duke1, Etnik and Polo from Naples. They call themselves the FTR. Crucial to the development of the Florentine and Tuscan scene were the trips to the United States: Dork flies to NY, Chero moves to San Francisco for a time, and when they return to the city, they bring their stories and experiences overseas with them.

Since then, the streets and trains of Florence establish themselves as the first Italian window with an international scope and, in particular, the spot of via Boito – near the railway line – becomes the Florentine hotspot where the most incredible names of the world of writing are layered and where the first jams are born. The disused freight train becomes one of the main spots: Lesson 1, Choose Your Weapon, Elements are the names of the jams that were held at the so-called Piars’ Hall of Fame, with participants who came from all over Italy such as BBS, SPA, HV, ACD, THE, MOD. The existing friendships are consolidated and the meeting favors the birth of new relationships.

The second generation, 1995-2005

Since the latter half of the 1990s, things in Florence have changed dramatically. New names keep popping up on the platforms of Santa Maria Novella: Kein, Mag, Squiz, Next, Yono, Kef are just a few of the major ones. Meanwhile, train-bombing broke out all over Europe, and Florence’s became one of the most prolific and spectacular stations in the country. Unlike many other stops, Santa Maria Novella is characterized as an end-station, a place where trains stop, station and start again. The railway and subway network nurtures the birth and growth of a real network, the trains turn into traveling canvases, the stations into open-air tunnels. Writers can tour their pieces from one city to another, crews perform and make themselves known, competition grows along with nationwide ferment. And in all this, Florence becomes crucial to the Italian writing movement. Thanks to the contacts of Chero and Dork (renamed Smart by his friend Iz the Wiz), the Tuscan capital becomes a bridge between the Italian scene, European cities and those overseas. On the trains of the Florentine province appear the signatures of numerous foreign writers: the Americans Reas, Prey, Ghost, Daze, Amaze, Grey and, among the Europeans, Trixter, Sabe, Egs, Honet, Loomit, Opak, Pum. The influence of the New York style of AOK and RIS and new French and Finnish trends became an explosive mixture that established itself as the new Florentine way of graffiti that would be an inspiration for writers throughout the region.

Two crews renewed the Florentine train-bombing scene: on the one hand the Piars, with Smart, Ens, Bees, Guim, Done and Longe, on the other the Nerds, consisting of Kein, Squiz, Mag, More, Rash and Texas. Their pieces are spotted on the so-called ‘metropolitan trains’ that connected Florence with other cities such as Bologna and Padua. From a member of the Nerds crew (Rash), in 2003 Gold was born, a Florentine street wear brand that represented a landmark not only for underground clothing but also for the narrative of street culture. Florence’s trains continued to be hit by writers’ pieces, and Santa Maria Novella became one of the most jam-packed end-stations in Italy. The increase of Florentine and Tuscan writers, including Tren, Kurte, Grynz, Chaos, Rusto, Fra32 and the rest of the KNM crew, strongly fuels the competition that, as in any self-respecting graffiti scene, lands in escalating clashes, fights and, in some cases, brawls.

In 2000, the State Railways began protecting trains with a washable plastic film, drastically curbing the rush of writers to the trains and reducing the number of traveling pieces. The writers who would arrive from 2005 onwards (of the third generation) owe it to Zero-T, Smart and the first crews that took root in the urban fabric of Florence and that, still today, represent a milestone in the history of Florentine, Italian and European writing. In this great scenario, Gold will remain the connector of a 20-year experience, and it is from this well-known streetwear brand that we will again, start to introduce the second part of the article, continuing this black-on-white tale of the history of writing in the years to come.

The author

Tommaso Dorowin

Tommaso Dorowin aka Cruko grew up in Florence in the '90s from foreign parents. At the age of 12, thanks to the influences received from traveling abroad, he founded his first crew together with some peers. These are years in which people live by word of mouth, fanzines and tapes, these objects are handed down as relics and participate in the construction of a local Hip Hop culture in Florence. In short, Cruko ranges within the underground circuits, touching all the arts and becoming the fulcrum of a scene that still struggles to take off. In 2019 all of his work is concentrated in the historic Ninotchka street shop in Florence, where he takes control and in which all the energies and knowledge built up over time are merged.

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