“I try to say something to the city, to everyone who lives in my city.” -Conversation with the artist behind Frogmen (1979), the first street art project in Florence

“I try to say something to the city, to everyone who lives in my city.” -Conversation with the artist behind Frogmen (1979), the first street art project in Florence

by Isabel Carrasco Castro

Chronicler of a research adventure

In October 2020 I was in Florence having a beer with the sticker artist Stelle Confuse. We were discussing the history of sticker art and stencils in Florence and playing the game of “who was the first who…” Far from the image of solitary and hermetic artist from the street, Mirco has created a net of international collaborations thanks to his vast knowledge and generosity. We were in Piazza di S. Pier Maggiore and out of the sudden, Mirco pointed out at the official poster structure and claimed that there was a stencil from the late 70’s underneath and added that he had seen a book about it at the Biblioteca Marucelliana. While trying to digest the rich and synthetic piece of information, I started Googling keyword combinations on my phone: “stencil”, “1970”, “Mariani”, “Firenze”… no results. “You are not going to find anything. Go to the library and look for the book”- he said. That day, I received one of the best presents a researcher can get: clues to follow (thanks, Mirco, you actually “planted a tree” that day). In fact, that information triggered my obsession, and I did´t stop until I found both the book and Aroldo Marinai himself. My outcomes followed a walk around Ponte all’ Indiano to discuss ideas about the book and a telephone interview with Marinai from a park. We were too excited to feel the cold.

Photo © Isabel Carrasco Castro, Florence, 2020

That second lock down (“Red zone” was called back then) caught me in Florence with a lot of field work done and plenty of information to write about. At the same time, Pedro Soares, the genius behind the project Urban Creativity (Lisbon), invited me to write an article for the 2020 issue: I had time and a precious treasure in my hands so I started writing. That was how this research adventure started.

Photo © Isabel Carrasco Castro, Florence, 2020

After writing the first article on Frogmen, I asked Marinai to republish the book; the World had to have access to that book! And just like that, I received the second present in this process: Marinai invited me to write the foreword for the new edition. Since the first time I got in contact with Frogmen and after much reflection, writing and presentations, the mystery of the project kept amazing me. So does Marinai’s personality. In another proof of generosity, Marinai has accepted to answer the following questions. Fascinating as he is, I have to confess that it was hard to choose only some to ask to him.

Photo © Silvia Marilli, Florence, 1979

Frogmen was a multi-layered project. Can you briefly explain the process? How did it start, develop and end, and how was it changing mediums – stencil, book, exhibition…?

I am not a “street artist”; I say this with some fear that this will be considered snobbish, but I am hopelessly a “living room painter.”
As such I have always worked. With one detail to note: instead of always repeating the same subject and manner I have loved to change. I don’t care if something sells well or gets vast acclaim. I run free. When the flood wave, let’s call it inspiration, has passed, I abandon arms and baggage.
I alternate tools, media, themes every three or four years. I use oils and acrylics, pastels, Japanese calligraphy brushes, sprays, inks, earths, pens and nibs … and canvases, papers, photographs, etchings, silkscreens, one-copy books …
When I began to invade the walls of downtown Florence, I had no plans. The days were long, the people were sleepy. It was fun and vital. Eventually it was decided to have a photographic and performant documentary exhibition. After the exhibition came the idea of the book. As simple as that.

Photo © Silvia Marilli, Florence, 1979

When I learnt about the project Frogmen from Stelle Confuse, I found it mind-blowing as I think it has been for the generation who had never heard about it. When did you become aware of the importance of Frogmen in the history of Italian and European street art?

To be honest, there was never a moment of awareness related to the world of what would later be called street art. What was seen on the walls in Italy (I mean: apart from billboards) were political or sports fan writings. So Frogmen was born not so much as a “project” but as a creative game – I was a graphic designer, painter, screen painter – as a minimal provocation addressed to my fellow citizens.

Photo © Silvia Marilli, Florence, 1979

The term “street art” was used for the first time in the 80’s, which terms did people use to call what you were doing or what artists like Basquiat were doing?

In those years, the late 1970s, what I was doing on the walls was called “vandalism.” There was no relationship between “making art” and “defacing public space.” So there were no definitions that presupposed a tolerant gaze, much less a benevolent one. Post-graffiti or street art or other definitions were really beyond coming.

How did the walls of Florence look back in the late 70’s?

The walls in downtown Florence were always serious, respectable and virtuous. My signs were almost invisible. If Miriam Spezi had not seen them, they would never have been talked about, I think. Miriam Spezi is the wife of Mario Spezi, a journalist of the newspaper La Nazione. She saw the sub on the walls and asked Mario “did you notice this funny thing?” and he wrote about it. That is how this story became part of the project too.

La Nazione. Editorial by Mario Spezi, 1979

Frogmen was a one-time incursion in the street. Why didn’t you intervene in the streets again? Have you ever had the temptation of going back to the streets again?

I never wanted to go back to marking walls with other subjects. I am not actively interested in street art, although I see very beautiful and engaging things. But of course I can’t participate in the large surfaces, the figurative wall paintings. Banksy is a different case, in every sense. I don’t go beyond small scale and graphic synthesis.

The re-edition of Frogmen includes a short paragraph where you tell about your experiences in New York in 1979. Do you want to add any other recollections from that period? You mentioned Basquiat but, do you have any memories of seeing graffiti writing on the subway trains? What did you think about it?

I was in New York from 1978-79. My memories of that period I have summarized in the chronicle lines added to the reissue of the book. I must confess that I have no particular recollection of the writings and signatures of the guys on the subway carriages. I probably lived much more above ground and moved around on foot. But I remember very well SAMO’s writing on the walls outside the Art Galleries, his comments on society and fashions. We lived in the same area of Alphabet City. I didn’t meet Basquiat until years later, by which time he was lugging around the scent of dollars.

Photo © Silvia Marilli, Florence, 1979

Artists and writers usually have a strong opinion about their past artworks – they are either proud, ashamed or indifferent. What is your personal relationship with Frogmen today?

Signs and traces on walls, exhortations or warnings, are known, even in ancient Rome. I think I fit into that tradition. Certainly, the outline of the diver that I had cut out in the cardboard left me – and leaves me – satisfied because it was very much in line with my style, my graphic synthesis. It could be the mark of a publishing house…

You had a background in advertising, and you later developed a career as a visual artist and a publisher (Smith Editore). Frogmen includes a very mysterious and obscure text. How did you decide to start writing about the process and which literary movements/authors influenced your writing style?

The love for books and journals, the desire to publish had been in my blood since I was a kid, preschool even. Smith was an inevitable drift. When I put the Frogmen book together, I simply collected the thoughts and comments scattered in my diary. Meanwhile, Silvia Marilli was photographing the exploits of the night. So no style and no model of writing, except, if you will, the writers I read willingly: Pizzuto, Joyce, Céline, Queneau, Gadda. And Luciano Bardi took on the hard task of doing the English translation.

In one of our personal conversations you said that Situationism had been very influential for the project and generally for you. Can you develop your relationship with Situationism?

The rupture movements, the avant-garde movements of the last century, certainly influenced me. Dadaists, Surrealists, Situationists, and the CO.BR.A., with Jorn and Alechinsky were very consonant with my style. Finally, Duchamp as the prince and graver of all the arts.

Photo © Silvia Marilli, Firenze, 1979

Are you familiarized with today’s street art in Florence?

From my residence in the Colline Metallifere I come down to Florence rather infrequently. Even more rarely do I frequent the suburbs. I see colorful masses of fascinating squiggles on the walls approaching train stations or bridges along the Arno. To date, I happen to know only one muralist; Stelle Confuse, with the series of well-structured works filled with leaves.

Photo © Silvia Marilli, Florence, 1979

How do you compare the cultural management of the City of Florence from the late 70’s and the 80’s to today’s management? How did censorship and graffiti/art canceling work back then in comparison to today’s?

I repeat that the mass of graffiti often has charm and makes otherwise dreary and run-down residential areas lively. The City of Florence, I believe, has always been limited to cleaning up or erasing writing and drawings on touristically important monuments and architecture. Yesterday like today, Florence looks after the look in function of the classic and noble image, cultured but for export.

What would you say to the artists who work in the streets today?

I don’t think I have the numbers and knowledge to give suggestions or advice to “street artists” today. Forty-three years later… Or maybe one yes: look hard for originality, try to get out of the herd (which is probably the opposite of what many early 20th century avant-garde suggested).

Is there anything else you want to add?

I would like to add: better an egg today than a chicken tomorrow. Good for everyone. Also: never postpone, never put off.

The author

Isabel Carrasco Castro

Isabel Carrasco Castro (Madrid, 1979). A Ph.D. in Aesthetics from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, she has developed a dual professional career in the field of International Education as a lecturer and as an administrator. She is also the program director of Marist College in Madrid and president of INDAGUE - Spanish Association of Researchers and Diffusers of Graffiti and Street Art. Her research concerns the relationship between image and writing (calligraphy and graffiti) in contemporary art and their interaction with public spaces. Thanks to the Marist College she has been investigating the Florentine urban scene since 2018. She published for Cambridge Scholars "Silenced City. A War in Cream Color for the Custody of Beauty" to be released in 2023.

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