Early this year, London-based Swedish photographer Maria Stengard-Green went on a breathless city trip to re-discover what she calls organic décollage — the many layers of half-torn and weather-beaten posters and street art stickers that intertwine and mingle so often on walls in a visually beautiful code, giving way to interpretations. To discover and document these, she first went on a trip to New York, and afterward from London to Paris by train for a few days, followed by Rome, where she walked the streets with her Hasselblad during the day, hanging on warm Roman rooftops in the evenings. For PingMag, she wrote down her reflections of this global tour.
Written by Maria Stengard-Green
First, this trip is a rediscovery of the organic décollage that not only echoes the pioneering work of Raymond Hains, Jacques Villeglé, Yves Klein, François Dufrene, and Rome’s own Mimmo Rotella. While organic décollage appears random as the mere effect of nature, it can also reflect the egos and ideals of the people who interfere with nature’s interference, creating layers, nuances and, sometimes, meaning.
When touring Hair in my previous life as an actor in the early 1980s, I had started photographing the Berlin Wall. Coincidentally, that was also the time when Jean-Michel Basquiat came to prominence. Since then, I have found street art and graffiti compelling. As products of anger, ego, boredom, love, loyalty, hate, or ignorance, they are often reviled but, as the decoration on the Berlin Wall, they cannot be ignored. This year, I went on another journey, initially to New York, then Paris and Rome, to document these signs of human passing.
Street art in New York commented with a pink tag saying “Candy.” © Maria Stengard-Green
I was not just interested in the singular, the purposeful, and the crafted. I am drawn to the accidentally collaborative layers of competing or disjointed minds that sometimes produce something telling, compelling, or beautiful. Every city is different behind the symbols of globalization and apparent homogenization, reflecting not just culture but present in historical politics and harsh economic realities. New York, for example, is now safer than London and a far cry from the city I lived in during the 80s. But despite being a cleaner city with less of an edge and a less stimulating streetscape, it still is captivating. In Nolita and SoHo, artists and random contributors combine to make a telling statement, my two favorite being X-Men (at the junction of Mott and Prince) and Candy. Both are politically charged although Candy is the more ambiguous…
In the Meatpacking District and to the east of the Gansevoort Market, old advertising signs mix with random scribbles on doors, flyers, posters, and acts of vandalism, congealing to create arresting images. All of these are nestled amongst the boutiques of Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, and Diane Von Furstenberg. So to Hogs & Heffers, the veteran NY biker bar at the junction of West 13th and Washington. A bastion of working New York where they do not look like they could, or would, rustle up a latte and an almond croissant. Even though it was only 10 a.m., I felt obliged to ask for a small beer instead, but of course they do serve just beer. While admiring the amazing collection of bras hanging behind the bar, the bartender removed hers at 10:15 a.m., surrounded by the signs of union affiliation. An earthy oasis in a sea of fashion! Much of the street art and graffiti reflects that recent heritage, in contrast with the now more gentrified SoHo and nearby Greenwich Village.
On to the next city! To feel and smell the changes from city to city, and to feel environmentally righteous, I decided to travel by train, from London to Paris, then to Rome, back to Paris, and finally home to the UK. Paris is just over two hours away from London, but more than 12 hours away from Rome — if the train is on time. It would have been quicker to come to Tokyo…
Paris is not just an older, but also a tighter city than New York, and within the Périphérique ring-road it appears less expressive in terms of street art. That is not to say there is none! Thanks to blogger Petite Anglaise, I discovered Belleville just north east of the city center. A traditionally working class community and still the home of the French Communist Party, this is where both Édith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier came to entertain. It’s a diverse area, also home to a thriving artistic community. On the streets leading off the Rue de Belleville are the studios and workshops of this community and many use the streets as a canvas onto which others add their own layers of expression and comment. I was only exposed to a fraction of the street art, but my impression was of a greater degree of introspection than I had found in New York. But in both places, all is appropriately fleeting. A piece I literally had stepped over on the way to buy a hot chocolate in Belleville, was obliterated by a municipal cleaner on my return.
Yet Paris is a more open city than New York, where one is often conscious of walking along the bottom of man-made canyons. And the light reflects this. Despite New York being at a similar latitude to Rome and Paris, the light — even accounting for a slight difference in time of the year — feels more monochromatic than those two cities. On to the final stop!
The overnight sleeper from Paris to Rome is not as glamorous as one would hope. After a frenetic journey I was glad when morning arrived, until I could not find the purse I had put in a wall basket next to my head. Despite locking the compartment door before retiring, someone had entered in the night and stolen it. So I arrived in Rome penniless, but fortunately I have my priorities right — I sleep with my camera.
Rome is a long way from Paris in more ways than one, and even further from New York. A looser city, as hidebound as its sisters I am sure, but with a less obvious controlling hand. Multilayered, its history breaks through peeling surfaces on every corner, and its street art echoes this. The oldest of the cities, perhaps the mother of them all, one cannot help but feel at times that it is being overwhelmed and overwritten. Much is random, witless, and often an assault on the senses. But sometimes layer upon layer coalesces to offer more than the sum of its parts. More vivacious than Paris, Rome wears its political and economic turbulence on its sleeve. A city of extremes, as a trip through the San Lorenzo area just east of Stazione Termini clearly shows. Long a bed of political activism — the area rose up against Mussolini‘s fascists — and now a student quarter where competing political street art bears witness to a continuing rivalry between fascists and communists. It’s a rivalry that spills out past mere words and symbols.
Rome has a more overtly political urban landscape and as I was in the city only a few days before this year’s election, I could witness this interference in the battle for the poster sites around the Campo de’ Fiori. The images I captured in the city are doubtless, even as I write, being removed from sight, just like the Roma under Berlusconi’s pledge to create a cleaner and purer city. Cleaning the surface removes the symptom but not the cause, and as fast as layers are removed new layers, and sometimes new meanings, form.
As a slightly inebriated and very bemused vagrant said to me as I pointed a £20,000 Hasselblad (nearly 3 million yen) at the object of my affections, “… that’s a… very… interesting wall that…?” Yes, very. As a photographer I have to look and look again, to see past the dirt and clutter, past what most dismiss or want to destroy. Sometimes, I have to admit I interfere, but hopefully to reveal rather than impose. I am not the artist, I am the camera.
Thank you, Maria, for your fast-paced trip to the major cities’ surfaces!