An Italian in the Big Shiny Apple

"1 Gram" by Nemo's. Photo by Jaime Rojo.
1 Gram by Nemo’s. Photo by Jaime Rojo.

Two of the most provocative murals painted in New York this summer come from Nemo’s, an Italian street artist on his first visit to NYC. Both pieces can be found in Williamsburg, a neighborhood where murals function as billboards and billboards masquerade as murals.

First came 1 Gram (which happens to be the weight of a dollar bill). Brooklyn Street Art notes that the piece faced a bit of censorship, in that the wall owner didn’t like the penis on Nemo’s character and the artist agreed to remove it. But it seems a bit silly to quibble over castration when the penis was a relatively minor component of the mural and it’s overall message is already so bold and potentially controversial.

Stocks – Pillory by Nemo's. Photo by Jaime Rojo.
Stocks – Pillory by Nemo’s. Photo by Jaime Rojo.

Nemo’s followed that up with Stocks – Pillory. At first, the mural might seem a bit cliché: Another critique of the TV entertaining us with the public shaming our latest victim. Except that it’s not quite so simple and cliché. The victim isn’t trapped. The key is just around the corner, and the “prisoner” could probably reach it if he tried. Or, better yet, he could just back right out of his prison. The hole of the pillory are much larger than his head and his hands. But instead of slipping out to freedom, he maintains his clearly painful television existence. And we watch on. Entertained.

Actually, in both murals, the men are there by choice. In Stocks – Pillory, the man rests in the faux-pillory, and in 1 Gram, he feeds himself into the meat slicer. All it would take to stop the agony would be for them to take a step back to examine their lives. But we all know that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. And so the torture of contemporary society continues.

No matter how you read them, neither mural is decorative, the dominant trend in “street art muralism” lately. You’d be hard-pressed to find many street artists painting such provocative murals, especially in New York City. Unless of course, the mural is actually just an ad. When street artists are judged by their murals and those murals get them gallery shows and print releases and larger murals and corporate-commissioned murals, when “street art muralism” is a career path, decorative sells. Why mess with that?

So many street artists are like Nemo’s men: seeing no viable alternative, they sacrifice themselves to the entertainment, advertising, and real estate industries. But the biggest names in Italian street art buck the trend. Nemo’s follows in the tradition of Blu, Ericailcane, and Ozmo, as well as the notoriously rebellious attitude of FAME Festival.

What makes these Italians different? I don’t have a good answer. It could be nothing more than accepting nothing less than their true vision. The power to walk away. When Blu’s mural was buffed in LA, he left town rather than paint something else. When Blu’s murals were being used as as marketing tools in the gentrification of Berlin, he buffed them. When Ericailcane painted a mural critical of Mexico’s president, he painted his ideal mural and then faced a destructive act of censorship rather than self-censoring from the start.

But that’s just a negotiating tactic. It doesn’t explain why other street artists stick to decoration, or why mural festivals tend to work with those artists. So maybe they shouldn’t. The alternative isn’t an impossibility. Take a page of Nemo’s book. You can step back from the pillory and you can stop slicing off your face.

Photos by Jaime Rojo for Brooklyn Street Art