Italian Graffiti

The 2008 Giro d’ Italia is underway, marking not only the start of the grand tour season, but also the beginning of prime road graffiti season. For whatever reason, this quaint chalk-and-housepaint element of road racing culture has never migrated north to the spring classics in a big way, save the sterile, municipally-stenciled string of “Huy”s on the final climb of the Fleche Wallonne and the surprisingly prolific writings of the Phil Gilbert fan club on the climbs just outside of Liege. Yes, the pavement décor is a little sparse up north in the chilly early spring, but as the professional caravan motors south to the boot of Europe for the Giro, the blossoming of the graffiti marks another sure sign of seasonal transition.

The Italians have made an art out of road graffiti, just like they have made an art of clothing, automobiles, living, bicycle racing, and, well, art. From simple block-letter names to heartfelt scrawlings to carefully planned and proportioned works, and with sentiments ranging from the poetic to the profane, Italians lead the way in truly inspired race course paint. (In fact, maybe it’s the descendants of all of the immigrant Italian miners in the Belgian Ardennes who account for the street painting present in those classics but lacking in the Flemish races. Maybe the urge to roll paint onto asphalt is something in their blood that hasn’t been totally bred out by living in that French-speaking land for a hundred years. Or maybe paint just doesn’t stick to wet cobbles very well.)

Sure, in July the Tour de France will bring about grand and international gestures of support for riders, teams, or entire nationalities, played out in paint and chalk, banners and flags, and paper mache and hay bale sculptures. But like the Tour de France and nearly everything associated with it, those displays often go a bit too far in their quest to be a spectacle for spectacle’s sake. And as a result, any sentiment they’re intended to convey seems to ring a bit hollow.

The Giro d’ Italia, on the other hand, is certainly a spectacle, but it is a spectacle because of its focus on bicycle racing, not because it is achingly desperate to be the center of attention. The same applies to those messages to nobody and everybody that the race’s tifosi apply to the streets of Tuscan towns and high alpine passes. Like the Giro that inspires it, the beauty of its road graffiti lies in its relative simplicity, its authenticity.

In fact, so endearing are the roadway decorations of the tifosi that they’re apparently spreading beyond the realm of cycling and making their way into general Italian culture, as American ex-pat writer and photographer James Martin describes here. It's like a bizarre ode to simplicity: some people use instant messages, the Italians just paint it on the road.