Beyond the churches, the cacio e pepe and the Colosseum, there’s some serious stencil and spray paint. A current of social and political street art continues to penetrate the city, from the heart of the Vatican to the hidden corners of Testaccio, Pigneto and Ostiense. Colors and figures pronounced, the voices of contemporary artists stand out as street art culture grows into a prominent modern backdrop among the ruins. And Mauro Pallotta is one particular leading Italian force in the scene whose latest work, Santa Claus in Battledress, went up last month. Read on.
The Roman native has been a front row observer and participant in the changes (and lack thereof) throughout the romance and distress of the eternal city. Known for Super Pope, posted around the corner from St. Peter’s Basilica, he is also noted for his original acrylic spray and wool steel technique among his unique approaches to mixed mediums. Little did he know that his 2014 Super Pope would pave the way for global exposure. The mural, which depicts a heroic pop art version of Pope Francis, was an overnight success. The Vatican Communications tweeted the artwork and within hours upon his return to the site, hundreds of journalists awaited him.
I first discovered Signor Pallotta, aka MauPal, on my morning routine through Borgo Pio. Revolution, mice chasing a cat, was sprayed in black at the base of a wall along the street. I snapped a photo of his signature. Having passed unknowingly within steps of Super Pope, I had already noticed a thread of MauPal works throughout the neighborhood and decided to hit up Google. Here I discovered Super Pope and how widespread MauPal’s work has become, not just in Rome but around the world. Curious about his story and what prompted his artwork, I reached out to the artist to learn more about the man behind the murals.
Tell me about your background. To better understand some of your work, it is important to understand also the man behind it. What was growing up in Rome like, and do you remember certain events as a child? When did you decide to pursue your education at the Academy of Fine Arts? Do you have artists in your family?
MP: Growing up in the core centre of Rome has been a key element in my education and childhood. When you grow up surrounded by art pieces and historical ruins, you develop an esthetical inclination naturally. When I was 8, I realised that Art could be for me the language to use if I wanted to express myself, and so I started drawing my relatives’ portraits. However, I come from a very “common” family, and I don’t have any artists in my genealogic tree. As a child, my parents supported me drawing and playing with colours. Yet, when they realized that I wanted to pursuit a career as an artist, they tried to stop me. They didn’t mean to be mean with me, but to prevent me for being economical frustrated.
As an artist, have you ever found yourself overwhelmed with ways to express your work and your messages? Having a strong political and social emphasis throughout your work, do you find it imperative to consider your audience or do you speak to the world at large?
MP: My aim is to express complex political and social affaires in a simple way. My wish is to make simple art that is able to explain complex plots. In other words, I try to let people “read” the news via my artworks. To do so, my brush stroke is light, fun, ironic, and I use pop symbols and oxymorons. These are my means to let the audience think about what it is surrounding us, and let them be involved in it. I hope and believe, that using POP art, simple colours and brief concepts, I can make it easy to understand the message for an audience with no interest in politics.
Upon the completion of Super Pope, did you anticipate the reaction and notoriety that this work gained? And did the success of Super Pope impact your approach to your work, or your following works knowing there was a much larger audience?
I absolutely didn’t expect having such a success with this image. The Super Pope was a spontaneous street art event. Before sticking it to the wall, I even had some reservations about doing it or not: I was depicting the Pope, illegally, not far away the Vatican city. It could be potentially dangerous for me as a person and for my career as an artist. After the mural, I haven’t changed the way I create street art, nor my media expectations. However, it is true that from 2014 my art pieces gained worldwide visibility. I am glad about it, because it means that the message of my work is universally readable.
You were around for the Great Jubilee in 2000, and now this year in Rome. Does it feel different this time? Will you be participating? And do you have strong opinions about Pope Francesco that you didn’t expect, or that differ greatly from those of the previous Pope John Paul II? Are you open about your faith and religious beliefs and have they changed over the years?
MP: The main different between the two jubilees is that the world itself has changed during the time. Although both Pope Francis and John Paul II are Popes, they cover different roles within the world society and humanity. On one hand, John Paul II supported us with optimism and courage in getting out of the tunnel of the cold war. On the other hand, Pope Francis shows us a way to follow, that it is based on deep moral values. He is trying to re-establish the catholic principles and the values of common sense and to replace them in core of the eastern society. I am sure that everyone believes is something, even though they don’t profess a specific religion.
In fact, we are used to consider the main monotheist religions as three: Juism, Christianity and Islam. However, it pops out to me that there is another monotheist faith that is gaining ground from the last century. It is Atheism, or the faith on Money and Power. Fair enough, the Frankfurter School already evangelized it in the 70s.
He is trying to re-establish the catholic principles and the values of common sense and to replace them in core of the eastern society. I am sure that everyone believes is something, even though they don’t profess a specific religion.
What is the greatest thing about Rome, the Roman people, and the people who come from around the world to be in Rome?
MP: The greatest thing about Rome is its historical stratification. It is a real en plain air museum and this feature makes Rome unique in the whole universe! Thanks it, the Roman’s behaviour is disenchanted and cosmopolite, although it apparently seems not to be so. The roman guy seems to be narrow-minded and bored, but in reality he/she is proud and open-minded. Just think that for centuries, Rome was the biggest metropole and bellybutton of the world. What characterizes people who come to Rome is their feeling of surprise. And that is something I envy them.
What are some of your favorite places to visit in Rome?
MP: They are too many to list here. I tell you just a couple of my favourites: the Pantheon, Santa Sabila al Oranges Garden and Sant Clemente in Laterano. This very basilica allows you perceiving the historical stratification I mentioned before.
As a native, having spent time around the world and being so committed to your city, and your country, what do you think has changed the most in the last five years about Italian culture? And how do you think art can improve retain the beauty of Roman culture and the authenticity of Italy?
MP: I believe that Italy is culturally too much linked to its ancient time. That said, every change is slower here than in the other eastern countries. In a way, my job aims to push a quicker “progress” to the society. With “progress”, I mean awareness, modernization to an equal social structure of the society and the providing of public services.
In a way, my job aims to push a quicker “progress” to the society. With “progress”, I mean awareness, modernization to an equal social structure of the society and the providing of public services.
What is one of your favorite pieces of art that you have produced thus far?
MP: Soulcity, the map of one’s soul, visible at Macro Testaccio. Although visually it is not one of the greatest, it is the most meaningful artwork. It is not linked to politics, but it is universal and private at once. It speaks directly and personally to every single viewer, in a different way and differently according to the time.
What is about street art that makes news today? And do you think there is a line of differentiation between street as propaganda, as vandalism, art, education, communication? What are your thoughts in general about street art around the world as it continue to expand with a cult following?
MP: Globalization flatted social classes. I have internet on my mobile and so does the migrant beside me. That is a simple example, but it makes me feel like I am not that distant from him/her. We share something we use in a day-to-day routine and this makes us feel closer to one other. Turning art into something urban made it available to everybody and owned by everyone. Thanks to some artists such as Banksy, who face political and social themes, street art has been accepted as something that concerns us all.
When something is on public domain, it is news. I strongly believe, there is a huge difference between art and decoration, vandalism and one’s propaganda (sometimes even just “art gallery’s propaganda”). It is our duty to translate what we are looking at and collect it in the right “box”. To do so, we should use our own knowledge and conscience.
Who are some of your favorite street artists, and or stencil artists / muralists?
MP: My favourite stencil artist is Banksy and as muralist Borondo. They are very different to each other and to me.
How do you choose where to post your street art? You have pieces all around Rome, is there a motivation behind the actual space you choose?
MP: I believe the right moment is more important than the right place. Let’s think about my Santa Claus depicted as a soldier in battledress. However, it is true that I do care about finding the perfect location. Before fixing anything on wall, I look around to find the right match, and I don’t do any art if I don’t find the right home for my piece. The message comes first, than the place.
Pasolini. What is your most favorite of his work, and can you compare anything today to the work of this great artist from the past? From Hitchcock to the Queen of England and other icons, do you think these figures can live on through generations if artists can continue to create the awareness and carry on the archives? What other great international figures have you thought about depicting in street art?
MP: The intellectual Pasolini himself is so surprising and fresh that his thoughts do still shock nowadays. He is so concrete and contemporary. I believe Pasolini can be compared only with himself, but he can be depicted and promoted by everyone. Art is a way to do it. Referring to my next art pieces, I can guarantee I will touch some other internationally recognized icons, but I can’t tell you who!
Will we see more MauPal on the streets of Rome again? What would be your dream project or ideal collaboration project?
MP: The 23th of December, I just stuck a Santa Claus in Battledress beside the Ottaviano’s underground soldiers. That was my last piece for 2015…a new year just started and I have still 359 ideas to go!