There’s a lot more to Rome’s art-scene than Michelangelo, Raphael and the titans of the Renaissance housed in spectacular churches and magnificent galleries. Art is a living, breathing reflection of the places where it’s made, and the street art inscribed onto walls all across the city paints a vivid urban portrait of Rome as it exists today. Iconic repositories of art like the Sistine Chapel or the Capitoline Museum show us how the city was in the past, and how art was deployed as a tool of political power and religious ideology. The bright and almost infinitely varied images hidden away in Rome’s lived-in suburbs trace a very different story of art’s relationship to the metropolis. To discover how the city is right now we must look at the vivid images emblazoned on its walls, shutters and even rubbish. Everywhere you look new works of street-art are popping up in Rome, and if you keep your eyes open and walk through the city’s streets can be a fascinating journey through Rome’s largest open-air museum. To discover this beautiful and fascinating secret side to the city you have to go far off the beaten track, away from the tourist haunts of the centre, but trust us - it’s definitely worth the detour. As there’s so much to see, and no signposts to guide the way through, you could do with some local advice. So read on to discover where to go to see some of the best examples in the first instalment of our guide to Rome’s Street Art, in the bustling quarter of San Lorenzo. All the works can be found on the interactive map at the bottom of this page if you want to follow this itinerary yourself!
Art and Urban Regeneration on the Other Side of the Tracks
The historically working-class neighbourhood of San Lorenzo is nestled behind the train tracks leading out from Rome’s Termini train station, and today is home to a large young population thanks to its proximity to Sapienza University. Heavily bombed during World War II, San Lorenzo’s still slightly scruffy-around the-edges urban aesthetic and youthful demographic makes it a natural home for street art. Colourful murals seem to adorn nearly every wall in the area: over the last decade street artists have left their mark here, giving shape to the neighbourhood’s distinctive visual landscape. And it’s not only local talent – some of the best works around here were painted by artists from as far afield as France, Iran, Russia and Peru. Unfortunately some graffitists have taken exception to street artists monopolising the quarter’s walls with their colourful visions, and have attempted to efface many of their works. But whilst the scene is not quite as spectacular as it was during its height 5 or so years ago, enough fantastic works remain to make it well worth exploring – and new images are popping up all the time.
Via dei Sardi: The Fight Against Domestic Violence
Unsurprisingly given the area’s historical reputation as a hotbed of left-wing politics, many of these works contain a strong social message. One of the most powerful street-art projects in the area (and perhaps anywhere) foregrounds the issue of violence against women. To mark International Women’s Day in 2012, Elisa Caracciolo painted a continuous row of identical white female outlines joining hands along the entire length Via dei Sardi. Each of the original 107 forms represented a woman killed in acts of domestic violence in Italy in the previous year, identified by a small inscription on the outline. Every year new forms have been added to the row, which now stretches around the corner and onto Via degli Enotri, in order to keep this stark artistic chronicle up to date. More recently, Luca Ximenes has added a complementary mural across the road – here again women join hands, but this time instead of Carraciolo’s white outlines they have the solid forms of living people, painted in vivid tones of blue and white. These women seem to look to a harmonic future where gender-based violence is eradicated as something completely intolerable in a civilised world.
Via dei Sabelli: The Powerful Women of Alice Pasquini
Alice Pasquini is one of Rome’s best-known urban artists, and her work reflects of how street-art is a personal expression of a relationship to the city. As Alice herself explains, ‘I grew up with this feeling that I wanted to seize the streets and leave my own imprint on them.’ She’s certainly done that in San Lorenzo, where her massive and intricate cityscape mural extending for an entire city block on Via dei Sabelli provides a fascinating alternative reality to the metropolis we know. In this fantastical dream-like vision, female figures flit about in a brooding monochrome cityscape. One women closes her eyes in silent contemplation as cars rush by; others engage in gymnastics and athletics, or stare out of the picture-plane towards the viewer. A young girl pauses and looks outwards balancing on a scooter, as others play on swings, read books, or just hang out on a park bench; a boy clutches his mother’s hand and a young couple share a passionate kiss. The whole is enlivened with vivid splashes of blue paint dappled across the scene, and streaks of yellow and pink.
Unfortunately some of her mural has been covered by graffiti in an on-going dispute between the city’s taggers and street-artists, but it remains an exceptional example of large-scale public art. The prolific Alice’s vibrant celebrations of female empowerment seem to crop up all over Rome, her distinctive style adorning the roller-shutters of news-kiosks, electrical boxes and even rubbish bins - don’t miss her beautiful Dreaming Girl in Testaccio. Nestled amidst her work on Via dei Sabelli is a beautiful twin-portrait by Pier the Rain. Head to the end of the street to see Hogre’s massive image of a woman contemplating a light-bulb next to a ‘flammable’ warning sign high up on the wall of what was once the occupied community-space Omnia sunt Communia. It was controversially knocked down in 2013 to make way for apartments and a parking garage, but Hogre’s image survived, and now looks reprovingly down onto the building site.
Via degli Ausoni: Joining the Rat Race and Seeking Enlightenment
The long ‘communal wall’ of Via degli Ausoni, leading perpendicularly off Via dei Sabelli, is maybe the most important space for street art in San Lorenzo. In April 2010 a group of highly talented artists joined forces to contribute a work each to the unassuming wall bordering a football pitch in an event organised by Elsewhere Factory, firmly establishing San Lorenzo as an important stomping ground for street-art. This open-air gallery doesn’t shine quite as brightly as it did back then, and a number of the original works have been effaced over the last 8 years. Hogre’s psychedelic update of Hamlet meditating over Yorick’s skull, in which a green-skinned man contemplates a bone-white cranium, is sadly only partly visible. Covered over too are works by Hopnn, Agostino, Hitness and more, but you can see the wall in its original glory here. Some fantastic images are still visible today however. There’s Hogre’s rather charming rabbit in a hurry, wearing a suit and tie and carrying a briefcase, nervously checking a pocket watch that seems to be melting in his hand. Further down the wall a mural by the female collective Studi Arturo offers a way out of Hogre’s rat (or rabbit) race. A massive eight-armed Hindu deity proffers brushes and other painting materials in her many hands – art is the answer! Then there’s Honi’s disturbing but tongue-in-cheek image of a woolly monster being cut to pieces by vicious bunnies armed with saws. Much of Lapisanplus’ black and white image of tree-trunks survive, and don’t miss either the haunting remains of Diamond’s beautiful portrait of a young woman’s head in three profiles, apparently Titian’s three-headed allegory of age and time reworked for the digital age. Surviving too is Omino71’s upside-down pop-art head, Murphy’s apocalyptic scene and #’s human-canine hybrid chasing a shoal of fish. Some new works keep the tradition of the collective wall alive: Ebresk’s touching tribute to Rome sees the city’s mythical she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus as an elegant Middle-Eastern woman and a hummingbird look on. The caption below explains all – ‘From Persia with Love.’ Ebresk is one of the Iranian capital Tehran’s most renowned street-artists.
Via dei Volsci: Hunger Strikers, Partisans and Melting Faces
Things gets political around the historic left-wing meeting houses of Via dei Volsci, near the ancient Aurelian walls. A portrait of controversial Irish hunger-striker, politician and IRA member Bobby Sands rubs shoulders with murals lauding equal rights and female empowerment; commemorations of the partisans who fought against fascism here in the second world war sit alongside a manga-inspired condemnation of nuclear weapons. Next to this a bird is released from a manacled hand surrounded by barbed wire accompanied with the (understandable) refrain: ‘I hate prison.’ Not everything is so explicitly political on this street, though. Beautiful trees laden down with fruit and flowers snake up yellowed walls; musical notation flits across brickwork, whilst a fearsome cartoon character with a killer Mohawk grimaces nearby. Maybe most interesting of all is Broken Fingaz’ terrifying black and white image inspired by 1950s advertising of a couple standing on what is obviously Via dei Volsci itself. As they gaze at each other, their faces are beginning to fuse and melt into one fleshy mass. The texture of their deformed faces seems to recall melting cheese, and an inscription above confirms the suspicion – “MOZZARELLA!”
Make your way finally down to the other end of Via dei Volsci, where in Piazza dei Sanniti you can see a work by the duo Sten and Lex, well-known all around Europe for covering entire buildings with their stencil works. Here their large black-and-white portrait of a woman in the medium of wheat-paste dominates the façade of the community events-space Ex-Cinema Palazzo. Also hidden on this piazza is a bow-tied man by Ebresk – a recurring figure in the artist’s work in Tehran. As you’re in the area take a 2 minute detour up to Via dei Dalmati, where you can see Russian artist Alesha’s virtuso Blue Teeth. Dotted along the street are also Koi’s beautiful little pasted images of ballerinas, dogs and more.
Via dei Marsi: Crazy Creatures and James Dean
Don’t miss the works by Exit/Enter and James Boy on Via dei Marsi in the centre of San Lorenzo - the two often collaborate together and you can find their linked works all over the city. Exit/Enter’s dreamlike creature seems like somewhere between a dog and some kind of ship, in a constant state of mutation. Jame’s Boy’s rather friendly looking flying creature pierced with an arrow seems to be reaching out a chained arm towards Exit/Enter’s dog from an adjacent stretch of wall. Further along Via die Marsi, outside a tobacconist, is pixel artist Krayon’s fantastic portrait of James Dean smoking a cigarette. Lower on the wall just to the left is a small stencil portrait by the inimitable Hogre with one of his most recognisable ironic refrains - ‘What’s Hogre?’
Via dei Lucani: Fish, Snakes and Artist’s Portraits
Via dei Lucani is one of the quietest streets in San Lorenzo, home mostly to warehouses, abandoned yards and underground clubs – but it is also host to some great street art. First up is Fulviet’s beautiful mural of a hand clutching a clothes-peg (in reality the lintel of a door) setting free tiny human forms that transform into birds and take flight. Across the road is Diamond’s Lady Cobret, an anthropomorphic snake wrapping around a precious gem. Nearby a map of the world transforms into a human head with two faces and one eye with an allusive verbal message of inclusion below: ‘We is The Only Person of the Verb To Be.’ Also here is HNRX’s somewhat disturbing hybrid of a human intestine and a salami. Absolutely unmissable are two nearly-hidden portraits on the door-jamb of the nightclub Locanda Atlantide at 22B. These are by the French artist C215, whose Caravaggio homages frequently crop up in San Lorenzo – one is of Alice Pasquini herself, the artist of the mural on Via dei Sabelli, and is in a style you might call a comic-book update of Caravaggio. At the top of the street are the renowned Peruvian street artist Carlos Atoche’s colourful fish, swimming serenely across a changing canvas of walls, posts and gates. Take a quick detour around the corner onto Via di Porta Labicana to admire another work by Atoche, four brightly coloured women in exotic headdresses staring out of a carpenter’s front yard.
Scalo San Lorenzo: Classical Busts, Faces of Terror and Celebrations of Love
Hemmed in by train tracks and dominated by a motorway flyover overhead, Scalo San Lorenzo is certainly not the quarter’s most picturesque street – but for that very reason it’s a must visit on our street-art itinerary. Definitely worth seeking out is a tender expression of racial and sexual tolerance in a series of three images of couples kissing midway along the street – one a straight mixed-race couple, one a gay white couple, and one a lesbian mixed-race couple. On a rather unloved stretch of the wall beneath an underpass where the street meets Via dei Reti, the Spanish artist Borondo’s large image of eyes peeking fearfully through a hand-covered face is both disquieting and captivating. The technical quality of this painting is extremely high, and Borondo has uploaded a brilliant video showing the lengthy and complex process of making this mural to YouTube. If you’re unsure as to whether street murals should count as ‘real’ art, this video might just be the thing to convince you! Nearby is the entrance to Sapienza University’s department of Oriental Studies, adorned by three fabulous classically inspired heads lying on their sides. These are again by the exceptionally talented Atoche – his historically engaged art on San Lorenzo’s walls vividly points to how art continues to live on and change with the times in the city, but is at the same time fully engaged with the many faces of Rome’s cultural heritage. These are only a few of the images that make San Lorenzo such a vibrant area of the city. To discover many more, or plan a route so you can see them for yourselves, see our interactive illustrated map at the link below.