This past winter, on a visit to Italy, I managed to sneak away to Rome for a couple of days. I took in the sites: the Coliseum, Fontana di Trevi, Piazza del Popolo and, of course, the Piazza di Spagna where I dropped by the Keats Museum, ironically situated right by a store named Byron’s. I bought a cup of nocciola gelato somewhere on the north end of famed Via Del Corso and began my leisurely stroll down the street. Stopping to window-shop overpriced designer items, I bobbed and weaved through the modest winter crowd and occasional honking cars. Then, a funny thing happened: I found some hip-hop. Or, rather, when I least expected it, hip-hop found me.
I began to notice a series of posters with the same image: a black head and shoulders punctuated by the exclamation marks of dread locks and white slit-like eyes that, to borrow T.S. Eliot’s formulation, “I dare not meet in dreams.” I followed the posters to the unassuming front entrance of Palazzo Ruspoli, a museum run by Fondazione Memmo. The image, I learned, was a self-portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat. The museum’s main exhibit, dedicated to the late-hip-hop-influenced artist, was called “Fantasmi da scacciare” or “To Repel Ghosts,” a titled derived from a series of his paintings.
Of course, Basquiat has a vexed relation to hip-hop culture insofar as he was the principal figure in a group of graffiti-inspired artists who moved wildstyle tagging from off the street and into the museum: “Upper Manhattanites and Europeans who had supported the explosion of Pop Art during the 1960s,” writes Jeff Chang in his history of hip-hop, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, “rushed in to buy anything marketed as graffiti. In a year, Jean-Michel Basquiat…went from homelessness to international art stardom.”
The pastel work “Both Poles,” from 1982, is a nice illustration of Basquiat’s contradictory position: at the canvas’s center is a haphazardly-drawn circle, serving double-duty as the world or the head; inside, there are two faces, one black and one red, images representative of a struggle between divergent interests: hip-hop versus the art world, the artist versus the market, the self versus self-destruction. Basquiat frames the painting’s conflicted center with two violent images: an axe and a barbed wire. Either pole, then, is likely to inflict its own kind of pain.
The exhibit included a total of three paintings to which Basquiat applied the title “To Repel Ghosts” (though there are many others). As curator Olivier Berggruen explains, Basquiat took to the phrase “to repel ghosts” after Swiss diplomat Claudio Caratsch, working for many years in Africa, explained to Basquiat that often African art and artifacts served the everyday functions of repelling ghosts. In 1986’s acrylic on wood, resembling a boarded up window or storefront, Basquiat paints the phrase across the middle panel of wood and underneath places a “TM” (for Trademarked).
Like most hip-hop artists, Basquiat is acutely aware of branding’s value; the utilitarian function of everyday art and artifact (“to repel ghosts”) becomes an advertising slogan in a proprietary field that uses, abuses, and ultimately disabuses artists of the romance of art as above and beyond market forces. But oil works using the same slogan and from the same year show Basquiat effacing the phrase, placing black paint over the ghosts, in effect repelling (etymologically, to push back) the repelling of ghosts, as if trying to rescue the idea’s intention from profane sloganeering.
Ultimately, as I walked through the gallery, I was overwhelmed by a singular feeling toward these various works. In their ghostly afterlife, circulating well-beyond New York’s boroughs, Basquiat’s numerous self-portraits, for example, seemed— dare I say— rather innocuous in spite of their informal, riotous technique. I was neither repelled nor attracted. I found myself less interested in those infamous excesses of image-color juxtapositions, and more interested in the quieter, text-heavy works, like “Ghost” (1986), “Tuxedo” (1982) and “Famous” (1982).
In part, this response I think was shaped by the first part of my trip. I spent the majority of my time in Italy’s south, the province of Calabria, in the city of Cosenza. Cosenza is lovely little city, with a river running through it and mountainous area surrounding. The population is, roughly, 90,000. And, like most cities in Italy’s south, it is seriously strapped for cash. Job’s are scarce (though the sex-trade is booming). Most young people go north for employment, leaving an egregiously aged population behind; and in recent years, an influx of immigrants, especially Chinese, has put further strain on already over-stressed education and health care systems.
Not surprisingly, in this climate, graffiti is everywhere. And it’s simple and direct: black, angular scribbles. It ranges from elegiac laments for the south that would make Quasimodo blush to expletive-filled political invectives directed, more often than not, specifically at Prime Minister Berlusconi, much in the news of late, who is thought to have abandoned the south. (And of course you’ll find the occasional encomium for the city’s soccer team! Like the city, the team’s also been struggling of late.)
Compared to these smarting scribbles, then, Basqiuat’s work seems downright quaint. So I guess somewhere between Palazzo Ruspoli’s well-lit walls and Cosenza’s decrepitude is where you might find— or at least ruminate on— something like hip-hop’s spirit. Of course, if it proves too difficult to find and too tiresome to think about, you can always just pop in to downtown Cosenza’s Timberland store (hip-hop’s unofficial footwear sponsor) and buy a pair of boots, just like Tupac or Biggie.