An artist uses chalk to reproduce the painting “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”
An artist uses chalk to reproduce the painting “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”

Temporary Masterpieces

Street art, a term often used in reference to graffiti but that encompasses a range of visual art created in public spaces, is still a controversial issue in cities across the United States. But in Florence, there’s a different mindset about it. Around every corner, it seems a man or woman is creating some form of art. In this environment, where it’s so common to see an artist setting up an easel on the side of the road, I’ve come to appreciate that with art the final product isn’t everything: The process is special, too.

My favorite piece of graffiti so far has to be this stick figure reaching for a red balloon.

My favorite piece of graffiti so far has to be this stick figure reaching for a red balloon.

The methods of production range from painting on glass panels to creating chalk artwork. Before my stay in Italy, I hadn’t seen the latter, but it has slowly become more familiar. Armed with a box of chalk, a paintbrush, and a hat for tips, specialized artists create temporary reproductions of known artworks. The city has partitioned off large squares on the road to support the creation of these street paintings. Working in one of these spaces, an artist will set out a picture, such as “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” using it as a guide to make a light outline on the ground. Layer by layer, he or she will build up the painting with different colors, blending them using a wet paintbrush. It never ceases to amaze me how magnificent these works turn out. By the next morning, all remnants of the masterpiece have been eradicated.

I can think of several reasons why an artist might choose to create something so temporary. Perhaps it’s only for the profit—tips from passersby. After all, selling art street-side is a competitive business in Florence, and chalk art is novel compared to much of what’s seen, perhaps making it more appealing to tourists. However, to go through the demanding process of learning the techniques and performing them regularly, chalk artists must have passion for their work. I don’t think they’re just driven by commerce. It’s why I think there’s an even deeper meaning to creating temporary masterpieces. Isn’t there beauty in allowing your artwork, after spending many hours producing it, to simply wash away? And with the washing away, a blank slate is created—an opportunity to start again.

Decal by Clet

One of Clet’s playful decals.

Another form of street art appears on signs throughout the city. At night the artist Clet creates adhesive decals and then applies them to “No Entry” traffic warnings throughout the city. The decals can be humorous or severe, childish or political. When I first arrived in Florence, I mistakenly assumed they were funny stunts by rebellious youths. But Clet actually has a studio in Florence where he sells paraphernalia, such as posters, t-shirts, and stickers decorated with these infamous symbols. Although it’s almost impossible to walk down a street without being confronted by one of Clet’s works, I still feel a sense of excitement whenever I discover a new decal in the city.

Clet’s decals could be just as transient as chalk art. They are easy to remove, yet more often than not they’re left alone. Technically, his work is illegal. So, why don’t the Florentine officials remove them? I think it’s because Clet is adding to the culture of the city. His work is unsigned, so only those who know of him recognize it as his. In a way, Clet’s art is the opposite of the street paintings. His process is hidden, secretive, while chalk art is on display from beginning to end. It’s because of this that I believe Clet is not just looking for commercial gain, although I’m sure that’s an added benefit.

My painting of a secluded alleyway.

My painting of a secluded alleyway.

Recently, I had my own experience as a street artist. As an assignment for my painting class, I was instructed to paint a secluded alleyway. The experience was unlike anything I’d ever done. Part of this was due to the subject matter (a random alleyway off of the main road), but it was mostly because of my interactions with passersby as I sat curbside on a little stool, using my knees as an easel. Over the course of three hours, I must have had 30 tourists take my photograph as I worked. It was weird, and I quickly began to feel awkward and on display. I was overly aware of what my hands were doing and how certain aspects of the painting just weren’t right. In spite of my discomfort, I was shown an overwhelming amount of support by local artists. I was given thumbs up and encouraged, making the entire experience worthwhile.

As an artist, I tend to be overly critical of my work. Upon finishing my alleyway artwork, I was displeased; I expected more of myself. But now when I think about one of the passersby who took my photograph, I can appreciate the experience more. In some way, I was able to bring a few strangers joy or inspiration. Although they didn’t see the finished product, they enjoyed watching me work on the painting. I guess this brings me back to the idea that art is just as much about the act of creation as it is the finished product.