With its roots in New York ghetto subculture, modern graffiti has long been viewed as an outsider art associated with law-breaking youths. Over the years the graffiti community has become increasingly international, yet a life lived outside of the law is far less romantic than it sounds.
Italian-born Valerio Polici started documenting members of the graffiti movement two years ago. “I was in a subway station in Lisbon and noticed a group of guys who were changing their clothes and covering their faces while hiding from surveillance cameras. They walked along the platform and entered the tunnel. My first reaction was a mixture of adrenaline and curiosity; then I saw their bags were full of spray cans. I spotted security guards running towards the tunnel so I told the lookout. Before long I began hanging out with them and photographing their missions.”
Following the graffiti writers across Europe to South America, Polici became part of their cocoon-like community, documenting their every move. “Living, running, sleeping together, I found myself in the weirdest places and situations,” writes Polici. “They have the ‘keys’ to the cities; they know every corner, every street, every station – and they love the danger.”
An element that unites graffiti artists is a refusal to grow up, says Polici, and a need to escape from adult life and the responsibilities it brings. Graffiti tagging becomes the perfect way to realise this desire to live a life full of adventure and to be free; yet this impression is an illusory one, he says – the reality can be very different as many people find themselves locked into an existence from which they are unable to escape. The sense of exhilaration and danger is addictive. “It is absolutely exciting. You are immersed in a microcosm, where everything assumes a different meaning. Time is counted in heartbeats and [your] senses reach a maximum level. Danger is always around the corner. The risk is especially high if you paint subways – the hardest target to paint.”
Polici photographs alone, mostly using a small camera, which allows him to respond more freely and naturally to moments as they occur. Subways are his preferred locations “because they offer richer and more animated scenarios”, and he plays with lines and light to achieve his gritty, high-contrast images. The biggest challenges are of a physical nature, he says. “Going underground through a drain for thirty metres, spending entire nights in absurd places, and [running] down station platforms without being seen from cameras – I had to train for this,” he says. “Taking photographs [in these conditions] also becomes complex. The light is often too weak and things happen too fast. Usually, I trust my instinct and let my sensations drive my visions. With time I’ve learned to manage the adrenaline and be able to wait calmly for that moment or light I was searching for.
“I followed these people for a long time and shared very intense experiences with them so a book seems the most appropriate way to depict these stories,” he adds. “I don’t feel the project has ended, but there is a good base. I think now is the time to start showing the work and giving as much value to it as possible.”
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