Life as a Street Artist, Part 3,
People of the Streets.
This post, Life as a Street Artist Part 2, is an excerpt from my book, Asphalt Renaissance, available on Amazon.
Eventually, Wenner did accept several large commissions from people he met on the street. Creating copies of masterworks in a permanent medium was not to his liking, and it was another year before he felt ready to create original permanent works of art. The homeless meant no harm and merely hoped to profit a little from the people strolling through the city after hours. Since Wenner was familiar with the challenges of life as a street artist, he empathized with them and thought about how he and they could both benefit.
Once I began making original compositions on the street, it became more important to me to protect the painting from damage or destruction by the elements. I wanted to spend my time moving the picture forward, not repairing damage. Sun, wind, and rain all took their toll, but Rome’s large population of vagrants was a problem as well. In order to make a little money at night after I had gone home, they would strip away the protective plastic and pretend to work on the painting, drawing invisible strokes with a cigarette butt in place of a piece of chalk.
Wenner after Parmigianino. Madonna di Santa Margherita. Rimini, Italy. In the summer, street painters follow the Italians in their migration from the cities to the coastlines and mountains.
To protect the paintings, he enlisted and paid the more capable street people to guard his work when he wasn’t there. They had a pecking order among themselves, so they worked out their various shifts of protecting the picture. During each turn, a man would pass himself off as the creator of the artwork, collecting all the gratuities and compliments. Late one evening as Wenner passed by on his way home, he saw one of the “assistants” giving an elaborate art history discourse to a small, spellbound group of Romans. As he looked to be about seventy years old, with blackened teeth, he seemed to fit the stereotype of a street painter. He had listened to Wenner respond to frequently asked questions and had memorized many facts and concepts and could now deliver his own lecture with great conviction and gusto. When a person attempted to commission a painting from him, he cited the purity of his work, asserting with disdain that his work was “true art” and could not be sold.
Wenner after Parmigianino, St. John
When a picture was completed and there was no rain, Wenner would occasionally take a break for a few days to enjoy the city and its endless treasures. His “assistants” would take over the painting and collect the offerings. They proved to be invaluable, for not only did they look after the artwork, but also they enabled him to hold on to his prime location indefinitely. An unwritten law among street painters is that good sites are always available on a first-come, first-served basis. No other artist will take over an area as long as someone else is working on an image. However, there can be a race to grab a lucrative spot the minute it is empty, even if it is because rain has erased the image. Over time, Wenner’s images grew so large and impressive that the space on Via del Corso was no longer sufficiently lucrative for other street painters with their smaller and simpler images, yet it was still important for his street assistants to guard the spot from drifters or addicts.
Advice to artists. Rome’s “Flower Lady” was a familiar sight in the 1980s. She called out advice to the street painters and reminded the public to make a drop.
I came to know many of the street people, such as an old crone selling roses. When my painting site was especially crowded, the Flower Lady would appear out of nowhere and push her way through the spectators. Pretending to berate me, she would work the crowd, waving her hands in the air crying, “What’s this? Not again! I keep telling you not to paint these large, complicated works. What do we know about art? Give us some little Madonna or a saint and we’re happy. Forget these large masterpieces! You work for days, and does anyone understand it? No, they don’t. Just look at these baskets—empty! You make nothing. Just paint some simple little Madonna, and then people will give you something!” Naturally, her harangue would cause the crowd to drop lots of money into the baskets. After they had dispersed, she would quietly circle the painting and pluck a couple of bills from each of the baskets as compensation. Before departing, she would leave behind an offering of some particularly poor roses.
Sorting coins. Italian banks did not exchange coins for bills, but when carefully counted and rolled, street painters could hope to spend them.
Early street painters survived on bread, wine, olive oil, and an occasional coin received as donations for their work. By the time Wenner began street painting, coins and small bills made up the bulk of the offerings. He depended on the tips he received, and the virtuosity of his work attracted such appreciation that it ended up causing a considerable problem: too many coins! Most Italian coins were worth very little, which meant there were a lot of them in circulation. As a result, the banks refused to change them into bills or accept them for deposit, and very few merchants would agree to be paid with them.
The baristas at La Tazza d’Oro, a café Wenner frequented, told him to bring his coins in and they’d exchange them. That evening, he hauled a large sack bulging with change back to La Tazza d’Oro. The baristas were shocked at the quantity of soldini (small change). After a rapid-fire discussion involving much gesticulation, they poured the coins into the bags used to sell coffee beans and placed them on the scale to determine their value. It wasn’t long before the Tazza d’Oro had all the coins it could possibly use. Wenner had to find other means to exchange or spend them. In order to possibly convince a merchant to accept the coins, Wenner needed to roll and carefully label them.
Weighing coins. The Italian lira was a bulk currency. Pound for pound, its value was roughly the same as espresso coffee or parmesan cheese. Street painters brought home many kilos of coins each day. Alfredo, the kind manager of the famous bar Tazza d’Oro, weighs and bags Wenner’s coins.
Then, to be on the safe side, he would let a merchant know up front that he needed to pay with them. It took effort to convince others to accept the neat bundles as payment, but his efforts were rewarded with a good meal, an evening at the opera, or a train ticket for more extensive sightseeing. Eventually, his earnings enabled him to rent a room in a pensione across from the Pantheon. He also found a small room in a nearby piazza to use as a studio. He now had lodging and a studio in the heart of Rome, with his work site just around the corner. He received roughly four thousand coins each week, which meant he could scarcely carry the heavy sacks away at the end of each day. In his studio, there were so many bags piled up that there was practically no room to move, and all the merchants he knew had already accepted buckets of change from him. On one particularly lucrative day, he had to call a taxi, as the coins weighed too much to carry. When the driver arrived, he tried to casually lift the bag so as not to call attention to how much money he had made. In front of everyone, the handles ripped off, leaving the heavy bag firmly planted on the ground. The crowd instantly understood what had happened and went wild with laughter, applauding his good fortune.
Wenner after Barocci. The Deposition. Milan, Italy. This piece was photographed by National Geographic as part of a documentary on street painting.
Luckily, Wenner heard about a pizzeria near the Trevi Fountain that was always short of change, because tourists would cast their coins into the fountain before deciding to buy a slice of pizza. Wenner approached the owner, who offered to take all the coins off his hands for a reduced price per pound. It took several trips to transport all the bags from the Pantheon piazza over to the Trevi Fountain. The owner instructed his workers to accept the coins in his absence, most likely thinking there would be just a few sacks full. When he returned, he discovered that his storeroom was full of coins.
During Easter, Rome fills with pilgrims, making it the one time of the year when lots of artists arrive to work on the streets. Rather than compete for space, I suggested to several street painting friends that we work in groups and occupy four heavily trafficked sites. Because we were spread out all over the city, we needed someplace to store our earnings. Each evening, we’d mix all the money together, divide out the bills, and place the coins in my camper, which was parked illegally in front of the Bank of Italy. There were no legal parking spaces near my work site, and I figured the camper was too heavy to be towed, as the wheels had flattened under the weight of the coins. By the end of the week, the vehicle must have had more coins than the bank itself.
Wenner. Barocci Deposition detail.
After the Easter festivities came to a close, Wenner and his street painting friends decided to take a day in the countryside to sort, count, roll, and divide up the coins. They packed a picnic of bread, sausages, cheese, and wine, and headed out to the hills of Frascati. They set to work, but soon conversation and good food took over and no one felt much like going through the coins. As the light began to fade, they piled up the sacks and covered them with dry leaves, marking the spot for another day. The group never did go back for the coins.
When Wenner made his first street painting in Rome, he had no knowledge what laws might govern the art form. As it turned out, street painting is considered a valid form of popular art and is not illegal. However, it is a bit like parking in that it is legal to park in many places—but not everywhere. The problem with street painting is that the legal spaces are not delineated, and asking for permission from the authorities is seldom effective. No official will deny permission, but they will rarely grant it, either. The bottom line is that if you want to be a street painter, you have to accept the possibility of being moved on by the police.
The vigili urbani. The vigili urbani were the branch of police who confronted street painters. The public would typically get involved and side with the artist.
Frequently, on the first day in a new location the police would show up in the late morning. Shopkeepers would typically call them when a street painter starts to work. Madonnari were not known for causing any threat; therefore, it would generally take the police quite some time to appear. By the time they arrived, the image was usually well under way. The police tended to watch Wenner paint for a while before speaking with the shopkeeper, and they normally left without saying anything. Wenner had only one serious encounter with a particularly aggressive officer. A vigile urbano (traffic officer) arrived at his painting, bellowing, “Get out of here!” while kicking over the baskets and sending coins rolling every which way. Wenner would have normally tried to reason with the officer, but in this particular case he was working with a friend, a German baron who loved to act the part when angered. The baron told the vigile, “I’m a real artist, so you should call a real policeman.” While this was all well and good for his friend, Wenner had been in the country far past the official three-month entry limit. The last thing he wanted was a real policeman showing up.
Thanks to my friend, a carabiniere with the power of arrest was on his way! The officer arrived on a gleaming motorcycle, wearing an impeccable uniform. The vigile was by this time in a heated discussion with a crowd of angry spectators. The carabiniere didn’t hide his irritation with the vigile, and proceeded to humiliate him by loudly informing him that we were permitted to street paint, and that it was unfathomable that he had been disturbed for this. The baron reveled in the spectators’ praise, while I disappeared in search of a stiff drink. The Romans always love a good show, and on my return I found our baskets overflowing.
Wenner. Madonna di Rimini. Rimini, Italy. When Wenner tired of copying existing masterpieces, he improvised his own compositions. Pictures such as this were done without preparatory drawings.
The most dramatic confrontation with the police occurred in Naples. The neighborhood priest asked Wenner to create a street painting of San Gennaro for the saint’s feast day. The saint’s dried blood is kept in a reliquary in the church and publicly displayed while prayers are said for the miracle of San Gennaro to occur (the liquefaction of the blood). Wenner had just started painting when a police officer arrived and ordered him to move on. Wenner returned to the church and found the priest.
The priest said Wenner had his protection and, more important, the protection of San Gennaro. He advised Wenner to return to the painting, adding that the officer would have already departed. Wenner continued working on the street painting for a few hours before the officer returned with a companion. By then, a large crowd had gathered around the painting. The officers politely attempted to pack up his supplies. However, the onlookers stopped them by unpacking everything and putting each item back in its place. The officers attempted to force the issue, but in a moment of inspiration Wenner faced the Neapolitans and asked, “Is it right to destroy the image of a saint on his feast day?” That was more than the people could take. They lifted up the officers and carried them away.
Counting Swiss change. After the Italian lire, Swiss coins were a dream. No matter how hard the work was, Wenner always felt a bit illicit counting the change at the end of the day, like a small-time crook.
By midday, the streets were nearly empty and Wenner was still working, but not without a sense of dread. Off in the distance, he heard sirens approaching and decided he had better quickly pack up his belongings. Retreating into the church, he looked through the door to see police cars pulling up alongside his work. He ran upstairs and interrupted the priest, who was eating lunch. Wenner apologized and explained that the polizia had just arrived. Calmly, the priest said, “You have my protection, you have San Gennaro’s protection, and you have the protection of the Madonna.” He further assured Wenner that all was well and encouraged him to continue with the painting.
Wenner returned downstairs and peered out the door. He could see the polizia cars surrounding his drawing, which now looked like a crime scene. Sensing that the protection of the priest was similar to that of San Gennaro, more spiritual than physical, he opted to put his trust in St. Peter and immediately returned to Rome. He never found out what happened to the painting. Eventually, Wenner would receive a letter from the superintendent of culture, history, and monuments for the region of Campania. The letter gave him sweeping privileges to enter any museum for free and to create a street painting wherever he liked. A similar letter from the Italian national government provided a further talisman. Notwithstanding such high acknowledgments, the possibility of a confrontation never completely disappeared.
Wenner. Madonna of Lucerne. Lucerne, Switzerland. Wenner improvised such pieces to study the perspective effects he would later formalize to create his illusionistic pieces.
Wenner headed to Rome, looking forward to being back on its familiar streets. He had many pleasurable months creating large, elaborate paintings for the appreciative Roman audience. With the arrival of the summer heat, however, the Eternal City is transformed into a ghost town, and without the Romans to set an example of tossing a coin or two in a street painter’s basket, the earnings evaporate. The year before, Wenner had booked a room at a pensione in Rimini, on the Adriatic coast, where he spent the summer working among the hordes of bathers that fill the coastline. Always in pursuit of new sites and experiences, he decided to try summer in Switzerland.
Street painting in Switzerland is not universally permitted. Some cities allow it if you’ve paid for a permit, while in others the police will allow you to stay on as long as they see the locals enjoying your work. Wenner knew about the regulations in just a few cities, which meant the easiest way to find out if it was permitted in the rest was to start a painting and see what happened. He was fined just once, in Montreux. Generally, if street painting wasn’t permitted he was politely asked to move on within a day or two. The Swiss keep a tight rein on their cities with the help of surveillance cameras, and whenever a policeman approached Wenner the officer knew exactly where Wenner had parked and how long he had been painting, and even had a good approximation of his earnings.
Wenner. The Bern Entombment. Bern, Switzerland. Wenner collaged together photographs of his early works until he found the proper lens to document his works.
Life on the street in Switzerland is much easier than in Italy, and the pavement is so immaculate that there is never any need to wash it off before starting a painting. The Swiss are also generous with their donations, which they consider to be a tip rather than a religious offering or a handout. My only complaint about working in Switzerland is the weather. Even in summer, it turns bitterly cold with icy Alpine winds the minute a storm comes up. The storms not only move in swiftly, but they drop a lot of rain and hail as well. Most of my paintings had to survive several bouts of rainfall before completion. When the weather was good, Switzerland was spectacular; there was no better place to be. In Lucerne and Lausanne, I did paint beside crystal-clear lakes filled with elegant swans.
The Swiss accepted street paintings with secular subjects, and this gave Wenner the opportunity to branch out from the traditional religious compositions expected by Italian audiences. The tranquil environment, combined with the flexibility the Swiss showed toward the subject matter, allowed him to progress toward developing his own style of street painting and experiment with allegorical and mythological themes. On the sidewalks alongside the lakes, Wenner first began to refine and formalize the geometry of his anamorphic illusions. Like a true madonnaro, he eventually developed a circuit of lucrative and friendly cities to paint in, and his reputation grew as he traveled among Italy, Switzerland, and Germany.
To read further, continue to: The Sacred Roots of Street Painting, Part 1.