the freedom of street art in Florence
I don’t know if during your walks in Florence you have ever noticed a street sign decorated with a witty drawing. Maybe you’ve seen David, who carries the white bar of the “No through traffic” sign or a sign that became a cat or a very nasty “drive straight” who’s cleaning his nose. These are only few examples of works by Clet Abraham, probably the most famous street artist active in Florence.
Ten years ago Clet started his intelligent game with the historical centre of Florence, street signs and his drawings. During these years Clet enriched the artistic life of Florence and brightened the historical centre by putting it in dialogue with his art. He turned the San Niccolò tower into a gentle giant by attaching a huge nose to this medieval defensive structure.
In the past Clet faced also long and complicated battles for his artistic freedom. This was the case of the Common Man, the figure of who steps into the future with faith and courage, which was few times removed from the Ponte alle Grazie. This year the Common Man returned on the bridge and he keeps inspiring us by showing that it is possible be free, confident and carefree. This time it seems that the municipal authorities finally understood the importance of this work of art for all the Florentines.
Clet is one of my favourite artists. I love walking throught the streets of Florence looking for new street signs decorated with his drawings. His ideas inspire me and make me think.
Few weeks ago, together with Laura Torsellini from FlorentiArt and Cristina di Giorgio from Musei a Colazione, we went to visit Clet’s studio. We were so lucky as to meet the artist. Clet agreed to sit down and have a talk. Now I can share our conversation with you!
Cristina: First of all, thank you for your time and this interview!
Florence knows you mainly thanks to your works on the street signs. Can I ask you how your artistic career started, and what did you do before you became famous thanks to these projects.
Clet Abraham: I’ve studied art at the Fine Arts Academy in France. Then, for many years I’ve been working as furniture restorer in Rome. For nearly fifteen years I’ve worked as a carpenter, until, finally, I managed to become an artist. When I started my work on the street signs, I’ve already been working as an artist for ten years, facing serious economic difficulties. When I’ve noticed the reaction on the street signs, I understood this was a breaking point in my career.
Cristina: Why did you decide to study art?
Clet Abraham: Because who loves art are mainly women! [laughing] This is the secret! [We all laugh!]
Agata: When did you move to Florence?
Clet Abraham: It’s been fifteen years ago, and it’s been ten years since I started to work with the street signs.
Cristina: Where did this idea for street signs came from?
Clet Abraham: It started with an intuition. As an artist working with the technique of drawing, an artist who wants to represent ideas through this medium, I realized that street signs use a very simple, almost universal language. As it was a research of a language common to all. It’s a visual language. I found this idea very interesting. The question is: how to communicate to a vast number of people in the most direct way possible? For me it was like going back at the very origin of visual communication. So, I stared to draw playing with this language. Initially I maybe had some interesting ideas, but I put them aside.
This idea met another part of me, this part of my character that does not accept any form of imposition. I realised that street signs represent a continuous imposition in our lives. While the public space belongs to all of us, every street is marked with impositions against which we have no right to oppose. The street sings are not democratic. Then, there is Florence. Florence, which wants to be the city of arts but is completely covered with street signs. On one hand in Florence you can’t touch a wall, you can’t draw a tag, because it’s blasphemous, but on the other side the city is filled with the street signs.
Agata: More importantly, the street signs in Florence are truly chaotic.
Clet Abraham: Exactly! I think that my work on street signs was born because of this encounter with Florence. Here you walk along the streets and you say: “There is something wrong with this city”. It is not acceptable! I could not destroy the signs, it wasn’t my aim. My aim was to build something out of them. I believe that we need rules and security. I am not against the rules, I am against unjust impositions. Sometimes the rules aren’t just or justified. You cannot force me to follow an unjust rule! So this work was born as a result of this encounter between me, my profession, and the absurdity of a city who wants to be seen as the city of Renaissance but is completely covered by street signs.
Cristina: Have you ever been contacted by any museum?
Clet Abraham: The institutions have difficulties in working with me simply because I don’t need them. In the past I had to suffer their system, their limitations, boundaries and arrogance. The rules of the system are that somebody places a frame around a picture and says “This is art!” Who decides that? It always annoyed me so I tried to overstep these rules. Today, when the institutions come to me, I am happy though.
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Agata: What do you think about street art displayed in the museums? Is it possible to exhibit street art?
Clet Abraham: I think so. Street art is art of our time, so at some point we will see it displayed in the museums.
Agata: So there is no contradiction between urban space and an institution?
Clet Abraham: Today urban space is where artists revolt against the museum. I am not against museums or against an idea of museum in general. On the opposite, it is extremely important to preserve art. Street art is vulnerable because of lack of protection. I don’t like this idea. You can often hear saying that street art is ephemeral. It’s not that I intentionally produce ephemeral art. My works are ephemeral because people don’t respect it. For me, my art could be eternal. So I think it is right that at a certain point arrives a recognition and the works of street art receive protection and preservation. It is also right that it takes time to arrive at this recognition, that there is a struggle. Art always questioned the past. It’s its function, so there has to be a battle.
Cristina: What are your artistic reference, from the past and from the present time?
Clet Abraham: I have a very clear reference from the past, Bruegel [Pieter Bruegel the Elder – editors’ note]. I always loved his paintings. Looking at Bruegel’s art I’ve understood what is the meaning of art, at least for me. It is to communicate ideas, even the complex ones, to the major number of people possible. Bruegel used to tell stories in a very clear and simple way. You could even be an illiterate person but if you looked at his works, if you tried to read them, you received their message. People who did not have access to books had to look with great curiosity on Bruegel’s paintings. This is how I understood that art is communication, and in particular, it can be used to communicate with people who lack resources. Would I care about making art for elite? No! Creating art for art? Neither! I make art to communicate, to help others, to offer moments of reflection, to share stories and ideas!
Cristina: And in the contemporary art?
Clet Abraham: There is street art, obviously! I approached street art by myself. As I told you, it was an interior thing that led me spontaneously to what I am doing now. Clearly, I like the idea of street art and I defend it. At the same time I see a division in the world of street art, between the official and the unofficial street art. For me it is important that street art breaks with the commercial and institutional mechanisms. You won’t see an institutional work of art that criticizes the institutions. Therefore, the official street art is softened and its meaning is flattened.
Few years ago I went to Belfast for work. There I saw many mural paintings with the images referring to the situation in Palestine and in Ireland. Regardless of my own opinion on these topics, I enjoyed seeing these paintings, so simple and straightforward, whose authors were trying to express their claims. For me these murals are more beautiful than any work painted by Obey. Obey is really good at what he does but today his works are politically correct, their message is “cleaned up”. I am truly thrilled by the murals like those in Belfast and, even if Obey is really a great painter, his works don’t excite me that much.
For me the beautiful street art is the illegal one, the one that preserves its freedom. This is what I find interesting in street art, not the fact that it happens in the streets but the fact that it’s free!
Agata: Like him [showing the statue of the Common Man hanging on the wall – editors’ note].
Clet Abraham: Like him! Here you go! His story was long and troubled but I am really satisfied with the current situation.
Laura: In the end, we’ve made it!
Clet Abraham: I like what you say! WE’ve made it! This is the beauty of the illegal street art: I am not doing it by myself. I make art but this is you who make it possible, so it’s a team work. In the case of the Common Man the Florentines did not back down!
Agata: If the authorities removed the statue of the Common Man from the Ponte alle Grazie in the past, your project of the nose attached to San Niccolò tower was made in collaboration with the municipality, right?
Clet Abraham: Yes, this project was supported by the neighbourhood. For me the nose is my most beautiful work! I find it truly poetic, really pure. It was a gesture of love towards the world.
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Laura: Which is for you the most promising neighbourhood in Florence? Do you see the communities that take a risk?
Clet Abraham: I’ve always loved Santo Spirito for its alternative spirit. However, I did not move to San Niccolò by chance. Unfortunately this neighbourhood has been sold off and this is truly disappointing. During the lockdowns there was nobody here.
Cristina: Talking about neighbourhoods, what do you think about the idea that street art can be used to modernize peripheral neighbourhoods? Isn’t it a bit limitative?
Clet Abraham: Sure it is! The authorities allow to create street art in quite ugly places, like underground passages, which then become marvellous. But they change thanks to street art. Street art should be held in higher esteem. I enjoy working in the peripheral neighbourhoods, I would love to work there more, but not when I am asked to modernize these areas. I never accept this sort of propositions.
Laura: Because in order to redevelop a neighbourhood you need something else. You need the services for the inhabitants to improve.
Clet Abraham: Exactly! Covering misery with street art does not bring redevelopment.
Agata: Are there any cities where your street signs remain and aren’t destroyed?
Clet Abraham: Milan, for example! Milan welcomed me immediately! Also in Rome, I have to say. I never received any propositions of collaboration from Rome but I see that there my street signs remain. One can say it’s just a sign of laziness. In part it is true, but it is also because Rome has a different spirit comparing to Florence. Rome is much bigger, the street signs are less visible, they get a bit lost in the chaos. Rome has a very strong working-class spirit and the city has a different relationship with street art.
Laura: I wanted to ask you a slightly different question: do you know how can we encourage children and teenagers to be rebels without being vandals?
Clet Abraham: It’s a difficult task! I have three boys! I tried to find a formula that could help me facing difficult situations with my kids. I always say that art creates something while vandalism destroys things. It’s true that sometimes, in order to build something new you need to first destroy something else. But your intention has to be constructive. The acts of vandalism destroy. It is easy to destroy something but it’s much more difficult to create something new!
Cristina: What do you think about street artists who want to remain anonymous? You put yourself out there! Sometimes you even faced economic consequences of your work.
Clet Abraham: Hiding one’s identity is a winning marketing strategy. It creates a mystery. As for myself, I wanted to put myself out there just to show that what I do is right. I wanted to talk about my work. Why should I hide? I thought that this way I could have a bigger impact, I could be more constructive. As a marketing strategy it was a horrible decision! If I had the intuition to hide my name from the very beginning, today my situation would be different. It’s too late now [laughing]! Sometimes the choice to remain anonymous depends on one’s character. It’s hard to face popularity, when your work becomes known and you experience success. I can understand that some people want to protect their privacy.
Cristina: Thank you so much for your time! It was very kind of you to talk to us!
Clet Abraham: Thank you!
If you want to visit Florence from a different point of view and discover the local street art tradition, contact us! We will be happy to organize your private tour!