Subculture in the subway: The existential life of graffiti artists

Depending on one’s point of view, the thought of a graffiti artists conjures visions of shady juveniles defacing buildings, subway stations and billboards under the cloak of night, or of savvy rogue artists — heroes creating their own works of art in the face of institutions that have historically discredited it as being so. Italian photographer Valerio Polici‘s series “Ergo Sum” lifts the veil to reveal a very different perspective, showing graffiti artists neither as driftless vandals or bandit artists, but as people seeking a means to escape the frustrations of day-to-day living. For nearly two years Polici ran with graffiti artists through subway stations at night in Rome, Lisbon and Belgrade, Serbia, documenting their clandestine acts in the face of the law and any stigmas about their subculture. Polici spoke to In Sight about his project:
I remember having stumbled upon this subculture of graffiti artists around the time I was 12 years old, and I was immediately fascinated by the mystery of it. My idols were superheroes with covered faces of a clandestine world. A sort of V.I.P. of people whose name and reputation you know, but not their faces. Somehow an illusion was created, a possibility of recreating your own identity, an alter-ego that with time tends to become your real ego. This increasing distance from the real world brought with it a strong sense of loneliness from which it was hard to liberate myself, but perhaps is the one that allowed me to do so, along with photography. The growing interest in photography helped me to slowly abandon this activity of putting all of my energies in just to tell it, researching this image that I had built inside me during my post-teenage years.
The project was born in a pretty spontaneous way. When I shot the first set of pictures, at the time I myself belonged to this community of artists. Adrenaline, mystery, infinite running, gunshots, friendship, sensors to deactivate, entire nights out in the cold, the will of redemption and adventure. … This kind of “second-life” was the only thing that interested me and made me feel alive. I moved to Lisbon one summer, where I was studying, and the project really started, even if I didn’t know it at the time. By chance in a subway station, I met a group of very active local writers, and I started to hang out with them very frequently during my stay in Portugal. With them I lived some of my most intense experiences. Painting a subway over there is pretty hard.
In the past years I’ve portrayed these artists in the different situations: at home, in the street in the depot, running away from security guards, and maybe some of those photos could tell you a bit about who they are, although it is hard to close them in a specific category, coming from the most diverse social classes. What I wanted mostly to speak about was the escape from the everyday routine and the perdition in this parallel dimension where I remained entrapped too for a long time. Because it is fascinating, because it lets you forget — even if just for one hour — the dissatisfaction of your life, and in some way it makes you fell special, superior to your peers.

— Valerio Polici

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