Idle writings of some note

When Sebastiano Vassalli received a sexual proposition via an Italian banknote, he was intrigued and started to investigate. He found it was just one example of fiscal graffiti, a layman's art form spawned by the near worthlessness of the 1,000-lire note
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Money talks. At least, 1,000-lire banknotes do. They are worth so little - 40p or so - that the Italians have taken to scribbling cryptic messages on them before putting them back into circulation.

This Italian graffiti - a sort of arte povera of the masses - has become a collectable art form. A booklet containing 320 of their slogans (price: 1,000 lire) has been published in Rome. Read a few dozen and a desperate surrealism reveals itself. "I am Rambo", says one. "Tomorrow, I commit suicide, goodbye, goodbye", says another.

Perhaps it is the ephemeral nature of the bank-notes that inspires so much scribbling about the transience of things. Although they are hard currency, they are frail, dirty, virtually valueless. It takes a fistful of them to buy a round of drinks.

Some messages are similarly evanescent, trailing off into a void. "This is what I have to say." "I am desperate because." Others put forward a more precise agenda: "Phone 01245 2000 if you'd like to while away a delightful bisexual hour."

Sebastiano Vassalli, a journalist on the staff of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, began collecting the notes after finding a sexual proposition scribbled on a 1,000-lire note in his change. "Hi! We are two girls on holiday. This note has brought you luck. We are at the Mauro campsite. Come and get us. Annalisa and Lucia."

Had the proposition not appeared on a bank-note, it might not have perplexed him so much. As it happened, Annalisa and Lucia's message began to prey on his mind. It seemed genuine, he reasoned, but at the same time ludicrously novelettish. Was the choice of a banknote a coded indication that they were in it for money? A couple of prostitutes on a busman's holiday? And the banknote one of umpteen discreet and ingenious tradecards of theirs? Or were they just naive students, bored with the local lads and game for a fling? Mauro sounded like a Calabrian place name. Mr Vassalli's pursuit of cheap gratification led him no further than the gazetteer - and the discovery that there is no Mauro in Calabria. Another dream shredded.

With the outpourings of iconoclasts, the sexually obsessed and the mentally unhinged passing daily through their pockets, Italians have never before been given such encouragement to write. Every-body's doing it. Never mind what you put down. Anything will do. Hence the surreal quality. On to the notes flows a random sample of the turbid stream of 28,000 thoughts a day - or however many Italians are supposed to have. "Mama, why did you give birth to me?" "SOS, the treasure is hidden in the grotto?" "Music musics me - Musiconi." Who wrote that? Who could come up with such subliminal gobbledegook unless seized by the sight of a virgin banknote?

Among the more cerebral contributions: "Rosella is a bitch", "He who does not work does not eat", "Money is not the most important thing in life" and "Hi! I'm from the States and I would like to say Fuck Off to you - Pinocchio."

My favourites are those that seem to analyse the emotions in a pastiche of continental literary existentialism: "Love does not exist", "The lemon was bitter and the sun ripened it. My heart was free. You have imprisoned it."

Of course, the academics are already into "annotated banknotes". Two psychologists at Rome's La Sapientia university examined a sample of 400 and found, unrevealingly, that 43 per cent of them were rude jokes, rhymes, personal reminders and remarks about money. A further 10 per cent were of an existential nature. And politics, religion, football and music together occupied only another 10 per cent.

Mr Vassalli detects a need to personalise bank-notes, to make one's mark. The publisher of the collection of 320, Claudio Pisani, seems to agree. One of his prize quotes: "Child, my writing on banknotes has been in response to an imperative need and a wish to communicate, but rarely have I dallied to read what others have written."

Meanwhile, the Bank of Italy is bent on artistic cleansing, incinerating 1,129,000 grubby 1,000- lire notes a year, nearly as many as it prints. But as long as the Bank is niggardly enough to distribute paper rather than new, shiny coins for the equivalent of 40p, auto-destructive arte povera seems likely to thrive. "Whoever needs this is a cretin", "Jesus saves", "I found this 1,000-lire note up my arse". Indeed.