The writing's on the wall for Italian graffiti artists

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The Independent Online

A draconian law has been put before Italy's Senate, calling for a maximum penalty of two-and-a-half years in prison for graffiti artists who critics say are blighting the country's urban landscape and defacing much of its architecture.

In the strongest indication yet that Italy intends to crack down on its legions of "writers", as the graffiti artists refer to themselves, Giuseppe Valditara, a Senator for Milan for the post-fascist National Alliance Party, is leading the bid to bring in the new law.

This is appropriate because Milan is not only the biggest and richest city in the country but the one most bedeviled by the graffiti scourge.

Foreign visitors are often taken aback to find so much graffiti around the city. This ranges from bold examples of "bombing" and "wildstyle", which gain a grudging acknowledgement of artistic skill for their rich colours and intricate letter forms, to the most basic sort of graffiti scribble known as "tagging", found practically everywhere.

Milan's local government says that some 40 per cent of the city's buildings have been sprayed on, about 40,000 in total. Trains on its small metro network are largely graffiti free; so by some miracle is the Duomo, the city's high Gothic 14th century cathedral and the surrounding piazza. But everything else is deemed fair game, from historic monuments to railway tracks, from trams to the roller shutters of shops.

One reason Milan - and many other Italian cities, including Rome - have made no headway against graffiti is because it has up until now been regarded in law as the minor offence of damage, punishable at most by 45 days of house arrest or up to six months' public service. Senator Valditara wants that law replaced by a tough new one that will mandate two-and-a-half years' prison for damaging historic buildings or those within the historic centres, and one year for graffiti elsewhere. The fine for "writers" caught in the act will go up from €2,500 (£1,700) to €10,000.

His demands are echoed by Letizia Moratti, Milan's new Mayor and a former education minister in Silvio Berlusconi's government, who has also promised Milan that "thousands" of defaced buildings will be cleaned up within the first 100 days of her government.

Maurizio Cadeo, Ms Moratti's Assessor for Urban Décor, says, however, that a police crackdown is only part of the answer. He also wants to clean graffiti off all the buildings .

"Then the Milanese will commit themselves to keeping up the décor of their buildings, by means of a sort of subscription for maintenance," he said. The authorities, in other words, will do the job once; after that they will expect the citizens to pull their weight. Mr Cadeo said his scheme would be presented at the end of September.

The third part of the answer to the problem, according to Mr Cadeo, "is educative", involving the city in a sort of dialogue with those "writers" it deems suitably artistic.

Vittorio Sgarbi, the city's Cultural Assessor, is making large movable panels available in one of the city's piazzas. "We hope that the possibility of expressing themselves in an appropriate place will convince these youths to respect the city," said Mr Cadeo.

The debate between the city's culture tsar and the "writers" will be worth waiting for. This month Mr Sgarbi, a connoisseur of Renaissance painting and a fierce opponent of most modern art and architecture, denounced most celebrated modern artists as members of a self-promoting mafia.

How he will get on with the quintessential outsiders remains to be seen.