Interview with Chob (BBS – THE – FIA – WMD) – Bologna, IT
by Pietro Rivasi, translate by Guido Deep
- BBS - THE - FIA - WMD
- Bologna, IT
When did you first develop an interest towards writing and urban art in general?
I started noticing street graffiti in London back in the early ‘90s. I used to spend long periods of time in England and I remember clearly being stuck to the train window looking at the track-side walls. I soon realized that there were recurring names: Fume, Teach, Coza were everywhere, I found it very fascinating. In my aunt’s neighbourhood there was this guy Does who wrote almost everywhere, and so I began to imitate his tags on paper.
During first grade I got a school diary by Uniform (a school brand of the time, like Seven) that was covered in graffiti and full of images from the book Subway Art. I tried to copy those graffiti and I tried in vain to understand how it all worked. I wanted to be part of this world. And so I unplugged the cap from my mother’s body spray, made a hole in it, and wore it as a necklace all the time.
How was the scene in your city at the time? Were there already signs referable to these movements when you began to write?
I started commuting between Imola and Bologna during first grade. We’re talking 1991, by then graffiti had been around for some years in Bologna and in fact the railway track-side walls were already full of drawings. I watched them on the way to and from school, I used to choose the best side to sit on the train and enjoyed the series of graffiti as if every day was the first. I remember the masterpieces by Deemo and Rusty, above all the famous Bombin where in place of the letter “O” there was the character of a blonde girl holding a bomb. I was in love with that particular piece for a very long time.
As I began to attend the Art School in the city centre of Bologna, I finally came in contact with other writers, notably Longe, who became my mentor, and Oida 257 who was at the Liceo Classico next door to us. I also began spending my weekends in Bologna at my uncle’s (or at some friends’).
I discovered the “Isola nel Kantiere” squat in via Indipendenza, though when it had already been closed and evicted. A friend introduced me to the “Bestial Market”, an old animals market that later became the first “Livello 57” club. I remember seeing a lot of graffiti there, including an “SXM” by Deemo that I literally consumed with my eyes as I stared at it; the place was right behind my uncle’s house and so it was easy for me to pop by often. By the time I ended up at DAMS university in via Guerrazzi, I had already become familiar with the city of Bologna. In that place, I was blown away by a Rusty mural on the main wall in the courtyard, the historical “pets revenge” showing a piglet running away from slaughter because he didn’t want to become a sausage; I would spend so much time just staring at that piece, again and again, every time I escaped from school.
What are the first signs that you saw live and why did they impress you?
I’ve always been fascinated by the smoothness of the spray lines, by colours and characters. Rusty often used to do an aqua green over-line on his pieces and I literally started being obsessed with it, as paint shops didn’t have that colour for sale. I looked for it everywhere, with no luck. Until they revealed to me that those spray cans were called Sparvar and were from Germany: Rusty imported and sold that brand himself, and that’s how I got on a head start eventually. There was a magical and mysterious atmosphere in all of it. Information circulated slowly, in contrast to nowadays where the entire world is literally one click away.
Do you think there are places or situations, legal or not, that might have contributed to the development of the scene?
In Bologna, writers have always worked with the city council, sometimes even together with the local politicians, because I think traditionally this is an open-minded and future-ready city.
I consider myself a good rebel, so I never had any interest in working with the institutions. I wanted to paint graffiti where I pleased, as opposed to where I had permission. “Break it down where it’s not allowed” some rapper was singing at the time!
Over time though I have acknowledged that healthy relationships between writers and authorities have helped the scene grow and evolve. Graffiti is not seen as pure vandalism any more, it’s become more like an uncomfortable art-form that is not easy to sell to the wide public, and considered a little naive too.
The city has a large scene compared to its number of inhabitants, and so there are a lot of graffiti, especially tags around the city centre. Here too there’s a lot of buzz around the definition of good writers (those who make legal murals) and bad writers (those who take drugs and make incomprehensible tags on 18th century buildings). In the past I did not look favourably at institutional situations, but over time I realized that they are an important part of this world. I am thinking about the Tinte Forti association, they participate in the institutional calls for bids and have painted small train stations like Argelato, Bazzano, Crespellano and Medicina. Those that I once considered as Sunday writers, those of the glossy murals complete with ladders, which I considered a bit toys, today I can appreciate them because I acknowledge their effort in keeping the culture alive, organizing events and putting a lot of effort in doing walls that I snubbed until 10 years ago. Now I see that it’s all part of the same thing, and their activities have contributed to a more positive perception of graffiti in general – even if the true soul of writing will always remain illegal.
How would you say your relationship with these forms of expression has evolved over time?
Graffiti is my greatest passion although in my life I’m involved with several different things. I always find graff fascinating and anarchic despite having lost some of its magic due to globalization and the internet. I am proud to be part of it and maybe even to have contributed to its growth.
Have you formed an opinion on how these forms of expressions have evolved over the years up until now?
I often think about how graffiti has incorporated easily into our customs and culture. For years they have been used in the most expensive advertisements, like for auto-mobiles or in fashion.
Today graffiti can be found in art galleries and the most famous contemporary artist is a writer: Banksy. Graffiti keeps evolving and I think that’s good. Moses & Taps, Utah and Ether, Rage and 1UP etc. have brought up new ways of telling stories, new ways of communicating.
I don’t know what will happen in the future, but I know that 15 years ago I used to hear talk that Graffiti was dead… I’d say we have to wait many more years for this to happen. Graffiti always change, they are in continuous and – above all – FREE evolution, and this is what keeps them constantly alive.
Is there a piece or a tag that you think should be recognised institutionally as relevant from a sociological/historical/artistic point of view, for the evolution of these forms of expression?
Like mentioned I would say the Bombin by Dayaki and Rusty (on the track-side outside the ex L57) and the wall by Rusty in the courtyard of DAMS. And I would make all the track-side walls in Bologna as UNESCO world heritage, as well as the arcades which already are!
One of the key figures in the scene of the Emilia Romagna region is undoubtedly Rok, who has hanged around Bologna for a long time. Was it an important encounter for you too?
I saw Rok for the first time in 1996 at the In Linea jam held at the new Level 57. It was a very important event for the graffiti culture in Italy: you had Honet, Opak, Noah, Pure, plus all the guys from Roma, Milan and Florence. It was a peculiar moment during which the Italian train scene began to take shape. On that occasion though, I only knew that Rok was someone who painted trains with Ciufs, who at the time wrote Treno.
Near my house, there was a spot called the net where every now and then they left train wagons for maintenance: that was Treno’s place. He was a little older than me, and when at school the rumour was that they had gone to paint, I would go there to see the pieces.
It was in that place that I first saw a Rok. It could be seen from the outside, without having to jump the fence or anything, and we would go there to take pictures using the zoom of our cameras. What struck me was to see how different he was from the others: simple, symmetrical letters and, unlike nowadays, very clean. But what really impressed me, when I later met him, was his attitude. Rok showed me that it was not necessary to be a b-boy or a rapper to belong to the graffiti world. He had already done a lot of panels, and fucking dressed in whatever way he wanted; if you caught him at a jam painting on a legal wall, you could bet that he was there only to grab as many cans as he could, to later use in the yard.
I needed someone like him who would push me to break away from the New York attitude, the philosophy that many guys from Milan and Bologna had married, thanks to the influence of Phase 2 and Vulcan who spent periods of time in Italy. He helped me to distance from the German rules, which had been imported in Bologna by Dayaki and Rusty from their travels to Munich.
It was about time for me to say thanks to all the Italian pioneers for their work, and to set out on a different path: Rok pushed me in that direction. But it was Longe that actually made me to take the leap when he showed me something that he had just bought: Sabotage. You cannot possibly imagine how I felt!
That book opened a world to me, because it told that we didn’t necessarily have to abide by the rules that came from Zona Dopa or from the kings of that time: we could be different. It proved that it was not necessary to be a b-boy or a rapper to belong to that world: no baggy pants, no backwards hat and no Riders hoodie. In that sacred book we found photos of Swedish writers who were metalheads, with heavy metal t-shirts and long hair, Finns who stole from shops while drinking beer, always with a fag in their mouth. I found this more fascinating than those who went to music concerts in baggy pants and painted graffiti with puppets and scrolls.
Then, one evening in 1996, I had the good fortune to bring Honet and Pum to paint in the Ravone yard, I decided it was time to change my sketch. At the time I still had a “complicated” style, not very understandable, like the piece on the famous Pendolino, but after seeing the two French guys at work, my eyes opened up and I started to look around at what writers – or better bombers – were doing in France and Sweden.
I think in this way you can understand how Rok was pivotal for my career.
I wanted to ask you something more about the classic places linked to the development of the scene in Bologna..
I used to hang a lot around all the most famous and classic graffiti-related places in Bologna, although more for their alternative significance than for their connection to the Italian hip hop scene. I used to go to LINK and dance to the sound of Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, the DJs of Reflex and Warp, but for example I never went to 2 The Beat. That world that wore a beret, the fly girls, everyone puppet-style, never really interested me. When you’re a kid you’re also a bit radical and you make categorical choices, I liked to dance to techno and attend the rave scene. I think I went to the nights of Zona Dopa only twice: the second time I also got slapped in the face and had to run away, further confirmation that it was not the context I was looking for.
The new generations in Bologna have opened new paths that the previous ones had not yet attempted to pursue, and I think one of these was the Suburbana line. Can you tell me something from a historical point of view on that line, which before you came was essentially intact?
Looking at magazines, we saw the subways and trams from big cities, while we only had the suburban line other than the national railway FS. It came with a distinctive carriage in a red-blue colour that was a killer! Perhaps this is why we have made it into a myth, it was our light metro, even if in reality they were two rotten diesel train lines, one that went to Vignola and the other to Portomaggiore. From what I can remember, before us the BBS crew, in addition to the pieces of the Treviso people mentioned in All City Writers, only DeeMo and Rusty painted it, however they were caught by the guards in San Vitale, and that’s why Rusty eventually did not paint any more panels. Or at least this is how the legend goes, I never actually asked him about it. Then I know that Ciufs went in with someone else, but then we began, constantly, because no one was caring really and we were more motivated. We understood that to be a writer you had to move around in a certain way: check the place and the time, maybe have a scout, check the guards’ movements.
We did a tiny bit, and that was already enough to make us obsessed: we did anything we wanted for over a year and only after, they started to change the timetables and we had to run a couple of times. One funny story is that one of us, I think Fes, met some guy who worked as a cleaner during the time I was doing the Russian alphabet pieces. Cleaners had clear orders to delete all the Russian symbols like the letters in Cyrillic and the red stars, because according to them they were by the far-left, by the squatters. They cleaned those, and left the other pieces intact.
Some people told us “well done, but we were the first ones to paint that line”, and we responded “well, nice, but you did a burner and we did two thousand”.
We also devoted ourselves to paint the track-sides of the suburban line, especially Grom did it big time, he was among those who focused more on those difficult walls that everyone else snubbed. If he had been a little more extroverted and if he had had a character more similar to mine, he could have changed an entire generation. He is so different and light years ahead than everyone else, that he was never understood; The only ones who looked up to him were us. Just me, Gek and Fish thought his Oil were amazing, but anyone else thought of them as profanity.
I was often told that the new generations of Bologna writers were imbeciles because they had our crew as a reference, as opposed to people like the SPA crew: “just a silver, a black and a fat-cap are enough to be a writer now”. We created monsters for someone, especially for Texas !!! A bit like in Milan, all the writers with whom I painted were that way because they were inspired by Dumbo and other VDS members, as opposed by the CKC crew. Fatcap and Hardcore.
In the streets, very simple fat cap tags with unlikely colours. In Milan you had good writers, but a lot of filth too. I think in Bologna we were in better shape: few but good.
The Emilia Romagna region was very classic when it comes to graffiti. Think about Rimini, there is nobody uses the spraycan better than Eron, which everyone knew even back in the 90s. Everyone knew him, even those who didn’t know anything about graffiti. Or we can talk about Deemo’s characters.
Very few people showed interest in letters and throw ups until we brought the culture of tag calligraphy in town. While at the time fast and thin tags were the most popular, we began to do tags in the proper way. We started looking at the city with a different eye and used fat-caps. And then, we used markers that were not the classic Pilots: Done in 1996 had the first felt-tip markers, the grey ones with a wide tip, and I got my first one from him. In 1997 then I went on an inter-rail tour, and met the guy from Bomber Magazine and all the others, Jake … they built markers by themselves.
Then Gizmo, Goat, Sober from France taught us a number of things. A couple of years later I met Amaze and Grey. When I met them, I realized that Bologna was too small for me. I learned things by travelling and meeting people. If I stayed here only, I would have become a spraycan artisan. I pushed myself, as all my generation did: Trota, Done, Dork, Ens, Longe, Panda… we started to get out of our comfort zone.
And every time I was back in Bologna, painting trains seemed boring to me. I couldn’t wait for them to put up fences and alarms with guards and dogs. Then, when things really started to change… well, it was funny!
But in 1996, after the patrol, always at the same time, you could have barbecues in the yard, the only danger was being robbed by the homeless who lived in the trains.
In the summer of ’98 I was on tour in Sweden with Trota, Mind, Panda and Dumbo, who had been arrested the night before after an action with Xeno of FY crew, I was still a child at the time.
I met all those who later became WUFC, Leroy, Rilo .. and then DNE, Skill .. all these powerful writers from that clique. I found Mind and Dumbo in September of the same year when I moved to Milan to study at IED. My personality helped me a lot along the way, and the fact that I travelled a lot between Milan and Rome, and then I lived in Turin, allowed me to know the entire Italy. I believe I have the credit for making Bologna known abroad for Graffiti: everyone knows that Chob is from Bologna. And while the generation before us brought here some Italians, we have always brought foreigners.
When Honet and Pum came, Ciufs asked us to take them to paint as he had already gone the night before with guys from Roma, Stand and others. And so we took Honet and Pum to the Ravone yard. Later when I started to get some recognition and to travel, all the foreigners visited me: the Swedes WUFC who were here for 2 weeks in 2 separate times, Opak, the Germans… you saw all of them in Bologna. And with many of them, we’re still in good relationships.
Thanks to all these connections, two of my closest friends, also part of BBS, are Swedish. Babbo and Nate. The name Babbo comes from his love for Italy, so much that in 2003 he moved to live here for a year and a half. These networks were formed before the internet.
The weird thing is that todays youth, even writers ironically, are less connected between them than we were, despite the many more possibilities they have. I find it strange. We had many more connections, perhaps today too many opportunities go wasted. Back when we were the RB crew, we already had Trota from Rome and Basik from Rimini. With the THE crew then we were from all over: Rome, Bologna, Berlin, Copenhagen. We were so hyped of having many different territories under one crew name. We always showed off which city we came from, and we even did stickers with name of our cities.
I have always been interested socially and culturally in this buzz about territorial ties, also in relation to football fans culture, which greatly influenced my graffiti experience. And it wasn’t just about me, eventually many crews of writers were hanging out at the football stadium.
The environment of the stadium was leaning right-wing, distant from the context of the squats and Zona Dopa, and it greatly shaped the feeling of territorial pride. Even the fact of having crews named after our yard, Ravone Burners and our city, Bologna Bombers, was not by chance.
Rusty was an anomaly for Bologna: straight-edge guy, he always went to the stadium, he was roadie for Nabat for years, he is also one of the official banner artists. If they need a banner, they call either me or him. The whole world of Bologna hooligans is very tied to graffiti, the headquarters of the ultras is painted by Rusty, and I made the stickers for the team. When solidarity is needed with other groups, or we need banners to hang on the highway to remember a dead person, they call either me or Rusty. It’s an important role in that culture, we are definitely respected for this. I also was a militant, so I also have the quote-unquote medal of valour.
You appeared in many international publications. This has led to a lot of interest for the city of Bologna, which wouldn’t otherwise have been there – though respecting big-time what others have done. I am thinking in particular about the 2006 Overground 3 book, which is a huge recognition for your career. And then you have also a great interview in the Escapizm 3 zine (2019).
My work was published because my generation is the one that created the fanzines: Opak, Gizmo, the Swiss from 14K, Bomber Megazine… they were all people with whom I painted, and this helped a lot.
In Italy there weren’t many people going around asking for photos, so they often asked me for them. Then I have personal merits, but I was also lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, as well as the fact that I never stopped despite the many obstacles I had.
If I had lived in England, my career would have ended earlier, because they make you stop by dint of bracelets on your ankles and so forth. Over here, you can afford yourself to paint even later in your life, not just as a teen. There are many of my generation who still paint, in Italy you can afford it. I am very pleased to know that I have influenced later generations, as I have been influenced by the Swedes, the Finns or the French. Being considered today not as a dinosaur but as a reference point certainly makes me happy.
For example I once said to Egs, “I saw you first doing those crazy white highlights” and he replied to me “What the F are you talking about, you invented them!”. So basically influences circulate around, and we reciprocally take stuff from each other. And so now the whole world sees a little bit those crazy highlights as Chob’s, this makes me well happy, and for this I wank a little bit too!