If walking the streets of Como for any time, you will become aware of a local artist known as Mr. Savethewall. His two shopfronts, the immediate appeal of some of his iconic images such as Mr. Frogman and his intriguing name had all made me want to learn more. The beguiling ‘Pinnochio’ sculpture in Piazza Cavour as part of last year’s Streetscape exhibition with its hint of controversy around it, all led me eventually to cross the threshold of his studio and exhibition space on Via Giovio just along from the Museo Archeologico. I was made immediately welcome, put to sit in a chair made out of the back-end of a supermarket trolley, and treated to a discourse that I later realised had enlightened me on the potential and possible purpose of street/pop/urban art. I had always been attracted to the immediacy of Warhol’s iconography and to the direct emotional impact of Roy Lichtenstein but I had also harboured reservations about Warhol’s commercialism.
However Mr. Savethewall convinced me through his eloquence and enthusiasm that his art is anything but superficial – once granted that, a certain degree of commercialism is more than acceptable! If I also fail to convince you of this, then please take a visit to Via Giovio and to Mr. Savethewall. As he says, anyone is free to enter his studio, to talk and leave without any obligation other than showing respect for that fact that you are in ‘casa mia’.
Mr. Savethewall is the alter ego of Pierpaolo Perretta, 40-ish ex-accountant and ex-paratrooper, Como born and bred, married and father to two young girls who are both very glad to see more of their dad since he dropped out of the corporate world four years ago to sustain himself and family successfully ever since through his art. Pierpaolo is semiotics personified and so in the name is the message. He is an anti-street artist, one who wants to communicate on the wall but also to respect it (and the wishes of its proprietors) by not damaging or altering it in any permanent fashion. So his art started by being attached to walls, using the syntax of street art such as stencil and spray paint but on card or canvas that could come away from the wall, either through normal ageing, through vandalism or also by someone detaching the art and re-purposing it indoors within a frame as a form of ‘reverse vandalism’. So the roots of his art are clandestine, demotic, on the street, ‘a civic exhibition space’, accessible to all as an embellishment of everyday life – art for the masses that also respects individual property and can be domesticated into a work of art!
His preferred label is ‘post-street artist’ as shown in the last phase in his representation of graffiti evolution. The purpose of his ‘post street art? ‘It’s a form of communication between me and the public through the synthesis of simple images that convey complex messages and profound concepts’. In the way of further explanation, Mr. Savethewall points to his image of a tramp on a bench with feet prominent in the foreground. This image is intended to invoke the ‘Lamentation of Christ’ by Andrea Mantegna with its similar dramatic foreshortening of the body.
So how does it work. ‘If an image strikes you, it makes you stop and reflect if only for a moment.’ Some of the result of that reflection may also be subconscious since, for example, the viewer may not be aware of the image’s associations with Mantegna’s dead Jesus. The caption also asks us to imagine ourselves in the place of the tramp. and thus by suggestion, in the place of a dead Jesus. That is how a simple image can convey complex or profound messages. ‘The images emerge from personal reflection applied to or provoked by magnifying aspects of society and human relations. They are then captured using some of the techniques of street art.’
How is this communication between you and the public going? ‘I am lucky in that many people seem to identify with my work and so want to take home some form of reminder of it – that is good for me. My customers cross all ages and classes ranging from art collectors to those with no specific knowledge of art. All said, my prices are not excessive although the values have increased as the art world pays ever growing attention. My output however remains constant. For my original pieces, take Mr. Frogman for example, he will now go for about €800 for an image 50x70cm or up to €1,800 for the lifesized version. But a youngster can get a Mr. Frogman poster for €15 from my shop.’
‘I set up my shop when I saw young people coming here to my studio, falling in love with my pieces like Mr. Frogman, but knowing there was no way they would be able to afford any of these original works. So I set up the merchandising outlet where a poster goes for about €15, a framed version for €30 and a print on canvas for about €110. In this way, I can keep everyone happy. You can come here to the studio and see the originals as if at an exhibition and then go to the shop and buy a memento just like in the Exhibition Halls’ bookshops.’
‘I am 44 years ‘Made in Como’. I originally studied law and accounting, did my national service with the paratroopers, and then developed my career in the corporate world. I soon found I was working all hours, weekends too. Then, thanks to the girl with the Ipad who asks it ‘Please give me back my Dad’ I decided to take a year’s sabbatical. It went well so I took another and then another. Now my girls have their Dad back and I am into my fourth year of managing to survive on my art. Some recent customers from America, on hearing my story, explained how they have a saying which goes , ‘he threw himself out the window and found he could fly.’ That’s me.
‘I adore my city – we are surrounded by beauty. Above all else, my city has given me beauty; the lake, the valleys, the mountains, the artisan tradition, the culture – it has given all this. And all this in a small province has attracted interest from the rest of the world. Tourists and foreigners from all over come here. Wealthy actors who could choose to live wherever they wish, choose to come here when they wish to relax. So Como has given me beauty and an international range of customers. We are beautiful and international.’
Part of Mr. Savethewall’s desire to communicate stems from a civic pride that leads him to campaign, and what really gets him going is the too frequent failure of the local city administration to manage its civic spaces effectively, either through lack of funds, inertia, inefficiency, or in some instances, petty corruption. As he states, there is more than one way for an artist to express him or herself.
‘I like to create urban initiatives. For example, there was a time when the holes in the road in the old town were so bad, it had become risky but the council were doing nothing saying they had no money. However people were hurting themselves and the holes were dangerous. So I had the idea of placing flowers around each of these holes. The very next day the council contacted me asking me to take away the flowers and they would immediately mend the holes which they duly did. I became a sort of local hero. Then I turned my attention to the massive problem we have had over the flood barrier contract that for eight years has deprived us of direct access to the lakeside with our view blocked off by fences and railings.
One day I went out and took a series of photos of these fences and the steel grid railings and made them into a series of post cards entitled ‘ Landscape of Lake Como’. The local paper ‘La Provincia’ saw them and invited me to their offices for them to publish an article about it. Instead I persuaded them to collaborate on a campaign to mobilise the general public into sending these post cards to the government in Rome. They agreed and the campaign was launched under the title ‘Rivogliamo nostro lago’ (We want our lake back). They printed 100,000 cards of which after one month more than 60,000 had been sent to the central government in Rome. This gained us national and international coverage – and I became a local hero for the second time.
After this success but before the Region finally started to dismantle the fencing, Mr. Savethewall was invited to participate in last year’s Streetscape (follow this link for CC’s article on Streetscape). He at first declined maybe because he was not entirely comfortable with the street art tag but was eventually persuaded. He put forward the proposal for a bronze sculpture of a girl to be attached to the steel grid railings trying to peer through at the lake. ‘Bear in mind that my daughters had never seen the lakefront as I have seen it. For all their lives, their view has been blocked by these fences.’ However the council rejected the idea immediately. He was happy to walk away from the whole thing but was still being asked to participate in the exhibition. He had been working on a wood carving of Pinocchio formed from the top part of a large wooden tree trunk. ‘The concept was about lies and broken promises because, as Pinocchio is born out of the wood, his nose immediately grows to reveal a lie. In my version of the fable, Geppetto turns to Pinocchio and says, ‘How can you be lying? You don’t know anything about the world. You have just been born and anyway, you are a puppet!’ However he checks his work again and notes that down below on the trunk, two lovers have carved a love heart with the one word inscription ‘Forever’. This was the lie that had caused Pinocchio’s nose to grow. Yet when I presented this idea to the council, I didn’t mention anything to do with the broken promises of politicians or anything else that might allude to the last eight years of lakeside scandal. My idea was accepted . However as soon as Pinocchio went up in Piazza Cavour, with his long nose pointing up and over the fences blocking the lake, local journalists immediately stated it was my message of lies and broken promises from the council.’
Since 1984 the Ticosa factory (one of the largest of Como’s silk weaving, printing and finishing plants) has been closed and the industrial site has remained undeveloped in spite of numerous proposals for its development.
‘Fortunately, the lake is now being freed up but I am beginning to get involved in the second big civic issue we have here, the ex-Ticosa industrial site. I created a series of photo montages of a mass-media hoax about discovering the mythical lake monster ‘Lariosauro’ in the gardens of the defunct factory. (The Lariosauro myth deserves its own article at sometime in the future.)
Fame, immortality and becoming iconic
When I used to go out for a walk at night I would cover my face with a Groucho mask to hide my identity from the CCTV cameras. This worked so well that, even though I am gaining some success with the public, I was never recognised. I reflected on what might it take to be recognised. I realised that those people with real talent become over time icons and in this way they are forever recognisable even if their faces are covered. I then set out to put this idea to the test. So, if I put Groucho glasses and moustache on Audrey Hepburn’s profile, is she still recognisable? If I do the same for the Beatles, do you recognise them? So we can say the moment in which someone becomes iconic is when their image is recognisable just from a silhouette or profile. To become iconic, you need to have talent. If you have talent you and it will eventually be recognised.
From the start it seems Mr. Savethewall has been interested in how art can transform itself as when a work on canvas or paper gets detached from its public space on a wall to be brought inside a gallery or a private home. His latest exhibition explores another form of metamorphosis entitled ‘Hidden Paintings’. These works consist of black and seemingly blank panels that only reveal their images through the application of UV light. The artificial light source can then be manipulated to cause the images to appear and disappear at will. With this development, Mr. Savethewall has gone beyond the syntax of street art applying light and print technologies in an innovative way. As he himself states, he has moved consciously beyond any previous comfort zone.
These ‘Hidden Paintings’ were recently exhibited at the Galleria Buenos Aires in Milan . Further details of upcoming exhibitions and general information about Mr. Savethewall can be found on his web site or Facebook page. If in Como, do go and visit his studio in Via Giovio, 5. He is very welcoming, loves to discuss art and ideas and will put you to sit comfortably in the supermarket trolley. And if you do hear him out, I feel sure you will agree with me that Mr. Savethewall is more interesting, engaging, logical, comprehensible, and ethical than Andy Warhol – and he’s here in Como!