When I was 7 years old, the TRV Crew started tagging the walls of Rome. That’s how all this began for me; as an innocent hunt down the rabbit hole of Rome’s earliest graffiti scene. Little did I know that, almost 30 years later, I would once again be walking on TRV’s footsteps by going from Rome to Amsterdam, where I met Nico.
Nico is a founder of TRV, one of the first graffiti crews in Rome. Once he had established the renowned “Roman style” of graffiti writing, organized hip-hop events all around Italy, shot a documentary about graffiti, and curated several exhibitions, Nico moved to Amsterdam along with fellow TRV members Pane and Joe, with whom he was running the graffiti-powered creative agency “Why Style”.
Nico TRV: “My first experience with spraycans was in 1990, when I was painting political banners for students’ manifestations. That’s how graffiti is born in Rome; through the ‘Pantera’ movement and all the protests that arose in the early 1990s. I remember leafing through ‘Il Bimestrale’ – an insert of ‘Il Manifesto’. It was about Woodstock and it featured images of graffiti in Milan, which were punk writings coming from the squat scene.”
Nico grew up next to a popular Hall of Fame in the northern outskirts of Rome (Roma Nomentano), where he met many writers from Rome’s earliest generation of graffiti, among whom were Pane, Joe, and the rest of the ETC Crew. Nico, Pane, and Joe were also members of a political group, BK38, based in one of Rome’s most known squat places: Corto Circuito. There, one political banner after the other, Nico mingled with many other graffiti writers, including Koma and Sugo. What they didn’t know yet was that soon the five of them would reign over the subways of Rome, becoming an inspiration to many generations of graffiti artists.
Nico TRV: “When the BK38 meetings were over and it was time to go home, we were going tagging instead. Those were the first times we painted together.”
When their experience with political graffiti came to an end in 1992, Nico, Pane and Joe kept spray-painting together, alongside sharing inspiration and knowledge (on finding cheap paint or on where and when going to do graffiti), experiences and fanzines.
Nico TRV: “Most of all, I remember the way we looked at fanzines. Back then, fanzines were rare and writers used to pass them on. So there we were, sharing the same fanzine, and we inevitably liked, or disliked, the exact same things. We were totally in sync.”
In the following years, the ETC Crew grew by welcoming Tuff, China, Stand, and more artists coming from another graffiti crew in Rome (the MT2: More Touch Two). Soon they had grown so large that it was time for a new name. It was 1995 and The Riot Vandals were just about to conquer Rome’s mostly untouched metro system. It was the dawn of the golden age of Roman graffiti.
Nico TRV: “We focused on the metro because that’s where graffiti comes to life. Unlike the national trains, the underground system is close, which means that you are going to spot the same train over and over again. We mainly painted line A, line B, and the train connecting to Ostia.”
Rome was—and still is—unlike any other city as for the originality of the art form, the outstanding style, and the exceptional care for typography.
Nico TRV: “We busted out an original style, an interpretation of styles we liked. We wanted to be inspired by the graffiti artists we admired, not copy them. Our reference was the New York old school from the 1970s—both for the style and for the techniques. For example, we used the stock caps—not the skinny caps or other ‘special’ caps made especially for graffiti—and we painted with ‘rough’ cans, the kind you’ll get at hardware stores to paint your bike. Thus, our color palette was limited, unlike the artists who use all the available colors in a graffiti shop. Working with fewer elements and colors pushed us to be more creative in coming up with different shapes and unprecedented letters. It made our style original. Graffiti writing was something we had only just heard of and perhaps barely saw on some fanzines or obscure books. From this freshness, we forged the ‘Roman Style’, which is something you can still see in the new generations of Rome’s graffiti artists, which makes me really happy.”
During their raids inside and outside Rome, the TRVs ended up painting in many abandoned places where, eventually, they began organizing serendipitous rave parties together with their friends at HRP (Hard Raptus Project). These spontaneous, sporadic get-togethers in the middle of nowhere were the dawn of Rome Zoo.
Nico TRV: “Rome Zoo was simply a larger TRV, which expanded to include also DJs, MCs, and break dancers. I like to think that it was born inside DJ Stile’s Box: that’s what we called the basement of our friend’s house, Federico Ferretti. It was where we gathered to sketch and chill while he played nice beats with some of the most influential rappers of the time.”
The Rome Zoo collective included acclaimed rappers and MCs such as Piotta, Baro, PitOne, and Rome’s legendary group “Colle der Fomento” alongside the hip-hop alter egos of some TRV’s members, such as China and Gufo (respectively known in the music realm as Amir and Supremo). From its very beginning in 1995, Rome Zoo was an important player in Rome’s underground scene— finally flourishing all around Italy from 2000 on. The first block party organized without the help of the HRP—but under the name of TRV’s fanzine “Hateful”—took place at Break Out, a squat place in Primavalle (Western Rome).
“The Rome Zoo Family Reunion” party didn’t feature only the best of Italian hip-hop with names of the likes of Colle der Fomento, Flaminio Maphia, Er Piotta, and DJ Baro and performances by the crew of breakers ‘Urban Force’. The celebration was also an occasion to share DIY mix-tapes and books about graffiti, like the old classic “Subway Art”, which inspired generations of writers worldwide. It was a full-fledged 360° celebration of the movement, and it was happening in Rome. A second, legendary party took place the next summer at TRV’s “private” Hall of Fame inside the abandoned Ex-Snia Viscosa factory shut down in 1954. Before turning into the most popular squat place in Eastern Rome, the former factory was the favorite painting spot of ETC and MT2.
Nico TRV: “I enjoyed working with each one of them, but if I must name the most original artist I met through the whole Rome Zoo adventure, then that would have to be the rapper Giacomo Cannas. Cannas brought to rap the same thing we brought to graffiti: he did something unique, something that wasn’t there before, and something that no one else could ever claim.”
Back then, both Nico and Joe were alternating their positions as graffiti artists and Rome Zoo’s hip-hop productions with their day-job as projectionists and their passion for cinema. In 2001, these two worlds fused together when Nico and Joe shot a documentary about graffiti in Rome.
Shortly after, in Autumn 2002, “Un Gioco da Ragazzi” (“Child’s Play”) was released on 500 VHS copies and shown to the public at “Granma”, a homely cultural association in Rome.
Nico TRV: “Besides the screening, we also set up an exhibition of our drawings in the foyer. We painted a wall, put up a collage, and displayed more visual art by the members of the crew. We also printed some t-shirts, which we self-produced inside Pane’s garage.”
The screening was a huge success; it was extended beyond the originally planned two-day program and it got them a signing to paint at the closing party of the renowned Roma Europa Festival, which was when they realized a huge mural inside Rome’s prestigious Palazzo delle Esposizioni (November 2002).
Nico TRV: “The gig at Palazzo delle Esposizioni was so much fun. Obviously, we were also very proud to be there! It was a pat on our shoulders; someone was saying that we were doing it well, so well to be invited inside such a venue. But above all else, we had a lot fun”
A few months later in February 2003, “Playground” opened at Galleria Il Mascherino, a respected art gallery in Rome’s city center. The show featured artworks by TRV’s Nico, Pane, Joe, and Stand, alongside the black-and-white paintings by Scarful. This successful collaboration marked the birth of “Why Style”: a creative agency through which these five writers stepped into the art realm, bringing the typical soul of Rome’s graffiti along with them. As for “Why Style”, not only have they showcased their own works but they also curated exhibitions of fellow graffiti artists. Unlike the first attempts of squeezing graffiti inside a white cube that was happening overseas, the post-graffiti shows curated by Why Style were about keeping alive the mentality of graffiti and the peculiar attitude of making it, albeit in different art forms. Moreover, if someone could still distractedly walk past their names on metro trains or similar “non-places” around the city, it was definitely impossible to ignore them now that they entered their salotto.
In June 2004, Why Style organized the exhibition “Roma/Amsterdam” at Museo di Roma in Trastevere. This show juxtaposed artworks by the members of the TRV Crew with the best of the Dutch graffiti scene, represented by Delta, ZEDZ, Machine, and Parra. It was a show that honored the network of artists connecting the two capital towns of graffiti writing in Europe. It was a show that, eventually, sealed TRV’s fate in more ways than one.
Nico TRV: “A few years after the ‘Rome/Amsterdam’ exhibition, three of us moved to Amsterdam. It all happened within a year; the first one was Pane, then Joe, and at last, me. In Rome I used to be a projectionist. I worked hard and, with the enthusiasm of a 20-something, I became pretty good at my job. I knew all the equipment and I had worked in all the theaters in Rome, as well as at Venice International Film Festival and at Rome’s Isola del Cinema Festival. I really loved it. So much so that after work I was hanging out with the guys at International Recording, sneaking into their dubbing studios. However, all my dedication plummeted because of a rotten system, a system that repeatedly saw me teaching the job to people who would later become my boss. Moreover, this life and all that time wasted in Rome’s traffic was leaving me with no more energy for Why Style. And so I said to myself, ‘No, I won’t lose Why Style. I’d rather lose my job.’ ”
Nico moved to Amsterdam in 2006. Aside from Pane and Joe, he already knew many graffiti artists based in Amsterdam, among whom was Kraze, the Italo-naturalized-Dutch member of TRV Crew. Back then, Kraze was running a restaurant downtown and he welcomed Nico to his “brigade”, otherwise known as the kitchen staff whose comradeship I find very similar to that of a graffiti crew.
Nico TRV: “I knew I could learn many things by moving abroad. I felt I had to on behalf of those who couldn’t take that leap.”
Once the crew finally reunited in Amsterdam, the Why Style agency grew to the next level. While Nico was learning a new language and settling in a new city, he kept himself busy with many Why Style projects, mostly related to graphic design and visual art exhibitions. One of the first projects he curated in Amsterdam was the pop-up show “There’s life under my shoes” (2006). Inside a studio that Pane was about to leave, the Why Style collective organized an exhibit that only lasted one—albeit legendary—night.
Another memorable exhibition they had in Amsterdam was “Street Fart”, which took place at “Unruly Gallery” in 2013. It featured drawings, sculptures, risographs and etchings by the five members of the TRV Crew, who wanted to question the assumption that every graffiti writer who makes art is a “street artist”. Leaving Rome was clearly the best decision he could have made.
Nico TRV: “I like Dutch individualism. At first it might look as selfishness to us southern Europeans, but by living here I understood that it actually is a great form of respect. I begin here and I end there, and after that line you begin. Discovering this Dutch way of life really broadened my mind.”
Nico, Pane, and Joe are still living in Amsterdam.
They don’t tag or paint together anymore, but they do share the atelier, where they work on their individual projects from three different yet never-too-distant desks.
Nico TRV: “The last time we painted together was at “Cross the Street”, the exhibition about street art and writing that took place in 2017 at the Macro Museum in Rome. It was great, because there was almost no need to talk; we were totally in sync and we agreed on everything. We did it as an orchestra and we got each detail in one take. It felt amazing, and I guess visitors could see that too.”
And that we could.
Personally, I think that TRV’s room at the Macro Museum was the best installation of the exhibition.
But, hey, maybe I’m just a little biased.
– All photos are from the artist’s archive