A few days ago Modena became the epicenter of international graffiti publishing with the celebration of the Unlock Book Fair. The fair is a unique gathering where publishers, authors, artists and aficionados celebrate and share some of the freshest and most cutting-edge books and zines about graffiti and related fields.
After taking the fair to several large European cities, it has been a welcome change for us to work in a small town such as Modena. Big cities are interesting, but we are partial to the cosiness of a smaller community, where a project like Unlock can have a larger impact and develop a tighter collusion with the local scene.
Plans for this fifth instalment of the Unlock Book Fair were the most ambitious by far, with keynote speakers flying from Los Angeles, New York and Melbourne, and a program packed with international highlights and juicy extras. However, travel restrictions forced us to defer most of our content and rethink the event.
In the end, a few publishers made it to Modena from France and Germany (thank you folks!), but the main focus of the fair was on the thriving Italian graffiti publishing scene. This year’s list of exhibiting publishers was no shorter than usual, even if more than 90% of them were Italian, which is testament to the amount of publishing work coming out of Italy these days. We were honored to host the launch of milestone books about the culture’s local history, and happy to provide space to an inspiring crowd of smaller projects.
Among the new magazines presented at the fair was Milan-based Graffiti Minded, a selection of photographs from a long list of top-notch names in the international train-writing scene. Featuring only high-quality and unpublished photographs printed full-spread, Graffiti Minded represents the logical end of the evolution that took us from the typically packed and poorly designed magazine layouts of the nineties towards today’s prevalent art-quality editorial approach.
A similar perspective was adopted by imprint King Koala, also from Milan, in the production of Greatest Hits, a beautifully boxed trilogy of volumes exploring three of the main methodologies in graffiti – trains, wall burners and throw-ups. In a time when prolificacy has become the main value for many in the scene, Greatest Hits emphatically places style back at the center of the picture, by featuring only carefully selected works from eleven Italian masters.
As serious lovers of tags ourselves, we were happy to host the launch of three publications exploring the field of handstyles. One of them was Manuale di Calligrafia, edited by the Associazione Calligrafica Italiana and published by Lazy Dog Press. Although not a book about tagging, it includes the work of star calligrapher Luca Barcellona, who cut his teeth as a graffiti writer in the streets of Milan. In his talk at the launch Luca raised the obvious but neglected fact that tagging is a form of calligraphy –actually, we would add, the only form with any real weight in the cultural landscape of western countries– and warned about how prejudices regarding which surfaces can be written on prevent many viewers from appreciating tagging as a form of art.
The second handstyle-related book launched at the fair was Grafemi, a whimsical project by Varese-based publisher Andrea Ceresa. The publication features work from five masters from the forefront of the European handstyle scene, which has evolved in recent years towards audacious and inspiring directions. Grafemi is printed on actual Pigna brand calligraphy copybooks –a beloved standard in Italian schools– and had its title printed on the back cover, so the original cover of the copybook remains intact. The publication reflects on graffiti as a school of calligraphy, and on how it relates to the handwriting taught to children. While the latter enforces order and is conceived to convey clear messages, the former enjoys going over the line and is gleefully lacking of any content. In the words of Andrea, a graffiti name may not really be a word, but only a grapheme (‘grafemi’).
The third event revolving around tags was the lecture Le Scritte dei Pastori, delivered by Italian researchers Marta Bazzanella and Giovanni Kezich from the Museo degli Usi e Costumi della Gente Trentina. Both specialists have developed a thorough study of the thousands of adorned signatures left by lone shepherds in the highest tracks of the Val di Fiemme, in the Italian Alps. This fascinating tradition existed between 1550 and 1950, and, amazingly, many of the marks survive in perfect condition. As part of the lecture, the speakers presented their co-edited book Shepherds Who Write, a collection of texts about European pastoral graffiti from ancient to modern times. As representatives of the informal but fruitful research sphere developed within the graffiti scene, we at Unlock were particularly glad to host this talk. We are eager to welcome further contributions from academic and institutional researchers.
A most anticipated moment in our program was Saturday evening, when we hosted the launch of two very special publications. The first one was Taking Over: The Book, a volume featuring facsimile reproductions of all issues from Bologna-based fanzine Taking Over. Founded at the turn of the century, the project was the brainchild of Italian graffiti king Repo. It started as a humble xeroxed A5 zine and eventually became a widely-distributed, offset-printed Italian graffiti institution, while maintaining its uniquely free distribution and its focus on bombing. After Repo’s untimely death, his friends put together the book as an homage to his exceptional influence, and included in it unpublished photographs of the master’s graffiti.
The second highlight from Saturday evening was the launch of the volume Roma Subway Art, published by Foggia-based imprint Whole Train Press. Founded and directed by Domenico “Ryo” de Girolamo, a beloved figure who sadly passed away recently, the weight of Whole Train Press in the Italian and international graffiti publishing scene is difficult to overestimate. Their catalogue is appreciated for its focus on art-quality monographs of writers, books on the history of the culture, narrative and critique. Roma Subway Art was probably the most anticipated book in Whole Train’s decade-long output, and its first run sold out in days. It covers the entire history of graffiti on one of the most iconic subway systems for the worldwide writing community, starting with the very first, unpublished pieces.
We cannot fail to mention the launch of the Unlock Book Fair 2020 official screen print, which kicked-off our events program on Saturday morning. The print is produced by Modena’s own Medulla screen-printing studio, known for their careful selection of natural papers and inks. With a limited run of 50 copies, this year’s official print was designed by renowned Italian writer Chob THE. The design is an illustrated recount of the various graffiti-related events put together by our partner Urbaner during the weekend, of which Unlock was the central feature. Copies are still available for purchase at medullamade.com.
The months preceding the fair were turbulent worldwide, and its taking place was not fully confirmed until days before the date. Distancing regulations forced us to spread the fair over two different venues, and to cancel some very special content from our events program. But the hard work of our local team made the fair a reality against all odds. Thank you guys!
We need to thank the Municipality of Modena and the Fondazione di Modena for supporting the event financially and logistically. A heartfelt thank-you as well to the publishers who generously shared their work, to the public who came to enjoy it, and to the staff of the Municipality, Amigdala and Urbaner, who worked behind the scenes with utmost efficiency. Without your trust and support this dream would never have been possible. More next year!