Pisa ’89

He’d never imagined he would spend some of his final full year of being alive in Italy. The birthplace of art, when one got down to it, for the Greeks didn’t produce Da Vinci. He wasn’t even sure if he would have the physical strength to make the journey, yet he felt his happenstance encounter with a Pisan student on a street in New York was too important to ignore. Too rife with potential. His name was Gianluca, and he spoke passionately of the potential for him to connect with the town on the personal level he so seemed to relish when creating a mural. He was instantly allured, something about the ancient town beckoning to him from afar with its sulphuric odor, its cultish Maltese crosses peppered all over the facades of the buildings. He knew that there was something kismet about this encounter, and he immediately reached out to Gianluca via the number he provided him on the back of a ripped out piece of paper from The Village Voice. He ran to a payphone almost instantly after they went their separate ways to leave him a message informing Gianluca he was in. This was his last chance to leave behind something truly lasting, a permanent statement on the essentialness of humankind coming together if it was going to endure past the twentieth century.

Soon after, he boarded a plane bound for Italy. While not his first experience with Europe by any stretch (Amsterdam in ’86 came to mind), it was certainly his weightiest and most profound. Chiesa di Sant’Antonio Abate would provide his new-old blank canvas with which to make his final thesis about life. By now, his reconciliation with death, with having “the queer disease” had settled in, and he was at peace with his impending expiration date. So long as he could leave one last work of monumental significance behind. That was the artist’s job, after all. To remain immortal through this extension of himself. Thus far, he was only partially sure he had done so, what with the medium of graffiti being so ephemeral.

As he set foot onto the Pisan soil, refusing the offer of a ride from Gianluca’s friend, Roberto, instead wanting to navigate his way into town on his own, he felt a shiver. Yet it was burning hot outside. In that moment he could intuit that something close to magical was about to happen. Walking from the train station and past the chiesa that would provide the space for his mural, he was already furiously snapping photos of the varied color schemes provided by the polyglot of influence throughout the dilapidated strade. And yes, that wafting smell of sulphur attacked his nostrils at the most unexpected of moments, and would, at one point, even make him drop his paintbrush from how jarringly potent it could be. Or, in any case, he told himself it was the stench that made him drop the brush and not the weakness instilled within him by his sickness. Staying at a hotel directly across from the wall, he was, for the first time in his career, able to wake up looking at the mural and go to sleep looking at it as well, for the optimal experience of tracking its progress and evolution into a cohesive piece. It was, in many respects, his most spiritual experience having ever created a work of this scale. And not just because it was being rendered on one of the many houses of God throughout the city.

Although he was only there for a week, each day he befriended someone new, as though gradually getting to know the people who would forever be affected by the presence of his acrylic scene. And yes, of course, acrylics had been carefully chosen for him by his aides from the Caparolcenter, who were like disciples of Jesus in spreading the gospel of this pictorial message: unity. Amalgamating into one not despite differences, but because of them. That was all he had ever wanted to see of and for the world. And if he couldn’t do that in his lifetime, maybe he could help to implement that change after it. This was the thought that galvanized him to ignore all signs of frailty when he even briefly thought of stopping throughout the day. But no, he had to get through it, to finish it before it might be too late. Those who interacted with him made no mention of his condition, perhaps not even aware of it as gossip takes twice as long to travel to Italy from America.

At night, they would have breakdancing parties afterward and he would DJ, just as though he was reliving his early days in New York, back when he was a busboy at Danceteria, observing it all from afar while simultaneously being apart of it. He supposed that’s how his current profession could be described as well. Perched on his ladder overlooking the crowd that would congregate each day to watch him, he, in turn, watched them, and it further inspired the sentiment behind his concept.

There were moments, of course, when he didn’t think he would be able to make all the puzzle pieces fit within the mammoth parameters he was given. Yet he truly did feel some sort of divine presence guiding his hand to seamlessly create the perfect curves for his figures so that they would all fit together, apart.

He wanted it to exude a pure naturalness. The sort that spoke to the theme he discussed five years ago on Italian television, when he came to Milan in 1984. Somewhat jokingly saying he had been inspired by pasta to create the drawing the audience saw being made before their eyes, he finally admitted that it was about something more insidious in its irrevocability: “The biggest problem facing man is keeping up ideologically with where technology is going and keeping some sense of yourself at the same time.”

Desiring a sense of rhythm to complete it quickly enough, he worked to music blasting from a boombox down below, which is when the parties would form without warning. Parties that might last into the night as breakdancers showed up, creating an atmosphere of community, a sense of it being “a happening,” just as he always dreamed the creation of public art could be.

So it was that a mural about connection and unity sprung from the hands of a man at war with his mortality. And isn’t this the wisest form of human? The one who knows the end is coming surely has more sagacity about the meaning of existence than those who think they still have a seemingly infinite amount of life left. At the same time, it takes a special form of, ironically, artlessness, to have so much faith in the world.

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