Today, April 25th is World Penguin Day. What if I tell you that you can spot penguins in Milan, Turin, Pisa, Modena, Mantova or Catania? In fact, watch carefully when wandering in these cities, the funny animals will approach you in the shape of concrete bollards. These creature come from the creative mind of Pao, Italian street artist based in Milan.
“It all started by chance” says Pao when I reach him on the phone. “In 2000, I was drawing comics for myself and one night, wandering in Milan, I saw colored concrete bollards. Painted by Francesco Magli, Italian artist who used to paint them in front of Teatro alla Scala of Milan as a protest, they looked just as goofy as my character. So I decided to paint them in the shape of a penguin.
I didn’t have a past as a writer, I used to work as theatre sound engineer. But I had a goal. I drew the penguins to end up in the photo of the day of the newspaper Corriere della Sera. And not only I reached my goal in a very short time, I also got messages from people who loved my penguins.”
So you started as a street artist and never quit?
“Exactly. I loved making penguins because it amused me and people enjoyed them too. Those were the days where in the streets of Milan started what we call post graffiti. Artists coming from writing, tagging, lettering found a new way to mark the territory using a new language and new images.
And you continued transforming road bollards into dolphins and light poles into daises…
“Yes. Playing with the city was a way to reinterpret the urban space. I do not consider cities only as a consumption and productivity place. There must be something else. Time to play, to gather with your friends.”
Your world is joyful and reminds me that conceived by Goran Lelas or Paola Pivi. But the transformation of concrete bollards into creatures reminds me of Clet’s road signs.
“True, and people do really consider them as living creatures. If someone crashes against one of those, they call or write me and say: hey, I think I killed a penguin!”
Year after year, Pao’s world has started including Minions, fruit, sweets, strange creatures hiding in a bush.
At the same time, Street Art has become huge and today it is not only illegal intervention made during the night.
“Advertisement agencies and institutions have soon understood the power of Street Art. Now it is seen as a low cost way to restore old buildings, redevelop suburbs or even use surfaces for commercial purposes. In Corso Garibaldi, in Milan, you can rent a wall and have a street artist painting it.”
But do you still go out at night with sprays?
“Sometimes, but I mainly work under commission. And I work with galleries. You know you grow up, you change. What I do know is very close to what I used to do, but I cannot really call it Street Art. As, you know, Street Art has to remain spontaneous and illegal. I now paint murals.”
And where are you today?
“Today I am in Mantua where I work with the arci Fuzzy association. This project started in 2003 to redesign the Valletta Valsecchi district in a joint venture with an art institute. I am here for the third time to restore the bollards. And I am very happy every time I come back here. Street Art is a democratic form of art, a working project where people are not just spectators. They are part of the project itself. In the past I also got called by a women who saw my penguins fading away and asked me if I didn’t mind that she restored them for me. And of course I was happy for that.”
Can you also find the penguins outside of Italy?
“Very few. In Helsingborg, Sweden and Munich, Germany. I was in Munich for an urban art fair and I went out one night. I was caught by the police. They were nice, they tried to help me as they immediately saw it wasn’t vandalism. But I got fined and taken to trial. Funnily enough, after sometimes Germany sent me the money back. They recognized my art but hey, you do not mess with the laws.”
Luckily we can spot penguins all over Italy.
“In Fano, in the province of Pesaro, there is an entire colony. Some penguins are not even mine. Again, it is a shared work today.”
Our conversation ends with the promise of a coffee, maybe in Torino, my city, where you can find Pao’s work near Via Po, very close to Turin University. We all need to go out and reclaim portions of those places that street artists like Pao are trying to transform into something that is everything but grey, sad and boring.
And in case you are visiting Italy with a car, watch out, do not kill a penguin or…well you got the message!