Eastern walls – interview with Giulia Blocal13 min read

 In Culture, Eastern Europe, Interview
Lossi 36 speaks with photographer and street art enthusiast Giulia Blocal as part of our Eastern Walls virtual exhibition. Blocal is based in Italy and runs the wildly popular street art blog, Blocal Travel.

Congratulations! Your blog recently turned ten years old. Tell us how you started and what Blocal Travel has grown into. 

Like many blogs in the old days, Blocal started as a personal journal to collect my travels. I already had a blog while living in the Balkans, so when I moved back to Italy I wanted to start a new one about my life at home. The name stands for “Be Local” -as a way of traveling and discovering a place. The general idea was to spend some time in a place (from a few months to a few years) and write about that place from a local perspective, sharing info and tips for travelers and locals alike. Generally speaking, this is what happened (I just moved back to Italy after 3 years living in Amsterdam), but over the years I also wrote about places I just visited for a few weeks, usually to attend street art festivals. Please also check this article, where I tell my blogging story better.

You’ve worked for STRAAT, the museum of graffiti and street art in Amsterdam. You’ve worked “behind the scenes” and now in a larger role: managing the website and writing specialized texts and multimedia content! You’ve just finished writing the Museum catalog and the result is a beautiful 300-page artbook any street art connoisseur would love to have on their shelves. Tell us more about the process and what you brought to your role in the creation of the catalog. 

I don’t work at STRAAT anymore, I quit my job there as the Communication and Content manager almost one year ago and I moved back to Rome, my hometown. I have several blog posts about STRAAT, which I recommend every street art aficionado check out. 

This is the prologue. I wrote it in 2018 after a trip to Amsterdam. I was there to write about a street art project in the south-eastern outskirts of the city, during which I first heard about the project of the museum, I visited the vacant warehouse and fell in love with the project. From that moment, I knew I had to work there.

I eventually moved to Amsterdam in October 2018 and shared many aspects of my life in Amsterdam on the blog and on Instagram, but I couldn’t share much about the museum (it was written in my contract), so I haven’t written much about it – only as part of my life in Amsterdam, sharing my working experience and some doubts about my future. 

One year later, the catalog was released. I’m very happy about it, and super proud of the work I did, so I wrote this post about the editorial process behind it.

Lastly, I just published an article about STRAAT museum for people who want to visit it, and so not much about my personal story working there, but more about what you can see there and how the exhibition became what it is now, explaining each section, showing my favorite artworks for each section. That article is here. It’s a general article about the museum but from an insider perspective.

Your monthly newsletter is quite popular. Your work transcends many types of media: Youtube vlogs, Instagram posts, blog posts, and even live streaming! Why so many mediums? What motivates you to keep on creating? How do you deal with burnout in the midst of so many different projects?

Yes, I do work with many types of media, but it’s no secret that my favorite media are the blog and the newsletter. So although I do use Instagram now (I deactivated my Instagram account a couple of times in the past, for several months, because it’s a medium that I don’t like much), Youtube and more media, I’m not hiding the fact that my focus and main efforts are in the newsletter. Blocal is a personal project and a one-woman show, I’m working on everything alone and in my spare time, so my priorities must be clear (for myself and for my readers). That’s why I always stress that the newsletter is my favorite way to stay in touch, there are different kinds of content I create only for my monthly newsletter and which don’t end up anywhere else (simply because I don’t have the time to “translate” the same content into a format good on Instagram, a format good for Youtube, a format good for Facebook, a format good for the blog, a format good for Tik Tok, etc). 

But back to your questions: why so many mediums? Because I do like to “declinate” content into many different mediums (from a creative point of view, for example, I perfectly know my limits with Youtube and video editing, but I still do it every now and then because I like video editing). From a creative point of view, what I like to do is to live somewhere for some time (= Be a Local) and share my experience on different mediums through different creative products (videos for Youtube, storytelling for the blog, a more personal perspective for the newsletter, photos for Instagram, etc). Obviously, this is in a dream scenario because I don’t have the time to do all of that and I don’t have the skills to do it professionally, but I still like the idea -that’s why I keep all these mediums “on”, although I’m not posting on each of them every week.  They all are creative outlets for me, a medium to express some form of creativity (video for Youtube, writing for the blog, etc). 

What motivates me? I simply like to tell stories, to share my experiences. I’ve been journaling almost every day since when I was 6 years old. I kept travel journals even when I was a child. I used to print the photos and stick them in my childhood journals! It’s just something I love, especially now that it helps me connect with artists and creative people worldwide. 

About burnouts, I still don’t have a solution. Therapy does help, though. 

A lot of travelers follow your work for the maps! You share all your carefully curated Google maps of urban art all over the world on your site. Although many of your destinations are not known for their tourism, you invite travelers all around the world with your “off the beaten path” guides. You often share the exact streets and pin locations of your findings. What is the motivation behind making your content free and easily accessible? Are you worried about sharing the “secrets” of small and lesser-known locales? This is very different from the cryptic, often elitist attitude that many fine art lovers embody.

Ah, and don’t get me started on Urbex fans. They are even more cryptic and harsher than street art lovers, and I received many angry messages from Urbex people because I was sharing GPS locations of some abandoned spots, while the rule in that world is keeping everything super secret. Eventually, I stopped writing so much about Urbex (they won!) because I was tired of all the messages from haters while all I wanted to do was to provide information for free to help my fellow travelers. I wasn’t earning anything from it while spending money to go on a trip and document the locations for my community, and spending a lot of energy writing about it and sharing my knowledge for free. So yeah, I still write about Urbex (I posted about some abandoned villas seized from the mafia, in Sicily, just last July) but very seldom, because I don’t like the “attitude” of that community. 

Street art lovers aren’t so aggressive, thankfully. Nobody ever complained I’m sharing locations of street art because my community is happy to find all the Google maps on my blog. 

By the way, on the maps, there aren’t only street art spots, but also pubs, museums, parks and other things I happen to like while living in that place. It’s simply what I would like to find online when I’m going to a place, either on vacation or to live there for a while. So I guess I’m doing it for good karma.

One of your most popular posts is about Abandoned Places in Croatia. Why do you think this type of off-the-beaten-path type of tourism has become so popular?

I think it has something to do with the super cool photos you can take in such places (and so Instagram fame, which is a kind of attitude I don’t like, but what can I do? Street art became popular in recent years for the same reason). As I wrote above, I almost stopped posting about abandoned places because the Urbex people complain a lot, and I don’t have time (and energy) for drama. I do this for fun. When something isn’t fun anymore because I receive tons of messages from haters, I don’t “have to” keep posting about it only because some of my most popular posts are about abandoned places. I certainly like to have many readers, but it’s more important to be happy and relaxed during the whole blogging process (it’s a marathon!) than getting stressed (and harassed) to publish something because it might become “popular”. 

You have been a media partner of some important street art festivals around Europe. Can you tell us more about that?  

Yeah, I’m very proud of the work I did for IBUG festival (in Germany); they gave me complete creative freedom. I wrote about my experience for IBUG in 2017 here and in 2018 here. Have a look, because they are really the best example of what I do when I’m covering a street art festival. 

I’m also super proud of having been invited to multiple editions of Nuart (Norway) and Nuart Aberdeen (Scotland), which is the most important street art festival worldwide, but I don’t have a good archive about that on the blog, because in the first years I was attending the festival as the representative of other street art blogs, which were the media partners.

You share that the Balkans is your favorite destination for street art. Why has it captured your heart and what makes it special from other more well-known destinations, such as your home country of Italy?

Not really for street art, it’s my favorite region in general for traveling. I lived in Slovenia for a while. I had a car and I was doing many road trips around the Balkans with friends. I love the people there and the nature, especially the Balkan attitude (way of life) in general. It’s very difficult to compare it to Italy (I obviously love Italy as well, it’s such a beautiful place), but I can say that usually, as a traveler, you are most fascinated by something different and more exotic than your home country. Italy is a wonderful country to explore, especially off-the-beaten-path, but it’s my country, my mother language, my culture, so it feels less “traveling” in a way… 

You lived in Slovenia for two years and you’ve been back many times. What drew you to that part of the world?

It’s truly an amazing country to visit, mostly for nature but also for art (in Ljubljana and Maribor). As for me, I do have a personal bond with Slovenia, I became a different person while living there so I always think in a romantic way about that country. Also, I still have friends living there, so often I go back to visit them. It’s more of a personal bond I would say, but the country is beautiful nevertheless, especially if you like hiking and mountains in general. 

You have interviewed artists Ink, Aleksandar Macasev, and SQON about their work in Savamala, Belgrade. How often do you interact with artists? How did you locate these artists? One thing that is different about street art versus art in a fine arts museum is that finding out who the artist is is near impossible. Due to the illegal nature of street art, many artists hide their identities or only go by tagger names. Beyond that, locating them is even more difficult! Tell us about your experience interacting and using your platform to spotlight various artists.

The whole thing about graffiti is people writing their name, so if you know how to “decode” graffiti lettering you also know the name of the artist, because it’s written just there on the wall. Many of them, at least, back in the day, don’t want to do interviews, but I do contact almost anyone I like via Instagram because politely asking for something doesn’t harm anyone. Street artists, instead, are almost always signing their art. If they don’t, it’s because they have a visual trait that acts as a logo, and so it’s widespread and very recognizable; everybody in the scene knows who is behind it. It’s like if you see the Nike logo without the word “Nike”, you still know that is Nike.   

You have a post devoted to Tirana’s painted buildings and Tirana’s former mayor Edi Rami, who is the current Prime Minister of Albania. You write that Rami “brought new life to the huge socialist buildings characterizing the capital town of Albania as a promise of a brighter and colorful future after the grey years represented by the Albanian past”. Your photographs certainly prove that! What do you love most about the marriage of history and national identity often found in street art?

I want to return to Tirana and refresh my article, but also because there has been a street art festival in Tirana and they did many walls. Of course, that’s more “muralism” as we say in a world full of street art festivals, and is not at all the same thing as what Rami did in the past. 

About the marriage of history and national identity – the best example of it is Latin American muralism; Diego Rivera of course. I would love to see that, but I haven’t traveled so far (yet). But I find your definition more appropriate for Latin America, not Tirana. 

Generally speaking, though, I like the local trait of some street art projects, which makes the place different from other cities. Too often the same superstar street artists are painting the same thing in all five continents, and if a festival only invites those names it will never have “specificity” and “originality”, some local trait that makes it different. And when we travel we want to see different things. It’s like traveling all around the world and only eating at McDonald’s versus always trying the local cuisine. If a festival is like a McDonalds of street art it doesn’t offer anything “special”, but if a festival is also able to tell something about the nation or city, perhaps some folklore stories or something special of that region, it’s more interesting for me because it has something to tell. For example, the public art project that Rami did (I would call it public art, not street art) for me tells a lot about the mood of the people in that specific time in Albania, their wish to start anew, reinvent themselves, and their city, with a positive attitude.

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