How it started:
Exit Through the Gift Shop was my first real exposure to the culture of street art. If you haven't seen it I highly recommend watching it. To this day it is one of my all time favorite documentaries. Thierry Guetta, now known as Mr. Brainwash, had an obsession with filming. He would record anything and everything, at all times, resulting in boxes upon boxes of video tape. He's an immigrant from France who lives in Los Angeles. On a trip back home to visit family he discovered that his cousin, a man only known to the public as Invader, does street art in the form of mosaics. This discovery led Thierry down a deep rabbit hole where he chased and filmed street artists all around the world. It eventually led to the meeting of Banksy who the film is primarily about.
This sparked my own obsession, unintentionally, with Invader. Originally it was only because I happened to be in Paris, the residence of this mysterious artist. He has placed nearly 1300 pieces of art around the city and it's hard not to notice them. The most common piece he does is of the original, 8-bit, pixelated bad guy in the archaic video game Space Invaders. His artwork has evolved to include many other figures but all of them are mosaics. Originally I just thought it was cool to spot one. I'd take a picture and move on. What really ignited the nerd in me is when I discovered there was a game people were playing that revolved around finding them.
Flash Invaders is the name, seeking out and finding his artwork is the game. It's an app. This is literally the largest scavenger hunt I've ever encountered. Inside the app, after creating an account, you are given access to a camera. With this camera you can now "Flash" any Invader artwork and through visual recognition and location services you are awarded points for finding different pieces. Bonuses are given for larger mosaics or for flashing in a new city. I can't even begin to explain the excitement I get from this. I've literally traveled to cities JUST to look for his artwork. I find it absolutely fascinating. You can visit his website to see the different cities he's, wait for it, invaded. Nerd alert!
My first day in Rome:
Let's fast forward to one of my biggest search and discoveries for Invader artwork. Rome was not the first city I flashed but it's one of my favorites. I didn't waste any time upon arriving. I had done all my research. There were a total of seventy-five pieces in Rome. I would soon discover that only fifteen remained. One of the huge bummers about street art is that, due to it's less than legal nature, it doesn't always last for long periods of time. Unfortunately for me, four fifths of the original mosaics in Rome had been removed. Sometimes you could even seen the outline of where they used to be. Other times a building had been remodeled and so it was no longer there. People even remove them in hope they will hold some kind of value. I just wanted some pictures and a few points towards my high score.
Rome's a big city and these things could literally be anywhere. It's not like Paris where you can find one at every corner. Luckily there are other Invader fans around the world and they have been kind enough to create Google maps with the exact location of each piece of art. Some might consider this cheating but I don't. You still have to discover it. I've arrived at many a location and been unable to find one. Quite often it takes lots of searching to locate it, even with a map. Not to mention they're scattered all over the place so it's a lot of walking. I had my phone open and the map loaded. My first stop was the Spanish Steps.
What can be really humorous about looking for these things is that you're often the only one not looking at the main attraction. The Spanish Steps had people all over them. Everyone wanted a photo on them or of them. Meanwhile my head is up in the clouds looking at the sides of buildings and street signs. The maps I generally find online don't always have a picture. Maybe that's something I could contribute to. Now mind you, this was my first visit to Rome. Other than the Colosseum and the Vatican, I didn't really know what to expect. So I'm walking along with my face in my phone when I look up and see this huge obelisk and a massive set of stairs. As I went on the Invader tour of Rome I quickly realized he likes to put his artwork near national monuments.
I first approached the stairs from the top. I looked around for a good bit of time without finding anything so I decided to head down. The marker on my phone said I was close but I couldn't see anything that even resembled street art. I descended the first set of stairs thinking this may have been a piece that was no longer in existence and then I looked to my right. There it was jumping right out at me. ROM_50. On this wall, off to the right, was the first Rome Invader I found. I was super excited to see it. Not only would I get twenty points for flashing it, I also received a bonus for adding a new city to my list. Shortly after and about half a mile away I found ROM_49.
ROM_59 was probably one of the most difficult to find. Again I found myself wandering around aimlessly not sure where it was located. Watching the marker on my phone I could see myself walking across it's supposed location. It made no sense because there weren't any immediate buildings in the vicinity. Usually they're placed up somewhere high but occasionally you'll find one on a road curb. While avoiding heavy traffic, I inspected every sidewalk edge hoping to find what I sought. On one side of this road was a restricted area of old Roman ruins. I started to wonder if he had installed one on the side of some ancient relic, a thought I didn't want to consider. I'm a fan of street art but is nothing sacred?
To my relief and surprise I eventually discovered it. Without damaging any of the ruins he had placed it on the edge of the sidewalk but on the inside of the excavated area. I still don't remember what made me walk to the other side but I'm glad I did. My only frustration was that I didn't have a longer lens. With my wide zoomed in as much as it would I snapped a couple photos from the opposite side. It required some digital enhancing but it is recognizable. Luckily the app also has a zoom and I was able to get close enough to score some points. I considered reaching under the bottom of the fence but I thought that would look a little too suspicious even if I wasn't doing anything wrong. Mission accomplished though! I was ready to move on towards my next target.
ROM_33 is a perfect example of people who remove pieces of artwork so they can have a souvenir. Whenever I see something like this I can't help but be a little disappointed. I only assume it's scavengers looking for an authentic Invader piece because the entire thing isn't gone, just pieces of it. I imagine if someone owned the building and wanted it removed they'd remove the entire thing and very often they do. Occasionally though you'll find one like this that has been chipped away. Sometimes it's not recognizable by the app but I got lucky with this one. I got thirty points and a new addition to my collection. I actually found this one on my second day and after quite a long walk. It was way outside the main city center and near another hopeful invasion. Unfortunately I wasn't able to find any of the others but I was happy to have flashed this one.
ROM_67 was a fun one because it's right next to Trevi Fountain, yet another national monument. Again, there's swarms of people around this magical spot and I'm looking above store fronts. I had to be the only one with my back to the fountain. At fist I didn't think I'd be able to find it because there were too many people. I got my pictures of the fountain, took a selfie, admired it's beauty but kept a watchful eye up in the rafters. I walked around it a few times, squeezing through the crowds, and thought I had once again been bested by time. The Rome invasion was back in 2010 and I was looking for them seven years later. It wasn't surprising that most of them were gone, only disappointing. Luckily I finally spotted this one. Imagine you're looking at the front of the fountain. At the face of it and to the left up on the street corner is where it's placed. I guarantee you I was the only one pointing my camera at a street sign and a hat and scarf store but I got exactly what I came for.
Ultimately I found this to be the best way of exploring Rome. In actuality it has been the best way to explore any city, for me. It's kind of like a treasure hunt. Not only do you get the excitement of looking for hidden treasure but you also get to see all that a city has to offer. And I really mean ALL that it has to offer. I must have walked more than thirty miles looking for Invader artwork. It didn't always land me in the best parts of town but I definitely saw everything, from the tourist spots to the local markets and restaurants. I got to see the real Rome. The place where people live and eat and sleep. It gave me an authentic insight to how ones daily life might be in this magnificent city. To bring things full circle, I was able to see more than just the gift shop. It made me fall in love with the city more than any other place in the world.
The adventure is not over though! I found ten other Invaders, a couple missing ones and even an imposter! I've decided to break this one up into three different posts since it would run quite long to cover each one. If you're a lover of street art or familiar with Invader, make sure to check back because I have plenty more stories to tell. My current rank is #6518 with 101 found and 4150 points scored across six different cities and five different countries. I hope to increase my score in the coming years and explore all the other cities invaded by this incredible artist.
Be sure to check out parts two and three at the links below:
Invading Rome - Part 2 of 3 - Chasing Down Invader Street Art
Invading Rome - Part 3 of 3 - Chasing Down Invader Street Art
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