Just over a week ago, I arrived in Venice and was immediately transported to another world. I felt as if I’d jumped into the pages of a historical novel – Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or perhaps Casanova’s autobiography. Walking through the maze of canals, cobblestone paths and tiny alleyways, I couldn’t help smiling, giddy with enchantment. I was surrounded on all sides by beautiful old buildings, most of them looking the same as they have for hundreds of years. The colours of the walls, the imperfect lines of the ancient structures, the smells of antiquity, the low ceilings of the tavernas, the water-damaged foundations… All hinted at the history of the ‘floating city,’ this place that is as magical as the stuff of fairy tales.
I got in touch with Morena, a friend-of-a-friend who lives in Venice, on my first day in the city. After a day of exploration, I made my way over to the Art Biennale grounds, where she would be working in one of the national pavilions for the next few weeks. As our mutual friend Heidi had promised, Morena was a warm, friendly, soft-spoken person with a bright smile that could light up a room. We hit it off instantly.
I was invited to spend the next night in her home, a flat on the top floor of an old Venetian house on Giudecca, a large island to the south of the city that was once a Jewish ghetto. She and a few of her roommates were interested in getting some ink done, so I brought along my tattoo equipment.
296B was at the end of a long, narrow alley, nestled behind a lovely rose garden. Morena had mentioned that the door was always open, and sure enough, when I arrived, I was able to let myself in. Once again, as I walked through the door, I felt like I was walking into a novel. This was the home of a group of young people, most of them university students in the Arts: anthropology, drama, visual arts, graphic design, photography, architecture… When I walked into the common room at the heart of the large apartment, one young man was standing at a computer, aiming a projector at a second man, who stood bare-chested on a table at the other end of the room, a perfect triangle floating on his chest. As it turns out, Patrick, the man on the table, was considering getting a triangle tattooed on his back or chest, and this was his way of figuring out what would be the best size, positioning, etc. of the piece.
The apartment is a beehive of activity. About a dozen tenants share six bedrooms (seven if you count the room that has been created in the corner of one of the common rooms with a few strategically hanged sheets). Add to that a few girlfriends and a steady flow of friends dropping by to say hello, and you have a house that is constantly buzzing with activity, full of energy and never empty. People are always coming and going throughout the day, working part-time jobs, studying, going to class, or sharing a meal in the tiny kitchen they all use. There’s an unofficial system in place that seems to be keeping things moving smoothly; everyone pitches in to cook, clean, and keep toilet paper stocked in the two bathrooms.
In truth I was impressed by the unusual level of maturity that permeates the group; despite the young age of most of the occupants, music was never played too loud, only a few beers were cracked open during my stay, and people were remarkably respectful of others, keeping quiet when moving around in the apartment early in the morning or past midnight, for instance.
The lease was first signed almost 30 years ago, and has been renewed annually by the ever-changing group of students ever since. Not surprisingly, the contents of the apartment bear testament to the large number of people who have lived in the space over the years. Homemade artwork and old posters hang on the walls, collages of photos of past and present tenants are taped on the doors. A retro typewriter, a clock made with kitchen cutlery and an old chest (its contents unknown) are only a few of the random objects that can be found throughout the flat. The rooms are somewhat cluttered with old mismatched furniture, the surfaces of tables shared by new Mac notebooks and piles of old books alike. Yet people seem to know where everything is, and everything seems to have its place. The overall effect is a feeling of comfort within organized chaos. And like so many people before me, within minutes I felt at home, a part of something great, and I knew that when the time came, I would be reluctant to leave.
After a bit of casual chit chat with the folks who were home when I arrived, I set up my machine and started working on the first of what would turn out to be ten tattoos done at the apartment over the course of two sleepovers. Maria Giovanna, a student of multi-media and photography at the Academy of Arts, was the first to get her ink done. Amusingly, she chose to get the address of the apartment, 296B, tattooed on her shoulder. So many good memories had been created in that space, and she wanted to carry a reminder of the good years she’d spent there.
Marco was next, with a tattoo of the ‘pause/play’ symbol that has appeared over the years on cassette players, CD players and now MP3 players. It’s an appropriate tattoo for Marco, who dabbles in music production and internet technology, but it was also chosen as a symbol for life. We play, and sometimes we stop for a while, absorbing and learning, and then we move on again to the next project, the next phase…
Patrick decided to go ahead with the triangle tattoo, and we put the isosceles between his shoulder blades. He got the triangle for three reasons (of course). First, because he likes the way it looks. Second, because unlike the circle and the square, the triangle can be stretched in any direction and still remain a triangle. (A circle becomes an oval and a square becomes a rectangle or a number of other shapes). And thirdly, because it’s the only shape that can be made using the minimum number of straight lines – three. As Patrick pointed out, it’s the basis of innumerable things in technology, nature, religion and so on.
Raphael, in his 7th year studying architecture, chose another symbol for the way he sees life. Two parallel lines going around his forearm and crossing one another at one point (on his inner arm). The way he sees it, we’re all the same, living parallel lives in a way. We all have the same needs, we share the same fundamental hopes, we all grow old… and sometimes our paths cross. We have exchanges, and then we move on, continuing our lives with the new memories, experiences and knowledge we’ve acquired from these meetings.
Beatrice got a tattoo to commemorate one of her favourite bands, an Italian group from the 80s called CCCP. Their name stems from the Cyrillic script for SSSR, the Russian acronym for the USSR. Their music was a blend of punk, militant rock and industrial music.
On my second visit to the apartment, I had the pleasure of tattooing one of Patrick’s co-workers at his part-time job at a local pizzeria, Pier. He brought his wife of one month, Monique, a young woman from Las Vegas who came to Venice for a Harvard student exchange program. Pier is also an artist, working in woodcut prints and other media. He and his wife got similar tattoos, symbols of harmony, one of which he’d included at the end of the poem he’d written for her on the first night they met.
One of Patrick’s classmates also dropped by to get some ink done. She chose to have the words ‘truth’ and ‘freedom’ tattooed on her ankles in ancient Greek.
And finally, it was Morena’s turn. A newly certified yoga teacher (she finished her training in India last March), she chose to have the ‘om’ symbol tattooed on the back of her neck, just below the hairline. She also got a tattoo done on the lower left side of her back, a curvy stylized woman with a bohemian/gypsy look to her, wrapped in flowing scarves and balancing the world in one of her hands. The image was inspired by a drawing her best friend had done for her a while back… and finally Morena was able to have it put on her body.
When we were finished, Morena rushed off to get to work, and I was left to pack my things away. It was mid-afternoon on a weekday and the apartment was as quiet as I’d ever seen it. Most of the gang was at work or in class, the rest were shut up in their rooms. As I wrote a thank you note to leave to the inhabitants of 296B, I thought of what lay ahead for them. After decades of people living, growing, sharing, laughing, crying, fighting, reconciling and building indestructible friendships in this home, it would soon be time for everyone to say goodbye. Their elderly landlady, encouraged by her business-oriented daughter, has decided that it’s time that the flat be renovated and restructured to accommodate more tenants. By September, the apartment will have to be vacant.
And so as I prepared to leave Venice and the apartment behind, I thought about how it would be for the occupants of 296B to walk away, when the time came. For a lot of them, the end of this era will mark the beginning of a distinct new one. Marco plans to move to Berlin, Raphael is thinking about going to America, Canada or Australia to work for a few years, and Elio is already moving into an abandoned theater where he and a few other people are squatting. Morena and Patrick will be moving in with different friends in the area, while most of the others will be leaving Italy altogether to travel, to continue with their studies or to participate in volunteer programs.
This is what life is all about, in the end. The apartment was a crossroads in these young men and women’s lives, where people came together in a most wonderful way. Soon, it’ll be time for them to press the ‘play’ button again, and carry on. There’s one thing I’m certain of, though: Maria Giovanna may have been the only one who got ‘296B’ tattooed on her, but there isn’t a person who’s lived within those walls who hasn’t been marked forever by the experience. And though my time spent in the flat was relatively brief, I’m grateful to have met this lovely group of people and to have been a part of it all, if only for a few days.
To all of the inhabitants of 296B, thank you… I wish you all the best!