Art Street, Milan

The Don Gallery

In Milan, I follow the advice of a slick travel magazine and ring a doorbell in a neighborhood that’s covered in street art. It’s a gamble and the first time I try, I don’t get an answer. I do this just to see if it works, if the press is a liar like everyone says.

After a few minutes, an embarrassed shuffle of my feet, a fleeing thought about a potential language barrier, a little girl with long blond hair comes to the gate. She’s holding a jump rope and and is wearing a pastel t-shirt that’s a staple at grownup stores that have fashionable kids’ lines.

Boungiorno?” I ask. Little kids who speak languages other than English always strike me as freakish alien supergeniuses. Like their eyes could bore holes in concrete, too.

“Hello,” she says back with an accent and a grin. She runs back to the house and shouts “PAPAAAAAAA!”

Just behind her, a guy with a mustache is strolling around the driveway behind the gate strumming a guitar. He smiles and waves and doesn’t let me in, but holds up a finger, the universal symbol for, “Hold on a sec.” He’s not Papa.

Papa does show up, though, an instant later. He’s wearing loafers and a blue denim shirt that matches his eyes. He’s tanned like it’s September even though it’s only May and he lets me in when I ask if the gallery is open.

“It’s open,” he says in English. “Only it’s not a gallery right now. It’s a house. It’s my house.”

He introduces his daughters — there’s another tiny blonde alien racing around just inside the door clutching another jump rope — and the guitar guy, whose name is Antonio. He nods, keeps playing.

He escorts me into his living room, and then his office, and the stuff on the walls is outrageous. A Shepard Fairey, a Space Invader, a Banksy, a Ron English sculpture. All of it just sitting there in a house behind a gate in a residential neighborhood in Milan by the crappy train station — not even the good train station.

When I tell him I’m from New York, he says, “Ah, but you have much better street art than this.”

Probably. But not in my living room.

He gives me a tour, points to the Fairey and says, “This is your Shepard Fairey, of course.” Mine, though. Mine meaning American, mine meaning New Yorker, mine meaning I have borne through the door of this house/gallery some idea of authenticity, and that’s a hilarious.

I don’t know anything about anything. I just like to look at pretty things. Cathedrals. Paintings. Italian men with tans and very blue eyes.

I circle the room slowly, trying to get a handle on where I am and what I’m doing, and the little girls watch me the whole time, keeping just enough distance, still holding their jump ropes. Antonio continues his song. After a few minutes, the silence gets awkward and I say goodbye. When I tell him that I heard about the gallery in a magazine, he says, “Yes, well. We did some PR. We had a party.”

So I guess that’s why I’m here. Because at some point there was a party.

I step back out onto the street feeling strangely accomplished. About street art that’s not on the street. That’s curated into the living room of a white-painted Milan apartment — the first private space in this city that I’ve ever seen. Until this moment, for me, Milan is all squares and churches and arches full of visitors, all train stations and expensive hotels. It is men on Vespas in business suits, jetting off to places I’ve never been, and darting behind doorways where I can’t go.

This glimpse behind the gate, I am not so sure about. A gallery or a house, indoors or out, it is maybe the real Milan or maybe not. Maybe it’s a party that happened a long time before I arrived.

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