It’s not often “manhole covers” and “fashion” are uttered in the same sentence, but for Emma-France Raff, these functional metal structures have a distinct charm.
So much so that she scours the streets of cities for ones with intricate details and textures which she uses as a printing press - painting them with ink and transferring their designs onto t-shirts, hoodies and bags.
The artist, who brings a whole new meaning to the term “streetwear”, gets some curious looks when she gets her roller, ink and equipment out, and starts printing on the ground in public places.
Raff copying designs from Berlin and Budapest’s distinctive manhole covers as well as a more abstract design from Porto’s tram tracks
But Raff, who has turned the streets of Berlin, Barcelona, Istanbul, Paris, Porto and Stavanger – among others – into fashion has always been fascinated with tiny details spotted while out and about, and finding inspiration in often overlooked elements of the urban landscape. The appeal of manhole covers, she says, is that they often have a local flavour.
“Often drain covers will have symbols or letters that make them unique to that certain place. They have something from the city on them,” she says. “In Berlin, for example, they have the TV tower on them and other monuments.
Raff at work in Vienna in 2017
“The Berlin one is very nice because it has a lot of details but I also like the abstract ones. There’s so much variety, you have thousands of different ones. They’re special because they always have something local.”
Raff, whose parents are German, was born in France. Her family moved to Portugal when she was nine, and she came up with the idea of using manhole cover as prints with her father while she was studying textile design in Porto.
Raff capturing a floral tile pattern in Barcelona
She went on to create experimental printing project raubdruckerin – which means female pirate printer – which is based in Berlin, although she travels to different cities to do the printing, and sells the t-shirts and other hand-printed merchandise via her website.
In addition to manhole covers, she finds other neglected patterns in city streets. “I did a sign for bicycle parking in Amsterdam. In Barcelona we printed tiles on the concrete floor. If there’s chewing gum I leave it on, sometimes you can see it on the print. It makes it very unique - it’s the idea that this print comes from one specific place, and maybe in two years it will not be there, so it has to do with time and place.”
After the printing it can take between half an hour to an hour to clean up. She says she uses a water-based ink, which reacts with the fabric but it doesn’t connect with the metal. “It’s like painting with water marker on plastic, it makes pearls.”
A tote bearing a beautiful ironwork design spotted in Brussels.
She chooses cities partially based on the weather - rain doesn’t make good street printing conditions, and as she sees it, her customers become a part of the art project.
“They are wearing the city with these t-shirts, it’s like a footprint. It also makes people think about what’s on the floor,” she says.