Step inside the European free party scene as it happened, with Mattia Zoppellaro’s new book Dirty Dancing

Published by record label Klasse Wrecks and Berlin print house We Make It, Dirty Dancing offers a rare glimpse inside a booming underground subculture.

23 September 2021


Milan-based photographer Mattia Zoppellaro’s new book (published by electronic music label Klasse Wrecks & Berlin print house We Make It) is an epic club odyssey, to say the least. Titled Dirty Dancing, the book collects and curates photographs taken by Mattia during his time within the European free party and techno scene between 1997 and 2005, illuminating a new perspective on a subculture that’s long been riddled with harmful stereotypes and legal persecution.

Now dubbed “squat raves”, the free party scene originally occurred on the outskirts of major cities and attracted all those enticed by the idea of an underground party where music played at full blast and stringent rules were left by the door. Across Dirty Dancing’s carefully curated pages, Mattia showcases a fascinating and artistic insight on partying without uninformed expectations. “What really steals my soul about photography as a medium, is its failure in expressing an opinion,” Mattia tells It’s Nice That. “A picture cannot tell the truth, it can only evoke certain feelings.” The book certainly does just that, as each image evokes a moment, feeling, or action caught in beautiful stasis that transports us to the dancefloors of parties around the continent.

One particularly striking aspect of Mattia’s images of the parties is the ways in which light interacts with the framing of the scene. “Across the book, my signature visual style was born out of necessity,” Mattia explains. “There was no light at those parties hence the need for a high-speed film that gives that war-like feeling of dark and grainy black and white.
” The grain works quite spectacularly, giving the free party scene a refined and “classical” aesthetic that gives a greater depth to its subjects. But how exactly did Mattia get so involved with the free party scene in the first place? “I befriended the main actor on the set of a film where I was a non-paid assistant,” he recalls. “We both fell for an extra that invited us to a party in a Bologna industrial estate.” After blindly following her to a party, they found themselves completely enraptured by the scene unravelling before them. “I happened to have a camera with me and in the early hours of the morning I started snapping around with people staring warily at me, probably thinking I was an undercover cop,” Mattia tells us. “I was wearing a linen shirt,” he jokes.

GalleryMattia Zoppellaro: Dirty Dancing (Copyright © Mattia Zoppellaro, 2021)

Mattia is also quick to note how gaining the trust of the ravers was a slow and difficult process, especially as time went on and the advent of surveillance proliferated. “At each party, I used to give away the prints I took at the previous one,” he says. “A practice that I adopted and still use today, whenever I start a project.” That practice found its natural evolution into Dirty Dancing, a beautifully formatted collection of said photographs, with graphic design by Moritz Grünke at We Make It and coordination of the project from Lucas Hunter at Klasse Wrecks. “This was the first project I worked on, since I started it in 1997, the year when I really began thinking about taking pictures,” Mattia adds. “It created a kind of template for all my future work-process: I start shooting whenever I’m curious about a group of people geographically close to me, and that inspires me.” Mattia strays from seeing it as social photography, and more so an avenue for his curiosity and discovery. “I use the medium in an extremely egotistical way, to know the world, not to inform it.”

Mattia attributes a lot of the images to being in the right place at the right time. But what kept him coming back for more was the striking “clash between the sense of community and the individual introspection induced by the dance,” he tells us. Funnelling that all into a book proved to be a cathartic process for the photographer. “I’m a fetishist and I like to hold things in my hands so the book is a natural outlet for my projects,” Mattia explains. “I like to give an order and sequence to the pictures, with help from Moritz and Lucas.” It’s a fitting time to bring out a book about parties concerning the last year and a half that has depleted them almost entirely around the world (although, if you looked hard enough, the free party scene was surviving fine and well).

Now, Mattia is working on a project about where he’s from in Rovigo, Italy – aptly titled Where I Come From. And in tandem, his other ongoing project Where I’m At, hones in on his current habitat: Giambellino in Milan. Both are a far cry from the chaotic, whirlwind free partying hotspots of places such as Petriolo, Hackney, and Barcelona, but we look forward to them all the same.

GalleryMattia Zoppellaro: Dirty Dancing (Copyright © Mattia Zoppellaro, 2021)

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Mattia Zoppellaro: Dirty Dancing (Copyright © Mattia Zoppellaro, 2021)

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About the Author

Joey Levenson

Joey is a freelance design, arts and culture writer based in London. They were part of the It’s Nice That team as editorial assistant in 2021, after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.

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