Reportage

The Castle: How a Homeless Man Turned an Abandoned Factory into a Graffiti Museum

The abandoned factory in the outskirts of Milan is called no less than ‘The Castle’. Anybody can have a good meal here, stay a night, see hundreds of graffiti works and leave their own. This became possible thanks to one elderly Tunisian man, who became homeless several years ago.

We open the metal gates with effort, and squeeze into the narrow crevice, carrying two packs of drinking water. The Castle has no water supply, and everyone who comes here needs to bring at least a little bit of water.

The Castle is located to the north of Milan, in Cormano, half a kilometer away from the metro station. There is neither heating, nor electricity here, as it is merely an abandoned factory. However, Zakaria Jemai, also known here as Uncle Zak, turned this place into an enormous graffiti museum, which is open to everyone.

“You’ll Find a Way by Yourself”

After wandering around the ground floor for 20 minutes, we get desperate to find the stairs and call our host. He explains the way and meets us upstairs: “I never meet people at the entrance,” he says. “You have to find your way here by yourself, to see and understand this place.”

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Zakaria, who is 62, has lived in Italy for over 30 years: worked as a cook, married a beautiful Polish woman with Russian roots, and raised two children. Seven years ago he got in trouble — he doesn’t want to elaborate what it was exactly. He only says that he lost everything: his home, his family, and his reputation. The abandoned factory became a shelter where he hid from the world.

For the entire year, his family was wondering if he had died or gone back to Tunisia. All of this time, he was going to sleep on a cardboard mattress, his teeth chattering from cold, and dreaming about turning this awful place into something beautiful. After he woke up, he was working on making his dream come true: cleared the garbage, brought in old furniture and other things, and settled in.

One day, Alexander Tenia and two of his friends, street artists from the Dead Dogs group, came to the factory. They became Zakaria’s first guests and graffitied the walls of the future Castle.

After they left, Zakaria realized what he wanted the place to be like.

Factory Turns into The Castle

The graffiti artists started coming one after the other: Uncle Zak was a good host. Artists of all ages, genders, and skin colors started coming here to leave their trace. Many decide to stay here for some time, others keep coming over and over to graffiti something new.

“They ask me what to draw. I give them my poems to read or tell them stories, and they start drawing,” Zakaria explains. The walls of The Castle are covered with his quotes.

“A woman is the most important thing in the world. Everything starts with her, and everything ends with her,” we read. As if to confirm these words, an artist named Chiara meets us in the next room. Today is the day when she finishes her new work.

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Many decide to stay here for sometime, others keep coming over and over to graffiti something new.

In the next room we see a childishly naive work done by a 16-year-old autistic boy. This was his first drawing. The Uncle shows us his next works, one after the other: the latest ones have much more confidence in them. The boy’s parents started bringing him here all the time, because after the first visits, Nicolo started feeling much better and the doctors are surprised with his progress.

In the other room, the entire floor is covered in scribbles: children came for the tour of The Castle the day before, and left love messages to Uncle Zak.

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Nicolo’s first drawing
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One of Nicolo’s latest drawings

“People told me that I should charge for entrance, but I am not going to do that. This is a place for everyone, it is both mine and nobody’s. Each person brings what they can. When I am out of gas, I just take the tank downstairs, and I find it there full the next day. I don’t even know who fills it, people do.”

People bring him fuel, gas and water, products, which he turns into exquisite meals on a tiny cooker, made to share with all the guests of The Castle.

When I am out of gas, I just take the tank downstairs, and I find it there full the next day.

The owners of the factory do not object to the new life of the abandoned building. The police are glad that they don’t have to deal with the vagrants and addicts anymore, and postmen bring letters addressed to ‘Uncle Zak, The Castle, Cormano, Milan.’

“I Have Both Nothing and Everything”

In the last seven years, The Castle has been decorated with several hundred works. Thanks to Zakaria, they form sort of a gallery: grouped by themes, placed in different rooms. You need many hours to walk around and see all of them.

When we were saying goodbye, Zakaria asked us to send him the article. “I’ll ask my wife to translate it, she knows Russian,” he said. It turned out that Zak’s wife and children often visit and ask him to come back home, but he doesn’t want to go back. “What would I be doing there? Getting up, washing my face, and waiting for my wife to come back from work? I have something to do here. People need me here. I have nothing, and at the same time, I have everything.”

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All photos: by Kirill Loginov

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