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In Naples, artists use irony to tackle festering trash crisis

May 7, 2008

Tourists scouring the Naples airport for the perfect postcard image to send back home could pick out a classic view of this southern Italian city, such as a shot of Mt. Vesuvius. Or they could choose that one of trash cans.

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Depicting nine cassonetti photoshopped into a line spelling munnezz, the local shorthand for garbage, it cheerily proclaims: “Greetings from Naples.”

This might seem a lighthearted response to a dramatic escalation in the last year of Naples' nearly 15-year battle with trash. After dumps reached their limit in December, more than 250,000 tons of garbage has piled up on the streets here, prompting the European Union to issue a final warning to clean up under threat of being taken to the European Court of Justice.

On Tuesday, the EU made good on that promise, announcing it was beginning legal action.

But what the EU is tackling through the courts, artists here have been taking on with their paintbrushes and movie cameras. From trash-themed satires of Van Gogh's “Starry Night” to music played with abandoned mattresses, these a artists are finding creative and ironic ways to express the malaise of living amid the rotting piles of waste. After years of largely unfulfilled promises from politicians, the grass-roots movement is also trying to use artwork to put forward practical solutions, such as increasing the region's dismal recycling rates.

“It is a strong reaction to the silence that surrounded the rubbish emergency for years,” says Alfredo D'Agnese, a journalist and music commentator in the city. “They are trying to explain what's happening around them. And at the same time they're also trying to say: basta, this is enough.”

Newly elected Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has said he will hold his first cabinet in Naples and spend three days a week in the city until the crisis ends. But Raffo, a renowned graffiti artist in the city, doesn't believe it will last and thinks these are simply electoral promises.

He is based in a degraded suburb east of Naples, Ponticelli, one of the many outskirts where the Camorra, the local mafia, is strong.

“Things are different here [in the outskirts of Naples]; the rubbish never goes away from our streets,” he says.

He recently started working on large paintings with bright colors that satirize famous paintings: a version of Edvard Munch's “The Scream” where the man stands amid dozens of black garbage bags, and a “Mona Lisa” who holds bags of different colors, promoting recycling. His latest painting, inspired by Van Gogh's “Starry Night,” will have rubbish bags in the foreground on the left instead of the characteristic cypress tree.