In Naples, artists use irony to tackle festering trash crisis

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.

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.

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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.

“Images can tell much more than words,” says Raffo. “Changing these paintings that have made the history of art is a way of showing politicians how badly things are going here in Naples.”

Villaricca is another difficult town north of Naples. That's where percussion band BidonVillarik comes from and rehearses. The members play instruments made from abandoned mattresses, tires, pieces of furniture, bottles, cans, and whatever else is available in their area. Their sound is simple and partly traditional, their sometimes-rude lyrics show frustration toward a political leadership that hasn't done much to clear the streets.

“We use the poorest and most available instruments of the moment: garbage,” says Lello Cardone, BidonVillarik's founder. “We want to bring forward solutions, such as the idea of recycling.”

Italy declared a state of emergency for its waste in Naples and the Campania region in 1994. Since then, trash commissioners made recycling a top priority for local governments, together with the creation of incinerators and permanent dumps. But economic interests of the local mafia, the Camorra, mixed with local mismanagement and distrust by residents, put a halt to most projects. So every year, local councils find themselves struggling with their huge waste output, as temporary dumps fill up and close.

The situation came to a peak in January, after the last legal dumps closed down. When the dirty images of Naples were shown all over the world, then-Prime Minister Romano Prodi nominated a tough former police chief, Gianni De Gennaro, to clear the streets. Mr. Gennaro sent in the Army.

And if most streets are cleaner now, the price paid has been high: tourism has gone down by a third, and the ban in many countries on the region's best-known export, mozzarella, because of the dioxin found after years of lack of care for the territory, have had a serious economic impact on the region.

It's in the postgarbage Apocalypse streets of Naples that “Io sono molto leggenda,” a parody of “I am legend,” is set. The short video, which has become a phenomenon on the Internet, shows Simone Ruzzo instead of Robert Neville in the deserted streets of the city. He is the last man to have survived the trash emergency. And while the ending is ludicrous, the images of the garbage are a strong indictment of the state of the region.

The appeal of trash as an immediate subject for art at the moment is obvious. What remains to be seen, however, says Mr. D'Agnese is whether this is merely a reaction or whether it's creating a stable new wave of art in Naples that will remain. For now, these forms of art are helping the city survive the trash emergency.

“If there is a hope in this region, it is that these young people can say something new, something positive,” he says. “This movement is the positive face of the garbage crisis.”

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