In Naples, street art is giving a new voice to a city silenced by crime

In some ways, Naples is really two cities in one. By day, it’s a city of such beauty and character that it’s often used as a set for films. But by night, away from the busy piazzas, the isolated side streets become the stage for violent turf wars, as young, ambitious criminals seek to dominate lawless streets.

From afar, it appears that not much has changed in Naples. The city’s traditional problems persist; crime, and the fear of it, continues to cripple the local community, at times scaring people from going out at night, starting new businesses and letting children play in the streets. Objections are stifled by an “omertà”—a conspiracy of silence, fed by fear of retribution, which stops people from speaking out against organized crime groups.

But recently, a silent transformation has been taking place on the streets of Naples and its surrounding region, Campania. Slowly, civil society has started taking back control of the public collective space. Culture and education once again are providing a remedy to the ill-effects of organized crime groups, and their activities in Naples.

Building on initiatives from the 1970s, such as the “canteen for working class children,” which sought to transform society starting with its youngest members, many urban and cultural regeneration projects have sprung up in Naples over the past 15 years. For example, the Teatro dei Mendicanti (Beggars’ Theatre) works to make Shakespeare accessible to children in San Giovanni a Teduccio, and Il Tappeto di Iqbal offers circus training to local kids in the district of Barra, as an alternative to roaming the streets.

Such projects have successfully carved out places for local communities to come together and participate in cultural, educational, and artistic activities, away from the threat of violence. But there’s another form of regeneration, which is helping citizens to reclaim isolated, abandoned or inaccessible spaces throughout Naples and its surrounds—street art.

Unlike more traditional visual arts, which are sometimes considered elitist and can be confined to specific audiences, street art speaks to all people. It activates not only cultural, but also social, economic, and political processes, developing a personal and collective sense of belonging, fostering a unique cultural identity, and sparking social awareness.

Street art can also bring fame, and sometimes fortune, to areas which were formerly overlooked, as happened with Ernest Pignon-Ernest in Naples during the 1980s and ‘90s, and Banksy in the UK and Palestine today. Today, it is empowering local people to reclaim public spaces and to shatter the “omertà” which has so long held sway over Naples.

Read more at Quartzy.