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Street art in Sicily, a battle against stereotypes

From artivism to urban regeneration, Sicily is home to an eclectic scene of practitioners working with graffiti, murals and other forms of public intervention.

There is a creative Sicily, an island that narrates itself on the walls of the cities and small towns. Discovering it means abandoning preconceptions, opening oneself up to new points of view about this symbolically charged place. In order to document it, Mauro Filippi, an architect and photographer, Marco Mondino, a semiologist, and Luisa Tuttolomondo, a sociologist, joined forces to put together a vast map that shows and analyses recent Sicilian street art. Italian speakers can read the collection here, which was published by Flaccovio Editore in 2017. Below is a selection of some of the most important works. 

For years the culture of street art has dominated the urban imagination, and Sicily has been no exception. Artists from all over the world have travelled the length and breadth of the island leaving their traces on the big cities like Catania, Palermo, Messina and Ragusa, but also in smaller, lesser renowned cities like Niscemi, Gibellina or Castrofilippo.

Castrofilippo, Cufù, SBAGLIATO Credit: Mauro Filippi

From illegal initiatives to those supported by institutions, Sicily is home to a true visual heritage and one that is well worth taking the time to explore. Before the street art boom it was writing that made its mark on the metropolitan scene, and from the 90s onwards cities like Palermo and Catania were the most interesting and active protagonists. Today these two cities maintain that reputation, and both exhibit works of street art born from different situations, and with different objectives.

In Palermo the works are spread out across different neighbourhoods, and each has its own specificity and history that it is worth considering. Anyone who decides to enter in contact with this language will find themselves faced with a mix of styles, all of which speak to and confront the local context. Indeed in its very form, street art demonstrates a process of dialogue, or conflict, with the reality of a given place. In Palermo it finds expression in the most busy areas of the historic city, like l’Albergheria, home to the historic market of Ballarò, Piazza Garraffello and Piazza Magione. But it also expands along the streets of Borgo Vecchio, marking spaces like the Cantieri culturali of the Zisa, as well as occupied spaces like the Teatro Mediterraneo and the Laboratorio Zeta.

In each neighbourhood, art constitutes a microcosm of the way of living in these spaces: ‘free walls’ exhibit the attitudes and participation of residents, something which clearly influences the styles and forms. At the same time street art is often an instrument that, with irony, manages to reflect on the fractures of urban space. One example can be found at Pizzo Sella, a wooded area at ‘geological risk’ near Palermo. 170 villas were built here, and were then declared illegal. It’s a monstrosity that has completely transformed the surrounding countryside. Here the collective ‘Fare’, alongside other artists, have given enacted a true work of ‘artivism’, drawing on the walls of some of the abandoned buildings to bring attention to the case.

Palermo, Pizzo Sella, ‘The potato eaters’ Credit: Mauro Filippi. All rights reserved

The case of Borgo Vecchio is completely different. Here there are murals based on drawings by local children. Remarkably, the initiative was maintained by a crowdfunding campaign. This project has allowed the city to rediscover a neighbourhood at very centre of the city, but which is often characterised like a suburb of the periphery.

Palermo, Borgo Vecchio, Ema Jons Credit: Mauro Filippi. All rights reserved

In Catania two of the most interesting projects can be found in Librino and in San Berillo. The first is a peripheral neighbourhood, often thought of in terms of social marginalization and as being disconnected from the rest of the city. Along the walls of the buildings today you can admire works by artists like Blu or Ema Jons, who made their designs with the support of local artists that have worked for years in the area.

Catania, BLU. Credit: Mauro Filippi. All rights reserved

The San Berillo project, in the historic red light district of the city, was born from the same principle of interaction. Here the artists painted on the bricked-up doors of abandoned houses, giving life to an open air gallery in which artistic styles make up a journey, bringing the viewer through the narrow streets that characterise the area. Alongside these interventions, with their strong social connotations, are other works, like the iconic pieces that are found on the silos on the city’s seaside road [see feature image]. This  monumental work has contributed significantly to the reimagining of this part of the city.

Catania, San Berillo, Ruce. Credit: Mauro Filippi. All rights reserved

All of these projects tell different stories. But it’s important to remember that street art in Sicily is not limited to the big centres, but also territories that are off the tourist track. In fact these have been home to some of the most interesting works of art at national and international level. Across the island in recent years there have been numerous festivals with different objectives, all of which have animated the surrounding area, and built new cultural practices and ways of reflecting on space.

* The lead image is a close-up of the seaside silos in Catania. It was taken by ‘The One Shot’. Flickr/ Some rights reserved.

**This article was translated from Italian by Jamie Mackay.