Editor's note: Wanderlust is a regular GlobalPost series on global sex and relationship issues written by Iva Skoch, who is now traveling the world writing a book on the subject.
NAPLES, Italy — Not long ago a traveling street artist colloquially known as the “dick-fish guy” tagged a wall next to the San Lorenzo Maggiore church in Naples with his signature stencil — a blue-fin penis.
It's certainly not the only historic building in Naples covered with graffiti. It’s not even the only penis-theme stencil in the historic center.
Various parts of the human anatomy and plump naked bodies are splattered around the city's crumbling walls like endless stills from an erotic cartoon set in Dante‘s Inferno. They lurk from medieval church facades and ancient convent walls and — for a traditionally Catholic country that’s adamant about not allowing women inside a church with bare shoulders or knees — the carnal images seem rather daring.
“I think eroticism and pornography is inherent in art since the dawn of time, although now it’s has lost all its provocative charge,” says a local street artist who goes by the name diegomiedo.
Although the characters portrayed in his murals are often naked, diegomiedo finds them more “spontaneous” than erotic. He likes to draw gigantic and scary creatures that represent what he saw and absorbed in the last decade in Naples: bad politics, the scandal of waste management, organized crime, corruption, madness and the destruction of a region.
He says that the architectural style of Naples goes wonderfully well with murals and that locals generally don't mind street art. “People do not care much, maybe because there are more serious problems."
The UNESCO-protected historic center of Naples is one of the largest and oldest in Europe, and some here say it has been completely ruined by graffiti. Others marvel at the immense talent and vision of the street artists.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is among those who sharply criticize street art. “It's painful to wander around cities like Rome, Naples and Palermo and see that with the graffiti and the filth on the streets," he said in a radio interview two years ago. "They seem more like African cities than European ones.”
(Watch this GlobalPost On Location video on Italian reactions to Berlusconi's ongoing sex capades).
Around the same time, minister of youth policy Giorgia Meloni pledged the Italian government would crack down on graffiti artists. ''We must consider harsher sanctions to hit people who commit acts of vandalism, but it's essential to be able to distinguish [artists from vandals]. Otherwise we run the risk of criminalizing an entire generation,'' she said in a statement. Surveys suggest that most young Italians see graffiti as a form of art, not vandalism.
Loved or loathed, street art has deep roots in Italy. Ancient Roman monuments display signs of early graffiti, or ''scratchings.'' Even erotic street art wasn’t uncommon then. In the ancient city of Pompeii, near today’s Naples, many erotic scratchings were found on the town’s walls, especially in Lunapare, the town’s brothel. They depict naked bodies, sexual acts advertising the expertise of prostitutes, as well as customer reviews of a particular performance. The brothel’s tariffs were set, poetically enough, in “asses,” a Roman currency in which one as was equal to about half a sesterce. One such brothel fee varied from two to 16 asses.
According to Pompeii.org.uk, a travel agency specializing in tours of Pompeii, love was a common topic of conversation in Pompeii. “Feelings, passions, poetic love, sex, homosexuality, prostitution and so forth were all part of daily life and not a source of prejudice. The concept of obscenity seems to have been unknown,” the website states. “The thousands of examples of graffiti found on the town’s walls are unequivocal proof of what the people of Pompeii thought about love and sex.”
In contrast, local urban artists known as cyop&kaf say modern street art in Naples doesn’t seem particularly erotic. “Maybe in southern Italy we've got a different feeling about the human body. Over here anyone feels free to touch the others,” they say. “The urban planning is totally crazy. People live in very small spaces. When I go out of my balcony I can touch the balcony of my neighbor. Private and public are abstract concepts over here.”
Cyop&kaf were among the first graffiti artists in the city to paint with brushes and acrylic instead of spray-cans. They began working in the early 1990s, with a few pieces on trains and suburban walls and then moved in the city center to “speak directly to the people.”
“We worked like crazy for almost ten years seeking a new aesthetic for the city,“ says cyop&kaf. “A lot of people say we have changed the look of Napoli. I really don't know if we did it in a positive way, all that I can say is that we did it out of duty and passion.”
(Photographs by Iva Skoch/GlobalPost)