I first found out about Catania’s San Berillo district from Marica, a Sicilian designer I met on Instagram. She founded @streetartcatania, where San Berillo is frequently geotagged. I messaged her for street art tips in Catania, and she directed me to San Berillo behind Via Coppola.
“It’s not a very nice neighborhood,” she warned me, “but more and more people are going there for the street art.”
We found the narrow handpainted banner marking the entrance to San Berillo. At first it seemed cute, colorful and cheerful. The alley we entered opened out into a small piazza with brightly painted benches and tables, and restaurants sporting murals.
Along one street was a charming little vertical garden filled with rows of succulents in makeshift planters, a perfect Urban Jungle Bloggers find.
As we ventured deeper into San Berillo, the carefully painted restaurant murals gave way to “real” street art: stencils, spray paint, paper pastings. But the alleys also began to get dirtier and seedier, soaked with the smell of urine.
I turned a corner and saw a heavyset middle-aged woman washing clothes in a doorway. Then out of the doorway tottered out a long-limbed woman with dry, strawlike blond hair, dressed in a white bra, ruffled white panties, and high heels. Something was up here.
The woman washing clothes stared at me with tired, narrowed eyes, but said nothing as I went off to follow the woman in the ruffled white panties. Along the way I caught a glimpse, through a half-open door, of a dim, shabby room where a woman lay on a small narrow bed.
I caught up with the woman in white panties, and discovered she was a he.
Her hard but not unfriendly face was fully made up, lips coated with frosted pink lipstick. She spoke to me in Italian and gestured as if clicking a camera, asking me if I wanted my photo taken (or a photo of the three of us taken). I politely said no, smiling, and asked if she wanted a photo taken of her. She laughed and shook her head.
I managed to cobble together enough broken Italian, and she managed to understand enough English, to have a short conversation about where I was from. When Marlon and Tala finally caught up with us, I asked again if I could take a photo. She laughed again, but this time with a warning in her eyes. “No, no, no, mi amore, no.”
I wished her a good afternoon and said goodbye, and she waved as we went off down another alley.
Then I started seeing more voluptuous shadows in half-closed doorways: a chubby black woman with frizzy hair, a skimpy blue dress and a tattooed thigh; a stone-faced woman (or was she a man?) in a tight neon pink dress and hard, high, perfectly round breasts.
Black men slouched at corners watching us silently. I could feel Marlon becoming tense and nervous, but the art became increasingly striking the further we went. So I kept going, and Marlon kept quiet, but we were both alert.
The entire area seemed to be made up of abandoned buildings, some of them roofless, that had been turned into a warren of rabbit holes for the women. Black mold gathered in the dark rooms on the first floor, and weeds grew out of the top floor. We heard a man and woman arguing. Finally Marlon told us we should go.
I wanted to take a picture of another woman, but couldn’t change my lens fast enough. Marlon was not happy with my attempt and told me to put my camera away.
We left, and we argued a bit. Marlon said that we were with Tala, which made us easy targets; if someone did decide to mess with us, we wouldn’t have been able to find help quickly. I said if we weren’t bothering them why should they bother us? (This shows how much Dutch tolerance I’ve absorbed after five years of living here.)
I went looking for street art in San Berillo; instead I found much more. Sometimes venturing off the beaten path brings us to something that challenges rather than charms us. Do we still dare follow our curiosity? With reservations and with caution, for me the answer is always yes.
Have you ever followed your curiosity down a potentially risky path? Where did it take you and what did you learn from it?