Azzurro with Mauro Caruso – interview and edit
In 1968 there was a large earthquake in Sicily and it completely destroyed the small farming town of Gibellina. Shortly thereafter the local government decided to rebuild Gibellina as Gibellina Nuova, a new town 11 kilometres down the road. The new Gibellina was designed to be a destination for art and sculpture. Famous artists from throughout Italy came to Gibellina Nuova to work and sculpt in an effort to rebuild and recreate this Sicilian town. The artist Alberto Burri even erected a sculpture in the old Gibellina: he encased the entire ruins of the old town in concrete, except for the old streets, so that tourists could walk in between the new concrete sculpture. Gibellina was designed to be a new destination in Sicily for art-lovers and tourists alike.
But somewhere something went wrong… No one came to Gibellina Nuova. The word didn’t get out… Most Italians have never heard of Gibellina let alone the rest of the world. Gibellina Nuova became somewhat of a ghost town, but a ghost town does come with its advantages: it’s great for skateboarders.
And so when Sicilian skateboarder Mauro Caruso discovered Gibellina in 2011 he new he had to do something with the place. This turned out to be not an easy task, but let’s let Mauro expand on that.
Mauro Caruso Interview by Will Harmon
Photos by Sam Ashley
How did you hear about Gibellina?
Mauro Caruso: It was a friend of mine from Milan who went to this exhibition and they had photos of the place and he was like: ‘whoa! What is this place?’ and he saw it was in Sicily. Then he saw this TV show and they were talking about Gibellina and they were talking about it being a ghost town. So my friend called me and told me about this crazy town on my island that I should go check out. So I made the four-hour drive there to check it out. I saw the old and new cities and immediately I thought it was uncommon to have something like this in Sicily. There are no other cities in Sicily that have these huge sculptures and plazas like that so of course I knew I had to do something.
So this was in 2011?
Yes, after we saw the place we thought: ‘let’s make a documentary.’ So I knew I had to speak to a filmer and that’s how it all got started.
But this documentary never happened right?
Right, so my friend who found the city he has a friend who used to skate who films and he’s living in Hollywood right now. So we hit him up like ‘hey man we found this town, do you wanna do something?’ And he went crazy for it. So we all went there for two weeks in 2011 and we managed to get everything; we worked so hard. We skated every day and worked real hard and then the director went back (to the States) to do some other jobs and he was going to get back to this project. He was looking for people to do aftereffects and people to give more money and then suddenly he just disappeared.
Ah you must have been bummed after all that hard work!
He would hit us up every six months or so and say: ‘don’t worry guys I’m working on it; it’s going to happen. Sorry it’s taking so long.’ And then years were passing by and I did my Modica clip and my friend who I filmed that with asked me to go back to Gibellina. ‘Hey man I remember you went to Gibellina, let’s go back and do the same clip like we did in Modica.’ And I was like ‘no, no this other guy is gonna get mad; it was a big project and I don’t want to ruin it.’ But he finally convinced me and we went back four years later from the original time I was there. So this was in 2015.
And this is the time you went for the photos in this piece with Sam Ashley?
Yes and this time I decided to get Carhartt involved and Lakai (Mauro’s former shoe sponsor) involved. And it was Bertrand (Trichet) who worked for Carhartt at the time that suggested we get you guys (Free) to come shoot. So we went and got a bunch of photos but the footage didn’t really come out. The filmer wasn’t on point. So I knew then that I needed to come back again and re-film stuff again.
Ok so going back a little, I should have asked you this earlier, but do you think you were the first to ever skate there?
Yeah we were totally the first ones to ever skate there. There were no marks on the spots. But, there is a huge white church there. It’s a huge white ball behind these yellow buildings. And so we were talking to the priest there and he showed us some photos of the church that… Ok so when they built the church, five years later it fell down. This was in the nineties, and he showed us some photos of people with boards and roller-skates riding inside – because if you go inside the church it’s like a huge quarter-pipe. Of course you can’t skate it anymore, but when it first collapsed the priest let people come in there and help clean up. Some of the people’s kids had boards and roller-skates and he let them have a go.
Ok back to 2015… We had to hold onto those photos from Sam’s trip to Gibellina for quite a bit. Can you tell the readers why?
So I knew I had to go back and re-film the tricks I did there that Sam shot photos of. I wanted to get properly filmed footage, but before I had a chance to go back I tore my ACL. So I had to just wait almost a year for that to get better again.
Yeah and in that time we decided to come out with the photos in Free that Sam shot (Dreams in Progress article, Free Issue 9, Nov/Dec 2016). But with that, we decided to keep the location secret.
Yeah because it was this big project that I spent so much time on and if we had put the name of the place then who knows how many people would go there. Maybe they’d ruin the place or whatever, but it’s also because we’d been there a few times and we got to meet the people who lived there. You meet the old guys and you got to know their stories… One guy told us his dad had died in the huge earthquake they had. So I got kind of emotional about it and I wanted to do something good and not just go there to break the marble or whatever. I didn’t want to fuck up the city just because it was a ghost town and then also we met the locals – so we just decided we didn’t want random people to go there and ruin the place or have a bad situation with the local townspeople.
Yeah we didn’t want to blow the place up before you got to release your edit. You had so much history going there and of course we wanted your knee to get better so you could go back and film there more. And so you did go back there a few more times…
Yeah so when my knee was better we went back with the La Dolce Vita crew and we just brought all the cameras we had. And then after that I went back with Ludo (Ludovic Azemar). And then he came and of course he saw the place and he started filming his own things and then his footage was different than we’d filmed with the Dolce Vita crew so we decided to make two videos. Why not eh? So we did one more Carhartt mission with Ludo, Joseph (Biais) and Felipe (Bartolome) and that’s the whole thing pretty much.
With all those visits you must have spoken to everyone in that town by now! I mean the residents there have really been through a lot. Must be some great stories…
Yeah the time Sam came we spent a month there and then we went back for another month so by the end I must have met all 1500 people in the town. It was super sick to talk to them and they were all really nice. The locals would give us fresh olive oil, fresh tomatoes and fresh cheese. We talked to so many people. Where we were staying was by a farm and every morning we’d see the farmer passing by with his sheep and goats. The earthquake was in ’68 and for almost fourteen years the residents lived in tents. So some of the people I was talking to were born in the tents and spent their first ten years in the tents.
And what did the locals think about their new town being rebuilt as like an art project or sorts?
In the beginning everyone had hope for this new town. The mayor at the time was a well-travelled artistic guy and he brought all his friends to do art workshops with the kids at the schools, but nobody understood it. It was a farming village and everyone there was used to dealing with animals and agriculture.
So why do you think the new artistic town didn’t become a big destination for Sicilians and tourists from elsewhere?
Because in the end the basic problem is it’s still Sicily. You can have these grand intentions but it’s still Sicily and with that comes all these problems with the mafia and the local mentality. The old town was built in the valley and the mafia owned the valley. So just to get the land for the new town… I have no idea what happened there. It has to do with the mafia and there’s a lot of speculation about corruption and missing money. Also one of the other problems with the place is there’s only two bars and one hotel. And just recently they made an exit to the freeway. But before there was no exit and this town is in the middle of nowhere – to get there it’s like impossible.
Oh I see.
Yeah but some people who are in their thirties now, they went off when they were younger to Milan, Rome, etc. to study and now they’ve come back to Gibellina like five years ago and they are trying to push the city now. One of those people owns one of the bars there and he’s trying to do parties and get people there. This same guy is doing a Twitter campaign to get Banksy to come there. Everyday he’s posting a photo of the city and saying: ‘hey Banksy, please come! You’re gonna love this place!’ So every day he’s posting a random photo of the town and asking Banksy to come visit.
So how did the locals react to you coming there for skateboarding?
They were not even understanding (what we were doing). We told them we were doing a video all around Gibellina with our skateboards and people would laugh. ‘That’s crazy’ they would say. I’ll show them when the video is out. I was talking to a guy there and I said ‘maybe if you want, we can do a premiere for the whole town you know? Maybe we could get some photos printed and get a room for it…’ They were like ‘whoa really? You want to do this in this town?’
That would be a good idea. Ok so just to tally up now, how many different filmers have you been to Gibellina with now?
(Laughs) Ok so 2011 when I first went it was two filmers. Then in 2015 it was my other friend, but he bailed out on me – and it was his whole idea! He convinced me to go back to Gibellina! Then I almost brought my other friend who lives in Berlin now, but he bailed too. Then I went with the Dolce Vita guys and the last couple times with Ludo.
So after these edits come out do you think other skaters are going to want to come out to Gibellina?
Possibly. I mean with Modica, when we did that a lot of people who came to Sicily wanted me to take them there. I took the Dime guys there recently. So man Gibellina… People will probably be like ‘yo man let’s go; let’s check it out!’
So now that the final Gibellina project you’ve been working on for all these years is finished, do you plan on going back there? I know you talked about the exhibition idea…
Oh man I’m not… If I go back it’s just to party with the locals because that place is just cursed. You know when I said we went with the Carhartt boys? So there was this guy from Madrid, Roger (Gonzalez), who was shooting 3D photos. You may have seen the 3D photos in other Carhartt projects, but anyways, he came for ten days and he shot so many photos and he was super stoked. He was like ‘this place is crazy. How it’s built it’s like you get there and there are ten different angles.’ Ok so he goes back home and I guess the camera was broken; he didn’t shoot anything. His shutter speed broke so all the photos were black.
Oh wow that’s bad luck.
Oh man Gibellina… It’s really bad luck this place.