This is a translated extract from Paolo Pontoniere’s introduction to Diamond Dogs, Officina Post Industriale, a new book by Yard Press that showcases Toty Ruggieri’s photos of the bar that epitomized the Neapolitan underground of the ’80s.
Opening its doors in 1984, Naples bar Diamond Dogs epitomized a time when politically-minded young Italians took a turn for the hedonistic and frivolous. Like many other youth movements of the time, their stylistic references were Northern European punk-houses and punk groups: Risiko in Berlin, Windsor Castle in London; Manna Machine, the Dissidenten, the Clash, David Bowie. Like Bowie, Diamond Dogs represented an archetypal combination of sexual fluidity and political transgression, pursuing glamorous visions of a post-apocalyptic future. And yet, it would be a serious mistake to reduce the history of Diamond Dogs to a curious mix of imported cultural trends or, even worse, to a mere expression of social unrest resulting from fragmentation or cultural exclusion — another Punk-me-too experience, of a type that were pervasive throughout Europe in the ’80s. Their clothes, their symbols and their mannerisms may have been similar to those adopted by punks all over the continent, but the Diamond Dogs, as well as the social and political events that characterized Naples in those years, were unique within the Italian panorama, as well as within the European one.
After a massive earthquake struck the Campania region in November 1980, the city found itself hanging in a delicate balance between grace and despair, evolution and destruction, social progress and political decline — somewhere between heaven (the posh neighborhoods of Vomero, Posillipo and Santa Lucia) and hell (an old town crumpled on the plains; the sprawling projects of new constructions that grew to the east and to the south beyond the city’s famous hills).
The Years of Lead, as they were known, had just drawn to a close. These were the years of the heroin epidemic, which, like the crack epidemic in the United States, had silenced an entire generation of political activists; a period when the government dealt with the Camorra via its secret services, while everyday life became a Kafkaesque experience, defined by unwritten rules through which every action could generate multiple and contradictory results.
Diamond Dogs was located in Naples’ intricate network of underground caves (cavoni) in the catacombs of the Rione Santità neighborhood. A rusty iron gate in the Cavone San Gennaro connected the bar to the rest of the city, and to Naples’ layered underbelly. The cave looked out onto a small balcony and led to an umbilical cord of steep, twisting stairs. Along the way, one could encounter the remains of age-old abandoned aqueducts, early Christian churches, ancient Greek-Roman clay pits, the military tunnels built by the Bourbons, the stables and the brothels of the Court of Miracles, the air-raid shelters from WW2, and the countless artisan companies that in the post-unification era formed the nucleus of the Neapolitan industrial realm. Reaching the bottom, one ended up in the control room: the interior of a truck where, every night, film directors and their reels projected paleo-technological visions of a digital future, anticipating, by at least two decades, the advent of a new media universe.
The largest cave, plastered with Central European-style graffiti, hosted concerts, dance shows and theatrical performances. The smaller cave, accessible from the larger one, was meant for relaxing and drinking. Lastly, there were minor caves, almost the size of booths, where one could indulge ones personal desires and whims. Often, a lone chant could emerge from these small caves, or the acrid smell of a joint, the delicate verses of a yearning poet, a lover’s laughter, and sometimes, also, the sound of a heroin shot gone wrong.
The era was characterized by skepticism, cynicism, social segregation, cultural marginalization, isolation and a powerlessness. The streets were flooded with a daily influx of protesters, both from the right and the left, demanding everything and its opposite. Easily prone to the influences of demagogues and their promises, these crowds besieged the city, creating a state of permanent conflict, while public services, from garbage collection to public transport, were in disarray and could barely meet the needs of the population.
And while, in other cities, music and culture gave rise to “urban tribes” such as paninari, goths, new romantics, metal heads and post-punk groups, in Naples, the social emergency and an overall structural catastrophe provided fertile ground for the emergence of a single indigenous clan, known in the media as the ‘Savage Neapolitans’: an unstructured youth movement that tried to bring creative anarchy and rational thought to the social and political chaos that was overwhelming the city and, soon after, the nation. A trans-generational and trans-stylistic horde that included artists, photographers, musicians, journalists, poets, sculptors, actors and freethinkers, the ‘Savage Neapolitans’ emerged from the bowels of the city, from the same musky proto-Christian catacombs where Diamond Dogs thrived. These urban guts provided a refuge and a stage for a generation of artists, scholars, and performers, who together charted a new path through the labyrinth.
Photos by Toty Ruggieri.