Across Athens, Graffiti Worth a Thousand Words of Malaise Favorite 



Apr 16 2014


Athens, Greece

ATHENS — The young man climbed a 30-foot scaffold on a building in central Athens and dipped a brush into a tray of gray paint. With rapid flicks of his wrist, he outlined a haunting image: a baby with two faces, looking simultaneously into an abyss and toward the sky, its vacant eyes searching for a future that was not there.

The mural, by a Greek street artist known as iNO, was delicate, stylized and clever, stopping passers-by in their tracks. Fundamentally, though, it was a raw message of protest, the latest in a wave of socially and politically conscious artwork spreading over the walls of Athens.

“People in Greece are under increasing pressure,” said iNO, a soft-spoken man who aims to draw attention to the social situation in this crisis-hit country, where even the youngest in society are grappling with the perception of a bleak future. As a result, he said, “they feel the need to act, resist and express themselves.”

Graffiti in Athens, as in other cities the world over, has flourished for decades. But in a country where the adversity of wars and military dictatorship already has shaped the national psyche, the five-year economic collapse has spawned a new burst of creative energy that has turned Athens into a contemporary mecca for street art in Europe.

Denounced as thuggish vandalism by some observers, but hailed by others as artistic and innovative, tags, bubble letters and stylized paint work long have blanketed this city’s walls, trains, cars, banks, kiosks, crumbling buildings — and even some ruins of the Acropolis. But in the past several years, the anguish of the times has increasingly crept into the elaborate stencil work and multitude of large, colorful murals found all over the city, as Greece’s throngs of unemployed and underemployed young people have ample time to express their malaise.

“If you want to learn about a city, look at its walls,” said iNO, who used to spray graffiti on trains but recently started using buildings as a canvas for murals with a social message. “Take a walk in the center of Athens, and you will get it.”

The Athens police rarely arrest graffiti artists, unless they are suspected of belonging to anarchist groups or the extreme-right Golden Dawn party. The two-faced baby was painted by iNO on a recent morning without interference. Still, many artists work discreetly at night, donning masks and declining to give their names for fear of running afoul of the authorities. Their messages are often rebellious, verging on revolutionary.

Recently, under cover of darkness, a Greek dentist whose business has been all but wiped out by the crisis reached into a tote bag and grabbed a can of spray paint and a stencil he had cut in his spare time using a cavity drill. Stopping at a crumbling wall, he quickly painted an image not typically associated with his profession: a masked man hurling a firebomb.

“The middle class and the working class in Greece have been ruined,” said the dentist, who goes by the street handle Mapet, declining to give his real name. “My goal is to deliver social and political counterpropaganda, and make people think.”

In the gritty neighborhood of Exarcheia, a stronghold of anarchists, more than a decade’s worth of tags and graffiti have been leavened with a catalog of Mapet’s stencils and the work of other street artists, who paint violent yet graceful anti-Fascist images, grotesque caricatures of bankers and politicians, and intricate sticker work on street after street.

Such work has spread to the nearby working-class neighborhoods of Metaxourgeio and Kerameikos, where a growing number of so-called hipster artists, despised by hard-core graffiti artists, also have been leaving their mark. Many of the newcomers are trained at the Athens School of Fine Arts, which gives courses in street painting that have spawned edgy new outdoor works addressing racism, capitalism and exploitation.

Recently, even city authorities have gotten in on the act, as they have sought to capitalize on graffiti’s more artistic offshoots by handing out permits to encourage street artists to paint murals in blighted public spaces.

In Metaxourgeio and Kerameikos, a big real estate developer, Oliaros, is also working to gentrify the areas, partly by giving commercial building space to mural artists handpicked by the company.

Ideally, parts of Athens eventually would be transformed into a vast outdoor gallery, said Amalia Zeppou, an adviser to the mayor who helps oversee the permit program.

“When a city collapses, and has been tagged everywhere, we have an obligation to stop it,” Ms. Zeppou said. But there is another message behind the campaign. “Once graffiti becomes commissioned art,” she added, “it is a signal of the beginning of the end of the financial or social crisis that a city has gone through.”

Such thinking is rejected by many of the 2,000 or so graffiti and street artists who paint around Athens. They believe city authorities and developers are commissioning works as a way to quietly suppress artistic political and social expression. Effectively, they say, authorities are hijacking street art in order to whitewash its message.

“Make no mistake: Graffiti is a weapon of influence because it’s so apparent in the city,” said Charitonas Tsamantakis, an imposing, black-clad graffitist who is publishing a book, “Hellenic Graffiti History,” in the autumn. “The authorities want to embrace it so they can neutralize it and control it. It’s a way of breaking our spirit.”

INO, the mural artist, said there was still room to convey social messages through commissioned work. He recently painted a large outdoor mural for an exhibition at the Onassis Cultural Center in Athens, depicting a woman’s face on paper being crushed with a hand. “The message is that man has become a slave of his creators,” he said.

On the streets of Athens, the city’s hard-core outdoor artists push similarly lofty themes.

“There are a lot of bad things happening in Greece,” said a longtime graffiti artist who goes by the handle Cacao Rocks. He taught French literature until the crisis wiped out his job, leaving him time to prowl the walls of Athens.

He and his partner, the artist Thisisopium, donned face masks one recent night and painted a single large word on a blighted wall: “lafos,” the Greek term for “wrong.”

“The whole system is working in the wrong way,” he said. “We’re here to change the rules.”

New York Times 15, 2014
Dimitris Bounias contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on April 16, 2014, on page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: Across Athens, Graffiti Worth a Thousand Words of Malaise.

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