The speaking walls of Athens
- A theatre of political unrest and struggle is scripted as street art on walls throughout the Greek capital
- In fact, it is very difficult to find an empty wall to spray-paint a graffiti nowadays, says Barpakis, a street artist
"If you pay attention," Nikos Barpakis tells me, “you will hear Athens speaking through its smells, noise, music, and," he pauses for a second, "... its walls."
We had stopped briefly at Mokka, a family-run café on Athinas Street that serves speciality Greek coffee. Located next to the Varvakios Market, it is one of Barpakis’ favourite spots. He loves to sit there and listen to the symphony of frantic footfalls and the hubbub of traders selling petimezi (grape molasses), glykostayfili (grape preserve) and tahini (sesame seed paste) from outsized steel containers. On the other side of the road, Bangladeshi and Pakistani migrants sell second-hand books, curios and olives in different shades of green and purple.
Barpakis is a street artist—part of the exploding street art movement in Athens. Over the decades, the walls of the city have grown accustomed to the midnight hiss of aerosol paint. But this acquired a new-found intensity during the debt crisis in 2007, when the Greek economy started going off the rails. Austerity measures followed, bringing along welfare cuts and unemployment, and anti-austerity graffiti mushroomed in the city. Patience, like the currency, was in short supply, and when, in 2008, 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos was shot dead by two police officers, rage flooded the streets. Since 2008, the smell of tear gas, pepper spray and burnt rubber tyres has lingered in central Athens, the site of most political protests.
In this theatre of political unrest, the everyday struggle of Athenians began to be scripted on abandoned warehouses, factories, school and university buildings and bus depots, their walls becoming pages on the city’s register.
“Athens is now falling short of white walls," Barpakis says solemnly, adding, “In fact, it is very difficult to find an empty wall to spray-paint a graffiti nowadays."
Graffiti owes its origin to the Italian verb graffiare (to scratch) and the Greek word graphein (to write). But graffiti is illegal in Greece, and though artists are not actively persecuted, arrests are not uncommon. So, concealed from police patrols, artists whet anti-authoritarianism on concrete in the narrow lanes of the kaleidoscopic neighbourhoods of Sarri, Kerameikos, Gazi, Metaxourgeio and Exarcheia.
Barpakis’ grievance about the shortage of empty walls finds legitimacy in the back lanes of the Asian migrant neighbourhood of Sarri. Shutters, walls, roofs, fire hydrants, street lamps, postboxes, dumpsters—all have ben transformed into an opus of political struggle. One artwork stands out. At the intersection between the narrow alleys of Louka and Nika, a large section of the wall is dedicated to a portrait of a stray hound named Loukanikos (sausage in Greek).
An antithesis to police dogs, Loukanikos was the “anarchist dog". He deftly threaded his way through tear-gas shells and Molotov cocktails to bark defiantly at police squads. When he died in 2014, three street artists—Smart, N_Grams and Martinez—painted his portrait in homage. Girdled in red and yellow flames, Loukanikos looks ahead stoically, a golden crown floating above his head. A little note at the corner of the wall says—“all dogs go to heaven".
The graffiti on the walls that flank both sides of these narrow polychromatic alleys simmers with anti-austerity sentiment. “Cut the debt" is scribbled between the two blades of a giant pair of pink scissors, “Athens is not Berlin" is stencilled right next to a sketch of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, caricaturized as Mickey Mouse. The graffiti is a barometer of popular sentiment against the European Union and its role in Greek austerity.
I meet Gregorios Iliopoulos, an activist, on a city walk organized by his urban collective, Alternative Athens. Dressed in T-shirt and shorts, Greg, as he prefers to be called, is captivated by the history of Athens, its culture and politics. He talks to me about Greece’s long history of political conflict, the current refugee crisis, and rebetiko—a musical form nurtured by poor immigrants living on the fringes of urban Greece—which documents the hardship of everyday life and often celebrates the use of drugs to forget pain.
I walk with Greg from Sarri towards Omonia Square. At the entrance to a street jutting into Piraeus, we encounter Pavlos Tsakonas and his crew’s iconic mural—a gigantic pair of hands joined in prayer, painted on the side of a building 11 storeys tall. Though this street art is inspired by 16th century German artist Albrecht Dürer’s painting with a similar title, the hands point downwards in it, unlike the inspirational piece. Titled God Is Praying For Us, this piece is an exercise in satire. In a society driven to the depths of despair by economic austerity, this was a distillation of people’s mood during the economic meltdown. For Greg, it also meant that it was up to the people of Greece to help themselves.
“What do you think of that (graffiti)?" he asks, on my urging, of a man selling koulouri (ring-shaped sesame-encrusted bread) in his ramshackle hand-pulled food cart, wisps of silver hair radiating from under his fraying Greek fisherman’s cap.
“What to think of it?" the vendor responds, his tanned, wrinkled face looking puzzled.
“Do you know what it stands for?" Greg persists.
“Nothing. It stands for nothing," He murmurs and looks the other way.
The iconic street art on the giant walls of downtown Athens was born out of a purge of neoclassical heritage. The antiparochi (supply in exchange in Greek) housing programme allowed homeowners to legally exchange their family homes for apartments in multi-storeyed buildings. This ushered in the age of polykatoikia (multi-storey apartment buildings) in post World War II Athens. With a rapidly burgeoning population, the policy proved popular, but heritage was traded for profit. Side by side, boxy buildings mushroomed in downtown Athens in response to rushed industrialization.
Greece’s industrial aspirations, however, started fading in the 1980s. The state could no longer afford protectionist policies for its industries, and labour productivity was falling. This led to a hollowing out of the city centre, with the working class leaving. What was left were empty and derelict polykatoikia, warehouses and factories with large walls—vast concrete canvases for experiments with graffiti and street art. A new aesthetic has taken birth amid the ruins of an urban-industrial dystopia.
Street artists now chronicle Greece’s industrial history on the city walls. On the elongated walls of the 122-year-old gasworks factory in Gazi, which closed in 1984, visual artist INO’s blue-grey graffiti of the history of the gas factory and its workers almost seems to have been painted with the smoke from the giant pink chimneys that loom solemnly above it.
The adjoining neighbourhood of Metaxourgeio (silk mill in Greek), used to be primarily working-class, bustling with small businesses and craft workshops. Greece’s industrial decline in the 1980s led to the closure of one shop after the other, leaving behind abandoned neoclassical homes. The graffiti on their worn-out stuccoed walls reveals itself in the afterglow from adjoining cocktail bars where tungsten bulbs hang from the ceiling like raindrops. Once rented to poor Roma families, the neighbourhood was emptied out in the expectation of a real estate boom that came halfway down the street and disappeared, never to be seen again.
In this neighbourhood, where people’s lives became gambling chips, MaPet, a dentist by profession, draws his anti-fascist graffiti using stencils he has carved with his drilling tools. Paul, another graffiti artist, believes “a clean wall hides a dirty consciousness" and uses his graffiti to counter the fear of refugees and minorities that is peddled in mainstream media.
Many of these artists have day jobs and family lives. The writing on the wall is indicative of their frustration at not being heard—at not having a say in the country’s politics.
The anarchist neighbourhood of Exarcheia, where police fear to tread, has nourished political graffiti and street art for decades. The nerve centre of student politics in Athens, Polytechneio—the National Technical University of Athens—is located in this very neighbourhood.
The graffiti-saturated walls of the Polytechneio are a kaleidoscope of leftist political ideologies. This is where colour, text and symbols stare back at the world from beams, walls, stairs, stairwells, and through tattered sunshades on splintered glass windows. “Refugees Welcome" is spray-painted in pale yellow on sunburnt grey pavements. “Capitalism will fall" is broadcast with certainty on a wall on which the roots of a plant slowly push out the plaster.
A little further from Polytechneio—at the junction between Emmanouil Benaki and Arachovis—one encounters one of Athens’ most celebrated and haunting images: a giant artwork of a homeless man sleeping on the ground, by Indonesian artist WD (Wild Drawing). Titled No Land For The Poor, it is street art that speaks to the contemporary economic and refugee crisis in Athens. At the corner of his artwork, WD has scribbled, “dedicated to the poor and homeless, here and around the world".
A few hundred metres down the road in the same neighbourhood, close to where Grigoropoulos was shot dead on a cold night, stands Navarinou Park. Almost in an exact reversal of Joni Mitchell’s song The Big Yellow Taxi, this park is a guerrilla garden, a parking lot reclaimed by the local community as an urban commons. A giant mural by Italian street artist Blu on a wall at the end of the park celebrates this victory of green space over concrete. It depicts purple people with green heads working on the garden, growing giant bulbous orange flowers that tower over the city’s grey skyscrapers.
In Athens, hope floats on its walls. Saturated with meaning and colour, this is where ideologies and imaginations get spray-painted into everyday lives in a struggle to reclaim discourse in a divided city.
Barpakis and his friends now scout for walls on the outskirts of Athens. “Every wall must speak," he says, a mischievous glint in his eyes.