The street art in Athens is said to be the biggest in the world. You can’t help but notice the excessive amount of graffiti that coats every available surface throughout city, where every available wall, shop front, brick wall or obscure alley is a canvas waiting to be filled with artistic optimism, political reference or social satire.
While it can project an immediate visual grittiness that many find unappealing upon their first visit to Athens, dashing any attempts to unearth the city’s true persona, it does give it a unique edge.
Street art, to me, is another window into the social makeup of a destination and I’m always seeking out artistic spots, like the famous Waterloo graffiti tunnel in London, Malaysia’s island of Penang and its distinct artwork depicting local life and history, Berlin’s multifaceted social gripes or Warsaw’s modern wash on its post-war rebuild.
Used as an open canvas from which to convey a multitude of messages, Athens street art is no exception to the rule.
Ignore the ugly ‘tagging’ which litters some walls – a mere attention cry amongst those wanting their name on something. The more intricate designs and messages found mainly within the Exarchia, Monastiraki and Psirri neighbourhoods (and side by side with the city’s archaeological treasures) are detailed and impressive, with many artists having carved out a career and a reputable name for themselves.
Much like Manolis Iliopoulos, a local artist I got to hang out with through Dopios, an online resource which links up visitors with local people wanting to show off their city. Manolis explains the history of the graffiti and street art movement in Athens, shows you how to look out for the tags of some of the top artists, and takes you to the city’s artistic hangouts including studios and a cool spray paint shop – things you would never find during your own exploration.
The general view is that the graffiti movement began in New York as a reaction to the economic crisis, spreading throughout the world and arriving in Athens around 1992 where artistic murals first began appearing in the outlying neighbourhoods before moving to the centre.
Owing to a period of unemployment and the economic crisis that put Greece on the brink of bankruptcy, Athens took on the bulk of extreme monetary reforms, which often resulted in violent protest, reflective of the national outcry. With this, the Athens street art scene exploded, with protests taking hold through the conquering of public space.
“Greece has a problem with public space,” says Manolis. “It essentially belongs to no one.”
Here, it belongs to collective expression, and while some struggle and loose in the fight to general tagging, many shop keepers, business owners and commercial property investors now ask the artists to come and paint their walls.
However, what we did learn is that while street art in Athens predates its most recent crisis, it has ALWAYS existed in Greece. The word graffiti actually comes from the Greek word graphi, meaning ‘to write’. Inscriptions and messages have been carved and embedded into buildings for centuries – an ancient art of communication.
So while Athens will never be without the one vital element of its modern-day character, it has always been ahead of the game – at the core of a country where philosophy and democracy were invented, and, it seems a worldwide artistic movement of great expression.