“Are we going the right way?” I ask my friend. It was around 7 p.m. and the streets, illuminated by only a few lamps, were shockingly empty except for some store fronts and food trucks. As we made our way back to our Airbnb, we began walking alongside a courtyard closed off by larger walls and gates. The walls facing the outside are covered and the buildings on the inside also completely covered by art. A blue light shines through an open entrance. A woman holding the light in one hand and a spray bottle in the other. A graffiti artist caught in action.
In 2008, the world entered the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. Because Greece was one of the most indebted and poorest countries in Europe it felt the hit the hardest. The country then became indebted to the European Union from 2008 to just this past summer in 2018. Since February of 2015, both the European Union and various private investors have loaned Greece 294.7 billion euros. It was considered to be the biggest financial rescue of a bankrupt country in history. Much like a domino affect, the Greek crisis affected Greek politics and society. The financial crisis set the stage for a wave of creative energy never seen before.
The widespread unrest has urged people to question Greek values and lifestyle of today’s society, and channel their activism through works of art. One of the most profound demonstrations of this activism is Athens-based artist INO’s now iconic mural that was painted on a 30-foot scaffolding. The image depicted a baby with two faces, gazing into an abyss and toward the sky, and its soulless eyes searching for a future that would never be found. It was dubbed a picture worth a thousand words. It not only displayed to the world the feelings of angst and hopelessness of the Greek people, but it also empowered other artists and activists to take a step forward in creating their own art. Nonetheless, the art isn’t always well received. According to older citizens of Athens, graffiti is as old as the city itself. Thus, begging the question of the graffiti becoming part of the city’s aesthetic or is it just damaging the capital.
On the climb up to the Acropolis, is perhaps where the most writings and paintings are concentrated. Athenians have not spared a single wall, and not one piece is the same. Entire walls of neighborhoods and backs of restaurants are crammed with art leaving little space for artists to leave their signatures. In lower income neighborhoods, metros are filled from top to bottom with graffiti reminiscent of New York subway stations and trains in the 1980s. How do artists even get to the train cars? Athens has become so much of a hub for graffiti and graffiti artists alike that even tours of street art are being conducted throughout the city. Tourists are being taken to the cool trendy neighborhoods, such as Anafiotika. At the same time, the government makes sure to keep watch of how much street art there is. City officials claim that too big of a concentration of graffiti can look threatening and make tourists feel safe.
Despite its cultural significance, there is an ongoing debate among Athenians whether certain graffiti is considered vandalism or urban art. “Some of it (the graffiti) looks nice, well-done, and like it could be an important part of the city. But a lot of the writings can be associated with gangs, and that’s vandalism,” explained Cristos Kruni, an Athenian who lives in the Omonoia neighborhood. Many wonder where the line can be drawn from defacing statues and valued buildings being to free expression. As historical monuments, such as a sculpture that sits outside the prestigious Academy of Athens, are targeted with the words ενάντια Σε ΠοΛεμο ImΠepIaΛIΣmo φaΣIΣmo, which google did its best to translate it to “against an imbalance in the country.” In Greece, there is law which states that graffiti vandalism is a crime you can be arrested for. However, since it is happening so often it is rarely enforced, thus making it hard to distinguish a separation. This has prompted some schools to develop a program in which students adopt a monument. It is the student’s job to make sure it stays clean and out of harm’s way.
Simultaneously, many see street art as a way to beautify Athens. “It makes the city more uniquer than other cities. Today people not only come to see the Temple of Zeus, but also the beautiful paintings over the buildings,” says Ava Makris, a local business owner. The sides of Makris’ coffee shop, Coffee Lab, are plastered with art. While other business owners and residents fight against the art, Makris wholeheartedly embraces it.
Like Makris a large majority of Athenians enjoy the graffiti. In fact, schools have become some of the street artist’s biggest supporters. The Athens School of Fine Arts has recently begun teaching a course on street art studies. Various elementary schools throughout the capital have begun to commission artists to paint murals on their academic buildings. The Urban Act Project is an organization that helps to implement mural projects throughout Greece, specifically at schools. The program receives funds from the Ministry of Education, and municipalities around Greece.
The new era of graffiti in Athens undoubtedly sprouted from the economic and social turmoil caused by the financial crisis. Thus, allowing a rebellious social movement through art to blossom. The rebellious messages have left some with a sour taste treating the art like vandalism. Others have rallied behind the art claiming it is as a cultural aesthetic. As long as the divide continues, whether or not the graffiti is vandalism is a question yet to be answered.