ATHENS – Graffiti – whether erotic or angry scrawled and artistic rages against society or rulers – is as ancient as Greece itself. Indeed, the word originates from the Greek γράφειν — graphein — meaning “to write” and the first known example survives in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, in modern Turkey.
Local guides say it is an advertisement for prostitution so not much has changed in the last couple of thousand years, particularly the burning Greek thirst for freedom and rebellion, now expressed in spray paint and other modern tools with works from simple to elaborate art throughout Athens.
Six years of harsh austerity measures and the bending of successive governments to international lenders in return for three bailouts of 326 billion euros ($368.64) have left Greeks in a foul mood and many have taken to delivering their diatribes on the walls for all to see.
They have a rich history from which to draw, so to speak.
During World War II, Greeks drew from the poetry of 18th-Century revolutionary writer Rigas Feraios, who inspired rebels during the War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire, and the occupying Nazi forces found his phrase, Better one hour of freedom than 40 years of slavery, everywhere. It didn’t help Feraios, strangled and thrown into the Danube by the Turks, fearful his words would stoke cries for freedom.
Greeks are a rebellious lot, stoking up civil wars while they were fighting the Turks and Nazis, and now the Greek economic crisis which choked the lifeblood out of workers, pensioners and the poor, has seen the emergence of a new wave of political graffiti, competing with amateurish scribbling and noted street art.
It’s a curious selection of bitter satire and black humor, phrases in Greek such as Their Wealth is Our Blood scrawled on a concrete wall across from a McDonald’s, and English too, laced with profanities against the police, banks and politicians.
The targets are abandoned buildings, banks, auto dealerships, government structures and even, or especially, the University of Athens, which is practically a chalkboard of protest: Burn Parliament, and Torch the Polling Booths replacing gentler, kinder wall protests.
Greek graffiti has been vibrant for 30 years, but spiked in 2008 after the shooting death of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos in the anarchist-artist neighborhood hotbed of Exarchia, where it seems every building has been touched by graffiti to make some kind of statement and cover the dirty, grey concrete in a desperate bid to create some charm.
There are amateurs scribbling with spray paint, taggers who want to make a name for themselves while remaining anonymous, and genuine street artists who don’t want to be identified, such as Bleeps.gr, who said he had lived in Bristol, England, the home of that country’s celebrated street artist Banksy.
There’s also Vaggelis Hoursoglou, who uses the street name Woozy; Absent and Animouz, each with a distinctive style, trying to make portraits of life as they see it. Their work is next to those of more renowned street artists, such as Alexandros Vasmoulakis, who covers entire walls with abstract avenge-gard expression; the Dali-like surrealism of Dimitris Taxis showing a boy chained around the neck to a heavy weight of debt; Hope, whose work made it into a public exhibition, the antithesis of what street art is supposed to be. There’s the acerbic burning anti-fascist work of ANTIFAB Lab aimed at the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn too.
“In Greece, and especially in Athens, you can find graffiti everywhere. It is really amazing how much freedom you’ve got in the public space. Nowadays it is difficult to find a clean place to put a mark,” George Gounezos, who created the documentary Alive in the Concrete about graffiti in Greece told National Public Radio.
“Public space in Greece is like a notice board that anyone could post their ideas on,” said Gounezos. “Generally, most of graffiti are names, political slogans, and characters. There are also a lot of huge murals that some public or private organizations support the artists to do. As well you can find graffiti for political parties or football teams.”
The riots that followed the killing of Grigoropoulos by two police officers created a volatile new kind of graffiti; angry, bitter, seething resentment against authority, the spot where he was shot now a street artist corner taking on a new dimension.
Hoursoglou told SETimes there’s a reason artists prefer the streets to museums. “Graffiti has to include a political message,” he said. “Graffiti itself is a political message,” he added. “If there is no political message this form of art misses some of its essence which is not only creating a fancy, eye-catching image but mostly pointing out modern social problems and envisioning a possible change,” he said.