Artist Stelios Faitakis on His Evocative Artwork Inspired by Greece

Stelios Faitakis' work on display at the 1st Athens Biennial in 2007. Photo: The Breeder gallery

One of the best known artists working in Athens, Stelios Faitakis at age 40 is at the peak of his career. His work combines elements of street art with the sacred imagery of Greek Orthodox Church iconography. Faitakis began his career as a graffiti artist, though gradually over the years, his work has taken on a more formal aspect, calling to mind the murals of Diego Rivera and the more challenging works of German painter Otto Dix and other Weimar painters, but with the austere faces and figures of Byzantine saints transported to modern times, commenting on today’s society. Faitakis tackles dystopian themes of social unrest and inequality much like those 20th century artists, but with a strikingly contemporary, yet timeless, force. Faitakis’ mural of the French student uprisings of May 1968 will be unveiled this month at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. He spoke about the evolution of his work in an interview with the New York Times.

When asked about Greek Orthodox iconography as a metaphor for commenting on the current crises in Greece, Faitakis said, “We grow up seeing this form of art in churches and everybody knows it. But it took me many years to fully appreciate it, to understand the depth and strength of this tradition. Now, no matter how many times I have visited the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens or the collection of Agia Aikaterini of Sinai in Crete, I’m always astonished. I like the idea that I am speaking an artistic language that has deep roots; the local people understand it and viewers abroad find it equally interesting. And at the end of the day, it is still a religious art form, and I am using it exactly for this: No matter what the theme is, whether it’s simple or even shallow, the golden background always reminds the viewer that there is another, higher level of existence despite the distance we may have from it because of our daily battle for survival. This is one of the elements that form the very core of my work.”

On the transition from graffiti to more studio-based artwork, Faitakis observed, “It takes time to produce these large-scale pieces, not just a day or two. I soon discovered that working in the studio was equally interesting and joyful to me as the work out in the streets. But I owe a lot to the techniques and materials of street artists and I still like to present my work in public spaces, although I do not consider my art as ephemeral as I did in the past. Not that I cannot stand to see a work being destroyed — I just prefer to do it on my own terms and not let anyone feel free to destroy in a couple of days a work that took months to create, in the street or anywhere else.” He went on to talk about being an artist in Greece during the current financial crisis. Faitakis said, “The crisis offers a lot of themes on different levels — one has to just open his eyes, carefully observe what is happening around him, and start exploring. Of course I don’t enjoy what’s happening in Greece, but I personally prefer to include all the things I see around me, especially the ones I consider negative, in my work.”

When asked if he would consider moving abroad in search of better economic opportunity as many other Greek artists have, Faitakis gave a firm reply. “At this point, not a chance! “Career” for me means nothing if I cannot enjoy my life. This is where all my interests and loved ones are. And Greece offers me great inspiration that I am not sure I can maintain somewhere abroad. I feel like Greece is the only place I can continue and develop my research and painting discipline. I once heard the great lyra player Psarantonis saying that a tree needs to have strong, healthy roots in order to be able to produce leaves and fruit. I could not agree more.” Born and raised in Athens where he currently resides, Faitakis graduated from the National School of Fine Arts and is represented by The Breeder gallery also in Athens.