The Lakkos Project in Heraklion, Crete

Kafenio o Lakkos in Heraklion. (Photo by Fcebook/Kαφενείον ο λάκκος)

The area of Lakkos in Heraklion is one of the most up and coming districts in the city today. After a long period of neglect and public unawareness, it’s once again full of life, art, and interesting cultural events. The National Herald spoke with Mathew Halpin, an Australian-born visual artist and the creator of the Lakkos project.

The Lakkos project is an initiative where Halpin, different volunteer groups, and the Municipality of Heraklion work together to renovate the area and preserve its fascinating history – they paint old houses, decorate walls with street art and organize exhibitions and performances around the area. Halpin met TNH in Kafenio o Lakkos, a coffee shop and taverna at Lakkos square. It opened at the same time that the Lakkos project started, in 2015. They operate independently, but the Kafenio has been one of the biggest supporters of the project since the beginning.

Originally, Lakkos was known as the neighborhood of the underground world – the narrow streets were full of hashish smoke, music, immigrants, red lights, and shady people. According to Halpin, in 1900 the government decided to gather all the Christian prostitutes to Lakkos because it was a bit further away from the city center and it was not considered a good area. Soldiers and people of different life paths visited the brothels or sat in the smoke-filled tavernas, and Lakkos even had its own slang and music. The marginal residents continued living in the district until the beginning of World War II.

Halpin says he fell in love with the area because of its colorful history. “When I moved here I used to park my car on this square. Slowly the locals started to tell stories about what the area used to be, and soon I started to do my own research as well.”

Originally from Australia, Halpin has worked as a visual artist around Europe ever since he realized he was entitled to an Irish ancestry visa. Before moving to Heraklion in 2013 he spent three years in Tallinn, Estonia. He tells TNH, “I was doing okay while selling my art but after a while, I realized my heart wasn’t in it anymore. When the Lakkos project started to take over and began to run properly, I felt a spark.”

Before the project, approximately 50% of the area was abandoned. Halpin wanted to find a way of protecting the district since in addition to its history, the area’s architecture differs completely from other areas of Heraklion. Visitors can find old Ottoman houses, neo-classical houses, and traditional townhouses of the villagers. “Many old people live in the area, so in the summer the place is full of their flowers – if you take a walk on the smaller streets you might find many hidden gardens,” Halpin adds.

The project started by painting the old houses with a specifically chosen, historically accurate color theme, but since all of the paints were received as donations, it was soon almost impossible to paint all the houses accordingly. “Eventually the project became less about painting houses but more about doing murals and street art,” Halpin says. While having a stroll around the area visitors can see many pieces of art, painted by international and local artists.

According to Halpin, the project is much smaller today than in the beginning – it’s hard to keep people interested for long, and the municipality needs to take care of other areas as well. Finding funding is always a struggle for every cultural project, which is why Halpin started an art residency in Lakkos for international artists.

Approximately 30-40 people stay at the residency annually. Their participation fees cover accommodation but also help keep the project running. Most residents are writers, performers, and visual artists, and while they are not obligated to participate in the Lakkos project, many like to leave something behind.

The Kafenio hosts various art exhibitions. Theater, dance, and music performances also take place all around the district. Halpin adds, “The annual Summer Arts Festival takes place right next to Lakkos, so this is a nice place to go have some drinks and food before seeing a show.”

It seems that Halpin and other project members have succeeded in what they started. Today, the locals are fixing the abandoned houses too, and even a few Airbnb-rental apartments have appeared in Lakkos. Halpin tells TNH, “The whole point of the project was to make the locals see the value of the area and to preserve it for younger generations. The locals really love it now, because Lakkos used to be a very depressing place.”

Not anymore. Worthy of a visit for those who enjoy history, culture and good food – Lakkos has it all.

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