ATHENS – Greek artist Vasilis Dimitriou passed away on September 6 in Athens at the age of 84 and was “one of the last surviving movie billboard painters in Europe,” the New York Times reported, noting that Dimitriou created over 8,000 works for Greek theaters and chronicled the history of cinema from World War II to the present day.
Dimitriou’s cause of death was Parkinson’s disease, according to Konstantinos Giannopoulos, “a family spokesman and a third-generation owner of the Athinaion Cinemas, which displayed Dimitriou’s billboards, reaching more than 40 feet long, for 40 years,” the Times reported.
Dimitriou was “a self-taught painter from a poor family that survived the Nazi invasion and Greece’s military junta,” and “began immortalizing legends of the silver screen at age 15,” the Times reported, adding that “for more than six decades he painted one to two billboards a week, inspired by studio handouts featuring stars ranging, over time, from Gary Cooper to Leonardo DiCaprio.”
He mixed his own paints, adding glue to keep the billboards from running in the rain, the Times reported, noting that the billboards had a 1940s noir-look and “turned the Athinaion into the most recognizable movie house in Athens.”
As mass-produced movie posters replaced the hand-painted ones for most theaters around the world, Dimitriou was even more dedicated to preserving his art even as he “acknowledged that it remained a throwback to what he called ‘the golden age’ of cinema,” the Times reported.
Dimitriou told the Times in a 2014 interview, “Back then, you would go to the movies in a suit and tie, women would wear beautiful dresses. There was an intermission, and half the theater would go to the foyer to have a drink and discuss the movie. Now that’s gone.”
Dimitriou left his mark on Athens where generations grew up seeing his posters which even during the financial crisis offered some continuity and comfort to those struggling to make ends meet.
He told the Times, “People would see me putting my posters up and give me a huge smile, or they would ask to shake my hand and say, ‘Thank you,’ for giving them joy.”
Vasilis Periklis Dimitriou was born on February 18, 1936, in Pogoniani, a village in northern Greece, to Periklis and Konstantina (Douka) Dimitriou. His father was a hotel and restaurant manager; his mother, a homemaker. He grew up penniless during World War II in Kypseli, an Athens suburb.
His father, a fighter in the Greek resistance, was often away from home as the German army advanced. When Vasilis was 8, Nazi troops captured his father and took him away to be executed beside a mass grave. He miraculously survived and made his way home covered in blood, only to disappear from the boy’s life again as he rejoined the resistance. The young Vasilis spent his time drawing on sidewalks.
Following the end of the war, his career painting movie posters began after “he and his friends had been climbing a tree to watch films at an outdoor theater when the projectionist caught him and took him to the manager, [but] instead of throwing him out, however, the manager offered him work in exchange for watching movies,” the Times reported, adding that “when the manager discovered that Vasilis had a talent for drawing, he invited him to try his hand at painting billboards.”
“My mother said, ‘If you become a painter, we’ll starve and die poor,’” Dimitriou told the Times.
He is survived by his wife, Angeliki Dimitriou; his daughter, Konstantina Dimitriou; and a grandson.
Giannopoulos told the Times that “inspired by his [Dimitriou’s] work, Virginia Axioti, a member of the family that runs the Athinaion, will continue to paint billboards for the theater.”
As he suffered from Parkinson’s disease, it became more difficult to paint with his right hand, so Dimitriou switched to his left, the Times reported, noting that “his doctors suspected that the cause was the boxing he did when he was younger,” and “at one point he was a coach for the Greek national boxing team.”
Dimitriou continued painting the 42 by 8-foot billboards for the Athinaion, following a 12-hour-a-day schedule with each one taking “three to four days to complete and was then pasted over the previous one (though some were preserved and stored for occasional exhibitions),” the Times reported.
Though saddened by the near extinction of his art form, Dimitriou told the Times in 2014 that he “had no regrets.”
“Painting is in my blood. When I stop breathing is when I’ll stop painting,” Dimitriou said, the Times reported.