Most artists started out as teenagers doing what teens do – tagging trains and walls. Now they’re even students at the Athens School of Fine Arts.
Recently the City of Athens sponsored some of the better work and commissioned artists to transform grey building facades into brilliantly colourful murals. Abandonment and urban decay is an inevitable part of the Greek capital – made worse by the malingering economic crisis. Street art helps to illustrates hope where once there was little. Or none at all.
Achilles of Alternative Athens is our guide today. The 28-year-old is camera shy like most street artists and prefers his art speak for him. He works on his own projects, but also freelances creating portraits, paintings, murals and illustrations. We meet him at the Kerameikos metro station and walk across the centuries from the ancient quarter close to the Acropolis to the hip suburb of Metaksourgeio.
“If you want to learn about a city,
look at its walls”
– iNO, Athenian street artist
Much of Athens street art starts in Kerameikos, stretches to Metaksourgeio and then to Gazi. On this street (pictured above) the eye, painted by artist iNO in his soft strokes style, represents the people while the techno monster, painted by Aiva, is the government trying to access information in people’s minds. Economic repression, heartbreak, hope and hopelessness, and suspicion of the state are frequent themes in street art here.
“Metaxourgeio is the most
in Athens” – Achilles
Kerameikos has a chic nightlife with some of the best clubs in Athens. Metaksourgeio is a cool home to art galleries, guerrilla gardeners and funky places to eat. It’s the epitome of Greek boho. Architecture is modern industrial, minimalist suburban, historic and just plain old crumbling away.
There’s also a lot of street art in Gazi, named after a now disused gasworks. The bottom end of Gazi houses the underclass of gypsies and the poorest of illegal migrants. Real estate is the cheapest in the city in these parts. Street life hustles and bustles in every Athens suburb. But this section of Gazi is strangely deserted, with few stores or cafes on the narrow roads. When we do see anyone, it’s usually to wave and greet Achilles. This area is his favourite hang out.
As much as I appreciate the creations, I feel offended when I see it mixed with crude tagging (a disfiguring curse in Athens) splashed across a dilapidated neoclassical villa. These buildings, even in their state of decline, are majestic and deserve respect, not defacing. The City of Athens has no money to restore them. It’s a tragedy, either way.
The word graffiti stems from the Greek word graphi – which means to write. Tagging in Greece has political beginnings, says Achilles. Party initials – ND (New Democracy) PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement), KKE (Communist Party of Greece) – were sprayed onto walls in green, blue and red. It was a cheap way to get their message across. Today’s artists use stencils, spray paint and more recently paper art stuck to walls with wheatpaste or wallpaper glue – a medium called paste ups. Styles are immensely varied. Flamboyant straight-up fonts look dramatic.
Achilles likes to paint skulls, as if he’s peeling away layers to explore human conditions. In this multimedia installation painted by various artists, shown below, Achilles’ contribution is, of course, the one with the partially exposed skull. The faces represent the multi-cultural flavours of Gazi and hardships many residents endure.
I took the picture of the divine hands while driving back into Athens after a few days away. It was the first example of excellent street art I’d seen and it inspired me to take the tour. The hands illuminate an exterior wall of an apartment building west of Omonia Square.
Travel Tips for street art Athens
- For walking tours go to Alternative Athens
- Achilles will be your guide
- The tour is conducted in English
- 10am and 4pm daily
- 30 euros pp.