Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Street Art and Graffiti in Athens

In 1971, a young Greek man who lived in New York City was featured in that city’s most famous newspaper. His name was Demetrios, called Demetraki by his friends, and he lived on 183rd St. The reason he merited an entire article in the New York Times was his tag ‘Taki 183,’ which he’d begun scrawling on New York walls and subway cars in the late ‘60s. The article about him was historic, not only because it documented a very early moment in the graffiti art movement blossoming in New York City, but also because the article itself, once it was printed, resulted in an explosion of copy cat taggers and jettisoned graffiti into urban street culture. What else do you expect from a kid who once tagged a Secret Service car?

Thessaloniki street, September 2008. (Click on images to see larger version.)

I came to Athens for the first time in 2000, and I have no recollection whatsoever of coming across any ‘urban culture.’ I was a tourist then, confined to areas created for tourists, the kind of areas where locals tend not to go. Now I live in one of the richest parts of Athens, Kolonaki, called a “wealthy, chic and upmarket district.” 'Real people' don’t come here either. It’s not a place where you see much in the way of alternative street life. It seems, however, that the graffiti art that started with the young delinquent Demetraki has finally come home to roost in Greece.

Greece, land of sheep and goats. Thessaloniki, September 2008.

As we’ve travelled around the country, I’ve kept my eye out for interesting wall art to see if I could observe any cool regional or stylistic trends. Mostly, though, we’ re driving by in the bus so quickly that I can’t really say anything about what I see at all. But now and then I’ve kept my camera handy; here’s some of what I’ve seen.

Athens, November 2008.

First, I’ve been surprised at how much graffiti in Greece is in English. There’s a tension here, I think, between the general anti-American feelings exemplified in the November 17th protests that end at the US Embassy, and the adoption of elements of American culture like breakdancing, hip-hop and American street-art styles. Of course, American urban culture came to Europe some time ago; it’s likely that it’s being funneled to Athens through other European centers, since Continental graffiti artists are known to travel to different cities in order to leave their marks. In other words, graffiti and street culture is so Euro now that there may be few American associations left with it. Granted, I don’t think you can get more American-gangsta than this:

Thessaloniki, September 2008.

A major part of the recent graffiti upsurge in Athens is tagging. Graffiti art and tagging go hand in hand, of course, but most people look down on tagging. I'm generally not a fan of most of it – it’s often uncreative and is the human teenager’s equivalent of a cat marking its territory. Supposedly it’s a step on the Cursus Honorum of becoming a graffiti artist, but I can do without it, since it is usually ugly. At least if you’re going to tag something, make sure it looks cool. For example:

Awesome dude, Thessaloniki 2008.

Ballerina, Athens, November 2008.

So a lot of graffiti is ridiculously bad, what some would term vandalism. But its opposite is what some would call high graffiti art, which reflects artistic sensibilities and creative thought. Here in Athens (as in many other cities) there’s a movement towards collage – rather than applying only spray paint to the flat surface, other materials (e.g. paper) are used. I guess graffiti art is finally catching up with Pablo Picasso, thought to have originated the form when he attached bit of oil cloth to a canvas in 1912. After all, Katherine Hoffman once said, “Collage may be seen as a quintessential twentieth-century art form with multiple layers and signposts pointing to the possibility or suggestion of countless new realities.” Whatever may be going on, I find graffiti collage interesting because it plays with those elements of urban visual culture that usually act as background noise to the eyes – trash, scrawled-over walls and the ubiquitous plastered, peeling poster.
'Bonfires for Nobody,' pasted paper, Athens, November 2008.

Yesterday I saw an interesting example that was actually a tarp hung from the fence in front of the National Archaeological Museum. It’s located on a major street in Athens, and will therefore be seen by an enormous number of people. Kleos is, after all, what graffiti is all about; by displaying the tarp on a major thoroughfare in a spot lacking any visual competition, the kleos of the painter is prolonged, as well as the kleos of the dead graffiti artist this piece commemorates.
'Barnes, rest in peace, graffiti is never going to be the same without you...' Athens, National Museum, 2008.

Incidentally, I haven’t quite figured out why the medium is a plastic tarp. Does it still count as graffiti art if it’s on a moveable surface, probably painted at home, safe from the danger of getting caught?

Another thing I wonder about graffiti art is its evolutionary relationship to the other figurative arts. More specifically, American graffiti art supposedly began as text, words, letters. In the late ‘60s and ‘70s when it started in earnest, it constituted names and numbers; elaborate and colorful versions of those names and numbers followed as the calligraphic designs morphed into ever more exotic and stylized letters. Norman Mailer once said about the new art of writing, “What a quintessential marriage of cool and style to write your name in giant separate living letters, large as animals, lythe as snakes, mysterious as Arabic and Chinese curls of alphabet.”

Now, however, graffiti is often entirely figurative, almost completely abandoning its textual origins. (The eternal battle between art historians and philologists continues!)
'Argh!,' Athens, November 2008.

Since it seems to reflect trends occurring in almost all the figurative arts, often adopting fantastical, cartoon or comic book elements, does this mean graffiti has lost its unique characteristics that separated it from the other arts? Or is the illegal, subversive element that last defining trait?
Reclining lady, Athens, November 2008.

Again, a majority of people would claim that graffiti is not an art at all, but vandalism.
'We are artists not vandals,' Nafplio, November 2008.

It’s true that half of the people tagging the streets and defacing property may have no higher aspirations. But that doesn't mean it isn’t essential to study it, especially since graffiti is visual evidence of small anonymous revolutions of an infinite variety (whether they be by spoiled brat teenagers or talented artists). Mostly, while graffiti brashly draws the eye to what is important (the painting/tag), it is also a commentary on what is NOT important. Thus when we visited the rubble of the Temple of Zeus Stratos, the foundation blocks of the ancient temple were marked by modern graffiti. Whoever painted the text made it very clear that the ancient remains were not worth a scrap more than a modern ruin, perhaps a valid comment in a country where more money is spent on digging up trash from 2000 years ago then on providing certain social services for its current citizens. Whether you can agree or not is besides the point – whoever defaced the temple believed that it was worthy of being defaced, that the cultural pedestal upon which we have placed it was invalid.

One of my favorite examples of the tagger’s dialogue with the ‘culturally worthwhile’ is this one from Thessaloniki. The soccer fans who tagged this statue made it very clear what they thought of this type of art. Whether the nude marble female makes one think of Classical Greek masterpieces or kitchy garden sculpture, the AEK fans gave us their own commentary:

Dry fountain, Thessaloniki, September 2008.

Anyways. For some great documentation of Athens’ graffiti, check this out. Otherwise, here are some shots of things I liked.
A great deal of Athenian graffiti takes the form of political slogans and symbols. Here's a rather beautiful revolutionary. Athens, November 2008.

One of my favorites. A cat in the window, a nude study of a bird-faced thing, a dude in the window with an orange background. Note the crucified robot in the top right corner, also of applied paper and documented at other locations.

Boy, girl and fantastical creatures. Creepy and awesome. Athens, November 2008.


Claire said...

Wow, Katie, great post! I remember there being a lot of graffiti along the metro lines in athens - are any of your pics from there? I lived in the same neighborhood as you, and I never really got to explore the "real neighborhoods" - which ones have you been able to see? I guess the neighborhood behind CYA is more down to earth (also the location of my favorite taverna!)

Jeremy LaBuff said...

Way to show me up! Don't make me challenge you to a spraypaint-off...

Katie said...

Claire, most of the Athens pics come from Exarchia, which is currently on fire and is being called a 'hot-bed of sel-fstyled anarchists.'


Katie, Fantastic pictures. I'm sorry, I'm delayed in catching up with blog readings. Last year, I was addicted to reading about the ASCSA year on Bill Caraher's blog; I think you have taken over the torch. Through blogging, I learned of a Greek classicist, Dimitris Plantzos, who is fascinated with street art, too. He has some amazing images on Flickr. Check out his blog (in case you haven't already) "(Pre)texts," esp. Oct. 14, 2008 posting: http://pretexts.blogspot.com/2008/10/athens-street-art.html. Thanks for the great postings