Oh, Athens, you beautiful, dirty, seething, charming, noisy, riotous, sun-drenched, ancient, ever-changing, artful city. This place bursts with memories of learning, growing up, drinking, dancing, eating, laughing, crying and living. So much has changed – there was actual LETTUCE in my Greek salad the other night – but many things remain the same: the Parthenon rises up, more complete every day, a reassurance that the values and achievements of the Ancient Greeks will never be forgotten.
Perhaps the most striking change I’ve noticed so far clings to buildings, vans, sliding doors, metro cars and crumbling ruins of depression-era apartments: the graffiti. This incredibly pervasive and ubiquitous street art envelops whole neighborhoods, ours (Kerameikos) included. After doing a little research, the somewhat obvious explanation became apparent: the graffiti have primarily been a response to and commentary on the devastating financial and economic crisis that has plagued Greece for the last 10 years. This is not a shocking revelation – indeed, graffiti have long been used as a method of self-expression, resistance, and critique – but in my absence, the emerging street artists in Athens have become experts at public and graphic social and political commentary.
The New York Times wrote an article about the graffiti in the Kerameikos, Exarcheia, and Psiri neighborhoods back in 2014 which discusses street art’s appearance and place in Athenian society. It was interesting to learn that, not only do police and city officials often leave graffiti artists to work in peace, but they’ve even begun enabling their work: graffiti permits are issued to commission the creation of beautiful murals on destitute buildings, and police will only arrest an artist if he or she is identified as a violent anarchist or member of an extremist group. Many of the artists have become somewhat well-known, even famous, while others prefer to remain anonymous; and while some embrace the city’s encouragement of their work, others feel it defeats the purpose and takes away their power. Perhaps they have a point: when expressions of discontent and rebellion are commissioned, are they as authentic or effective? As real? It seems that they must take on a completely new identity and purpose – different, but not better or worse. And what’s wrong with a little beautification?
Regardless, the street artists of Athens seem to have an extremely effective and widespread voice – whole neighborhoods explode in polychromatic displays and stand out in harsh relief from those areas that are relatively graffiti free (like the super-wealthy Kolonaki). While some visitors might be put off by the wild, often disturbing, and almost always thought-provoking images, I think it only adds another beautiful and complex layer to the archaeological record of this vibrant and ever-changing city. Perhaps graffiti don’t belong in a museum, so let Athens be one big museum of and monument to creative expression and angst. Let people engage with this art on a daily basis and attempt to take in its meaning.
From the higher number of abandoned and crumbling buildings to the graffiti to the staggering unemployment rates, the face of Athens has indeed changed a bit – as it was bound to do. It’s been seven years since my last visit and 12 (!!) since I lived here – but I still feel more at home amongst its tall, grey buildings and ancient temples than I do in many cities back in the States. And some things, like the slippery and slightly uneven sidewalks, the restauranteurs happily cajoling passersby into stopping and sitting, and the ancient, black-clad yiayias (grandmas) creeping slowly down sidewalks dragging their carts full of groceries, will always exist as a comforting reminder of the city’s enduring and enchanting character. But in case I ever feel like I know this place well enough, there will always be new graffiti to make me think a little harder.