Guest post by Lambi Lentakis
A few weeks ago I was in the centre of Athens trying to accomplish some chores. Looking around me, I was saddened and irritated by the amount of scribbles defacing many of the buildings. I talked it over with friends and they murmured street art, justifiable protest against the austerity measures, economic and political crisis, creativity rising like a phoenix out of hardship and other such, in my view, inanities. Living in the suburbs with only a bus to take me into town, I hadn’t been into the centre for a while and the extent to which scribbles had taken over the city rather shocked me.
Sorry, folks – this is not street art, these are badly executed scribbles. Call it graffiti if you so wish, call signing your name tagging, but I refuse to elevate these scribbles to the level of tags, which are often very beautiful. Nothing can persuade me that these scribbles are anything but ugly and an act of vandalism – often on private property or national monuments. I can feel the anger behind these acts – and I can understand that anger and the feeling of hopelessness that is the underlying reason for this kind of protest. However, although I have understanding, I cannot condone it – and nothing can justify the desecration of private property by these nasty self-aggrandising scribblers.
Street art is something I’ve always been interested in. My family moved to the centre of London in the mid-1960s when I was a teenager. Coming from a rather sleepy village, I was very impressed by the way some people had decorated the outside of their houses and boutiques with innovative and colourful murals. The bottom end of King’s Road in Chelsea – World’s End – had a number of examples of art of this genre. Also around London, there were large stretches of walls covered by murals – often a community or school effort. Although these murals/street art disappeared during the 1970s, recently there has been a resurgence of art in the street with the coming of Banksy and his followers. I never thought I would find similar artwork in Athens.
Visitors to Athens often come to Greece in summer and go back home complaining about the heat, the pollution, the crowds and the traffic in the centre. Often all they have seen are the Acropolis and some museums. Maybe they have eaten an over-priced meal in a tourist restaurant in Plaka while shopping for souvenirs, but most of them have not taken time to explore the city as such – it’s too hot in summer to do much walking! I’ve always found that the best way to discover a new place is by walking round its markets and other places locals frequent. I’ve lived in an Athenian suburb for 20 years now and love walking round Plaka whenever I get a chance. This time I thought I’d walk around with one main aim: to discover what street art there is in the centre.
I knew that there were a lot of talented street artists plying their trade in Athens. My husband and I had roamed around the old (no longer used) airport grounds near our home. Imagine our surprise to discover that the walls of the old Olympic Catering buildings (now in ruins) were filled with a veritable showcase of art done in the street art style. Literally there are hundreds of pictures there [Odos 29, Elliniko]. Also I had seen the famous pictures round Omonia Square and Monastiraki Station as well as many pictures of street art that a friend of mine puts up on Instagram. I decided to do a little research myself and then contacted this friend and we arranged to meet up in Athens. Zoe has spoken to many of the artists who work in the streets of Athens and she gave me a guided tour around some of the main places you can find these artworks. Other artworks I discovered myself.
When to visit and where to go
Let me give you a couple of tips: if you would like to explore Athens, consider taking a holiday in the off-season months of the year – say in spring or in autumn. During these seasons the city is far less crowded and isn’t as hot, so the pollution levels are much lower. These are the perfect times of year to wander round the streets in the centre and discover for yourselves the rather scruffy charm of this metropolis. Secondly, don’t limit yourself to visiting just the ancient monuments and museums – spread your wings and explore the heart of Athens. In fact why don’t you follow in my footsteps and take a walk round these areas that are a treasure trove of street art? You will go back home with amazing pictures and impressions of a city that not many tourists see.
The main areas for street art are: Plaka, Psyrri, Keramikos, Thisseon, Gazi and Exarchia. Here you will find artworks by Vasmoulakis, Bleeps.gr, Klark, Sonke and WD amongst others.
Wear stout sandals/walking shoes and take a good map of the city with you – it’s very easy to get lost in the many narrow streets and alleyways in Plaka and Psyrri. I didn’t walk around Gazi or Exarchia, but I plan to walk around these areas too at a later date. Start at Syntagma Square and make your way to Adrianou St in Plaka. Allow yourself to wander up streets to the left and the right of Adrianou, look up as well as look down at ground level. I tended to veer off Adrianou whenever I saw a piece of street art in a little street leading off from there. Following the little street, I often discovered artwork I wouldn’t have seen otherwise: whole streets covered with it. I kept Adrianou as my base and returned there whenever I thought I was getting too lost. At Monastiraki Station, turn right until you come to Ermou St. Cross over to the other side of Ermou, turning left (going away from Syntagma) and walking along this street look into every little street that leads off the main street. This gets you into the Psyrri area of Athens where the buildings are covered with graffiti and street art. Again, do not forget to look up as many of the sides of buildings have artwork at top floor level. Don’t have any agenda, but stroll along any streets that look promising.
Stop off for a coffee, let yourself get slightly lost – you won’t regret it! Come back to Ermou and walk along till you come to Thisseon Station. Continue along the pedestrian part of Ermou towards Gazi – the walls on both sides are covered with artwork. Turn left when you reach Pireos St and retrace your steps or do what I did and take different little streets through Thisseon, Psyrri and Plaka until you are back at Syntagma Square again. It took me about 2 and a half hours to do this street art walk, but I was in no hurry and took time to stop, look and take pictures.
A conclusion ?
What surprised me the most about the street art I discovered in Athens was the variety in style of the various artists. There are political slogans, tags, visual art with political comment, visual art with social comment, art decorating shop fronts (much like the hippy art of my youth) and visual art with no particular message. As the economic crisis has become worse, more and more buildings in the centre have been closed up and abandoned. As these buildings fall into disrepair, their walls have been used as canvases for a growing tribe of street artists. I have not given you exact locations to the various artworks I’ve taken pictures of, as by its very nature, street art is ephemeral.
What I’ve seen in the past few weeks may no longer be around in a few months time – it will have been scrubbed off, repainted or defaced by scribbles. In the few weeks that I’ve been walking around Athens, I’ve seen new works appear and a few older ones have been painted over by different pieces of artwork. From being a slightly scruffy, badly planned city overshadowed by the grandeur of ancient monuments, Athens has become a colourful centre of flourishing urban art – on par with what one can find in London, Paris, Amsterdam and Madrid.
Also, read the “Ios seen through my iPhone” review, a book written by Lambi.
All photos by Lambi Lentakis and may not be used without permission.