Athens is covered in graffiti. When I first moved here, I was shocked at the amount of graffiti everywhere. Even wealthier neighborhoods had a lot of it, though interestingly it never seemed as good as the graffiti in the working class areas of Athens. The graffiti in Kifisia is unimaginative, usually tags scrawled by bored rich kids. Pass through Moschato, though, and you start getting murals that are surreal and complex.
At first, I thought all of it was ugly and visually assaulting. The thought of bored kids tagging otherwise normal buildings was infuriating. It seemed like a sign of how backward Greece was. Now I feel differently about the graffiti here.
It’s not that I think the graffiti is exactly beautiful, but I appreciate it more now, somehow. I still hate the scrawled, illegible tags done by amateurs, but some of it–the work that has ambitions beyond egotism — has artistic merit. And, considering the other assaults to the Athens landscape– such as the hundreds of billboards and ads posted along highways, the disjointed streets and uneven sidewalks, or the skeletons of unfinished buildings–the graffiti seems like something distinctive, a break from the monotony of other visual stimuli. The more time I spend in Greece, the more I realize that a lot of the graffiti here isn’t just tags by roaming kids, but street art by people whose voices aren’t otherwise heard in society. The graffiti is an attempt to win back a landscape that is so often dominated by forces with more authority, like the government and big businesses that can afford to put up huge billboards.
Graffiti is a truly ‘Greek’ art in that it has its roots in protest. From an Athens Plus article: “As Greece has a long and turbulent history, political graffiti has played an important role at times, declaring the presence of underground opposition to an unpopular regime or foreign occupation with simple statements such as ‘Freedom’ or ‘Down with the Junta.'” Most of the graffiti I see isn’t explicitly political, though some of it is (usually in the form of ‘Down with NATO’ or something to that degree). But there is something deviant about the works that even sort of try to be good; there’s always something heated and forceful in the way they look.
I’m not saying all of it is nice to look at…most of it is messy. Whether it looks ‘good’ or not is besides the point. Once you’re used to the graffiti, it seems odd not to have it. The US looks unnaturally clean by comparison.
The abundance of graffiti here, I think, harkens back to the idea that Greeks are more expressive and are more naturally poised against domination. Where there are pristine buildings and cities, there is some form of authority overseeing them that holds the majority of the power. I think of the rumored cleanliness and tidiness of Singapore streets, and of the dictatorship behind them that punishes the slightest act of vandalism. I think of the American teenager there who was sentenced to a caning for graffiting cars. Perhaps the comparison is unfair; after all, Athens would probably look more inviting with less graffiti. But between perfection and graffiti, I choose the latter.