Before arriving in Athens, we heard a lot of about the graffiti that covers the walls of buildings throughout the city center. It can be an overwhelming sight. It’s so dense in some areas that it’s hard to find a small scrap of area on a wall that isn’t completely covered by cacophony of brightly colored graphics with seemingly no relationship to one another.
But scratch below the painted surface and you will find that there is more to the story. One of the things I have come to love about visiting larger cities is discovering the street art. While exploring the city you round a corner and suddenly an enormous mural appears — of such quality that you could easily imagine it hanging in a gallery.
Or a small image peeks out from a corner of a building that screams out with emotion.
Athens has more than its share of such quality works of art throughout the city. Some appear overnight as a gift to the neighborhood, like finding a bouquet of flowers on the doorstep when heading off to work in the morning. We found police taking pictures of themselves in front of this mural of a famous street dog that appeared on the wall a week before our visit.
These examples of Athens Greece street art appeared unexpectedly as we walked up a small neighborhood just below the Acropolis.
We probably took as many pictures of them as we did of the iconic white washed tiny houses along the way.
We also learned while in Athens that some of the street art murals are now commissioned and/or encouraged by building owners in order to create more interest in their businesses and to improve the appearance of their neighborhoods. The city of Athens has even begun issuing a limited number of permits to artists to paint large murals in areas such as parking structures. This not only beautifies the area, it also covers up angry graffiti depicting anti-government sentiments that sprang up over the city during the economic crisis.
We also learned that there is a division between the artists who create pictorial images that “communicate something very clearly to anyone” versus those artists whose work is a play on letters that will communicate a message only decipherable to those within the close-knit graffiti community.
During a walking tour, conducted by an artist linked to the graffiti community, we were lucky enough to run into one well-known graffiti artists from Athens. The artist, “Senor”, agreed to speak with us, although seemed reluctant at first, acknowledging that the graffiti that he does is illegal by design and definition. He has been a graffiti writer for over 20 years, although within that time he has earned a degree in art and currently earns a living as a sculptor.
Senor very quickly observed that clearly those of us on a walking tour would have no real understanding what graffiti really was. He waved his hand dismissively at a huge mural on the opposite wall, saying “That is not graffiti, it is what you call street art, a name that has nothing to do with graffiti.”
“Anyone can look at that and know what it is.” This in his mind seemed to be a sad development in the graffiti community, that some had “sold out” and were getting paid to decorate the neighborhood rather than expressing their defiance and separateness from the mainstream.
When asked why he continued to create graffiti Senor admitted that he had thought a lot about this, and realized that he did it in order to retain a connection to his youth. Growing up and needing to pay the bills doesn’t hold a great deal of appeal for any of us – so we have that in common too.
The more time we spent in Athens, talking to the people who live here, the more we found that Athenians embrace everything about their culture, present and past. Everything here is presented unapologetically.
When the Greeks dance, they do so with gusto, when they march, they kick higher and wear their pom-pomed shoes with pride. And while not all of the art on its streets are appreciated by all, it is still there to be seen and, in my opinion not to be missed.