Graffiti in Greece: a Love-Hate Situationship with a Long-Disputed Art Form
Graffiti-filled walls flashed by me like an old film reel framed by my Uber’s backseat window. As if he could read my mind, the driver said, “I hate the graffiti in this city, absolutely hate it! It is just awful. The most ugly thing about Athens.”
I guess he didn’t have telepathy because I was admiring the graffiti. Sure, it may not always be the most beautiful thing, but not all art is. Art is about expression, and graffiti is as expressive as you can get in my book. Due to graffiti’s long-standing debate within the art world and society, I tend to tread lightly when encountering declarative statements like those made by my Uber driver.
His strong opinion reminded me of a conversation I had a few years ago with a mother and daughter I met at a hotel pool in southern California. We talked about the graffiti rapidly increasing in their hometown, Portland, Oregon. The mother described graffiti as "trashy" and "offensive," terms that historically demonize graffiti. When I shared my pro-graffiti opinions a little too early in the conversation, her face revealed disapproval, and the subject quickly changed.
Since then, I have adopted a more journalistic approach in these situations, being careful not to scare off people who are activated by an art form we are generally taught to fear and despise. I take a listening stance and add opinions to my longstanding “log” of graffiti discourse that fascinates me.
Some see graffiti as vandalism (which, on paper, technically, it is), and others celebrate it as a vibrant and legitimate art form. So, when my Uber driver shared his opinion, I just listened. As I made my way to the Athens airport, I reflected upon how I interpreted graffiti as an outsider looking in during my time there.
Graffiti in Athens had this distinctive feeling I could not quite put my finger on. While certain styles and techniques felt new to me, I realized that much like the food, people, language, topography, and architecture in Athens, I was experiencing graffiti in a foreign place, so while it was recognizable as graffiti, it felt completely new and different.
Similar to the United States, graffiti in Athens is fast-paced, seemingly randomized, and symbolic of a language only the graffiti writers speak. While I encountered fewer design-like bubble letters and tags commonly seen in New York subway cars, Athens graffiti had its own unique set of letters and symbols, most unfamiliar to me then. While the differences felt stark, the same holds for graffiti in the States and the graffiti I studied in Athens: It is always on the move, almost as if graffiti artists are writing and then “poof!” vanish in thin air, leaving unfinished business.
From an outsider looking in, each spray and brush stroke seemed to be telling stories, challenging the status quo, and pushing boundaries. But why did so many pieces appear incomplete or hastily done? Was there an external force at play, adding to the urgency of these artistic expressions?
I began to think about the laws and risks street artists navigate and how these same rules and regulations contributed to the graffiti before my eyes. These artists may have been unable to complete their work due to interventions by authorities, much like what happens in the United States. And the city was filled to the brim with police.
According to the Mint Lounge blog, graffiti is illegal in Athens, and “Over the decades, the walls of the city have grown accustomed to the midnight hiss of aerosol paint. But this acquired a new-found intensity during the debt crisis 2007 when the Greek economy started going off the rails.”
So, if it is technically illegal, how is Athens considered one of the significant epicenters of graffiti? There are more pressing matters at hand, and from what I gather from a few Google searches and the abundant presence of graffiti throughout the city, if it is quietly taking place under the cloak of night, authorities tend to look the other way. Perhaps the Greek government agrees with some of my graffiti-positive opinions—. After all, Greece is the birthplace of democracy, and the term derives from the Greek word “graphene,” which means “to write.” And really, it seems the consensus on graffiti in Athens ranges from my Uber driver’s stance to accepting it as a form of expression and hiring graffiti artists to paint storefronts and throughout the city.
While I generally favor graffiti, there is a time and place for everything. I do not believe it should be everywhere and anywhere, whenever anyone wants. There is private property for a reason, and there are historic buildings that should remain unscathed. My opinions on graffiti remain nuanced because one of the many beauties of graffiti is its spontaneity. And so, I digress—it’s complicated.
As we sped along the highway, I asked my Uber driver, “So, what do you think about murals?” For people who hate graffiti as much as he does, you’d be surprised at how happy this question generally makes them. And just as I suspected, he loves them. Murals are a magic word known as “safe” and “sanctioned” in the public art sphere and to the general public. Generally speaking, I tend to agree that murals are more appealing aesthetically than graffiti tags can be, but both should be considered art forms.
I saw a handful of beautiful murals in Athens (pictured above). Murals are sanctioned and generally coordinated as a paid form of public art. They are typically accessible to just about anyone walking by, unlike graffiti, which seems to be a subculture only legible by those within it. While both murals and graffiti involve making art in public spaces, their main differences lie in legal status, visual aesthetics, and cultural perception.
While murals are undoubtedly excellent additions to cities across the world, to consider a counterpoint, they can also contribute to the gentrification of low-income communities that were once thriving graffiti hubs, which have historically stood as positive forms of connection, expression, and art-making within communities struggling with social and economic disparities.
No matter how you view it, there’s no denying that graffiti and murals are complex and inevitably impact their surrounding landscapes visually. The immense graffiti in Athens prompted me to do a lot of thinking on a topic I thought I had fully fleshed out. Had the graffiti not been there, I wouldn’t have thought about my surroundings similarly.
I continue to be fascinated by graffiti’s ability to spark powerful conversations amongst strangers alike and how it impacts a cityscape. And while I know the outcome of graffiti can be nuanced, I have also seen graffiti as an empowering tool and form of connection among communities. So, I leave you with these questions, most of which I continue to investigate. What does graffiti do in your city? Does it add anything? Or does it feel like a distraction? Are you basing your opinions on preconceived notions? What was your initial reaction when you saw this graffiti? Can you picture your community embracing graffiti rather than shying away from it? And finally, how do you think the perception of graffiti varies across different cultures and regions?
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