Twelve men, dressed in formals, are busy “eating up” money served on a long table. A few supplicating hands of starving people reach up towards the table to grab their share. That’s just the story of Greece in short, depicted on the walls of Gazi, once an industrial hub of the capital city, Athens. This 100-m-wide and 9-m-tall mural by Greek artist INO is a dark work of symbolism, inspired by the 15th-century mural painting, The Last Supper, by the Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci. “Tricky people are trying to get into the game with the corrupted deals. It’s them who are trying to get a share of the pie, while majority of people have been left out,” says the INO spokesperson.
The image which came up in February this year reflects the growing inequality in Greece.
The walls of the neighbourhoods of Athens, especially Metaxourgeio, Psirri, Keramikos and Exarcheia, are plastered with tags, graffitis and murals that make political commentary. Artwork is everywhere — on the abandoned warehouses, factories, parking areas, garages and bus depots. Some call Athens the “New Berlin”. They send out a message to the political class in Greece about the ongoing issues of job losses, poverty, corruption, austerity and fascism in the country.
The newly-elected Prime Minister of Greece, the centre-right New Democracy party’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has to cope with all these challenges. As of now, the walls of Athens don’t have nice things to say about his extreme nationalist supporters. Five months before the elections, the mural, Liberte, Egalite, Pisokolite, painted by street art group PoliticalStencil.com at Metaxourgeio, created a buzz. Pisokolite is a slang in Greek which means anal sex. This mural which shows protesting people, including a naked man with the flag of Greece, takes a potshot at the rally that took place in January on the streets of Athens, opposing the move by the Greek MPs to ratify a landmark accord allowing the country’s tiny northern neighbour Macedonia to change its name to North Macedonia. The nationalist protesters claim Macedonia belongs to the Greek people.
“Figures depicted in the mural are real people, including the naked person who participated in the rally. This mural and its title is a bitter comment on the fascists who participated in the rally, hence the use of slang,” says 43-year-old Psycho Brunette Boy, the nickname of one of the group of street artists formed in 2014. The walls of Athens will tell you, a section of Greeks are not happy with the fascists. In one mural at Kerameikos, stencil artist Lotek (not real name) shows smiling faces of a young man and a woman. The message reads —“F**k fascism — Long live the troublemakers.” “Athens is not Berlin” is next to a sketch of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, caricaturised as Mickey Mouse, is a barometer of popular sentiment against the European Union and its role in Greek austerity, started in 2010.
Political graffiti was common in Athens even during the Axis occupation and the 1940s civil war. But the contemporary street art got a new lease of life during the 2007-08 financial crisis, when it depicted deepening recession, civil unrest and unemployment. For the past half-a-decade, the artform has been dabbling in issues such as social injustice, corruption, human rights and the refugee crisis. For example, one of the interactive murals in Manolis Anastasakos’s To Differ series is on the refugees coming into Greece. The artist drew the outline of the figures, while the colour was added by immigrants. It was viewed as a collaborative project of inclusion. Artist Fikos, 32, made a mural called, Bodies near the port of Piareus, the main port of Athens, showing a pile of naked bodies. “Thousands of refugees arrive at Piraeus from the Aegean islands. These are exhausted, sunburnt bodies, bodies carrying feelings, memories, hope, colours of the East, these bodies are stripped of everything,” says Fikos. Another moving mural at Exarcheia shows the image of queer and human rights activist, Zak Kostopoulos, who was lynched to death on the streets of Athens in September last year. It demands “justice for Zak/Zackie.”
“Street art is a form of resistance in Greece. The only necessity we recognise is the necessity of resistance in whatever way everyone thinks appropriate. We have chosen to express our truth and resist in a way that cannot be distorted,” says Brunette Boy. Street art is a form of activism. The thick angular fonts of the letters written on the walls suggest anger and frustration of the artists. But a lot of graffiti on the streets are also doodles difficult to decipher. Many see these doodles as vandalisation of public space. Gregory, a 29-year-old priest at Greek orthodox church in Monastiraki near Acropolis, says, “It’s all dirty. There is no message.”
According to Fikos, it’s Greek temperament that “confuses freedom with promiscuity.” “In Athens, literally everything is covered by tags. Unfortunately, Greeks are big fans of the triptych ‘cheap-fast-easy,’ so that’s another reason why we are seeing this huge production of graffiti but not as many big murals. Anyone could take a spray and do whatever he or she likes, not many want to work hard for years in order to develop a nice, mature painting style. Few would pay for that,” says Fikos. Yet, for many, street art renews hope — a hope to fight for a better life in Greece, a “dying” nation. “For us, street art is the same as freedom of speech,” says Psycho Brunette Boy.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 27, 2019 under the title ‘Liberty, equality, graffiti’. Sonia Sarkar is a Delhi-based writer.