Few months ago, interested in discovering other “European street art capitals“, I started researching on what could have been the most interesting foreign situations to be study and explore. Not that I was losing interest in my national scene, rather than I wanted a comparison: I needed to figure out in which direction things were going on abroad, what kind of attitude, events, experiments, initiatives, techniques were at the rage. The research, however, did not last long due to current jobs and other projects: at that time I started chatting with several foreigners, including a guy from Athens. I was particularly impressed while speaking of the local scene, he said, “you should absolutely visit my city: Athens is the new Berlin“. That phrase tempted me a lot.
Ironically, a few months later, because of random coincidences, meetings and invitations, the first two cities that I picked up were Berlin and Athens, and what should have been just a spin off from routine became an intense period of travels and discovers.
An intense journey of two weeks, which would have turned out to be both exciting and surprising, beyond any expectation. What I discovered there was exactly what the Greek guy told me.
An improvised week in Athens: more a challenge than a trip
Most of the people find organizing a trip stressful; as for me, it has always been easy and almost amusing. It was a child’s play to organize my last minute travel to Berlin and Athens in September, indeed. Firstly, I picked only Berlin, bought one-way ticket and booked an apartment: I was really tired because of intense work during the summer and writing, plus all my friends have already gone on holidays, but I was neither really excited, nor sure what to do after that. I had so many days-off in that period, before starting working again, so it was a crime to not use this advantage. Thus, considering invitations from friends and acquaintances, most of them street art lovers or artists, I was hesitating between Monaco and Athens; finally I found a very cheap flight (just 30 €!) from Berlin to Athens and that’s how I made my final decision. Before booking I’ve contacted, as I always do, a couple of local people, who were interested to meet-up and make themselves available for a street art. Moreover, I had been in Athens four years ago, and even if it was just for two days, I already loved the city. I couldn’t be happier to go back to Greece.
First three days: many kilometers, so much confusion, wonderful places
The first three days in Athens, I was a bit upside down because of the Germany-Greece change, two scenarios and two completely different climates, and because of the last sleepless night I spent in Berlin with 1UP and other writers, attempting to dive in the city and walking around without stopping. Since most of the appointments that I had scheduled were canceled, and I didn’t want to waste a single moment of my holiday, using Google Maps and Internet, including an interesting article by Giulia Glocal, I was challenged with a humid heat and roads with unpronounceable names and started visiting the most popular areas: Metaxourgeio, Gazi and some streets of Psyrri. I got lost several times, as it should be to explore a new city fully, and every day I was walking non-stop for more than seven hours. In these three chaotic days without rest, I tried to keep updated Urban Lives social networks, also to inform my readers; but, to be honest, I was confused – I’ve run into beautiful murals without recognizing the authors and I ended up publishing more muralisms artworks than street art and graffiti writing, exactly the opposite of what I usually do.
Only after this trip I came up with an idea that this uncertain beginning, however, full of emotions and discoveries, was still necessary: Athens is a great city, with a lot of diversity and great contradictions, and to understand it totally, like Rome, it must be explored widely, possibly with help of locals.
Besides of large walls of public art, some of them were technically and artistically really interesting, some others were badly made and disappointing, what really surprised me was the amazing amount of illegal art, which often corresponds to a high quality or otherwise some appreciable aspects, for what concerns creative and conceptual point of view. In the colorful streets of the city-center, you can come across every possible technique and representation: sticker, calligrams, colored stencils, posters, graffiti, in the most unexpected places, big lettering made with the fire extinguisher on the facades of abandoned buildings, political, controversial, cheerful, ironic, descriptive or site specific; most of graffiti are in greek and, therefore, mystifying to me unfortunately. I felt happily overwhelmed with all this creativity that much that I quickly got addicted to constant hunting for it through alleys of the city.
During my long walks I was also happy to discover a lot of street art by Italian friends, Bibbito, Astro Naut and Mr. Dada, who spent some time in Athens last summer, and a lot of graffiti from 1UP crew, who I’ve met just a week before that in Berlin.
The first confusing but compelling approach to the local street art scene has gone at the same place with the equally confusing but fascinating discovery of the city of Athens: I found a dreadful contrast between poor and wealthy areas, often close to each other – luxury restaurants and homeless near by, dirty streets of bad neighborhood and famous squares and monuments, spotless walls and panels full of tags and graffiti, modern buildings between abandoned houses. Moreover, Athens is a very chaotic city, it never stops, not even on Sunday. Except for some half-desert area, it seems that all citizens are constantly poured into streets and squares, a positive sign considering the period of crisis: people are eating at every hour of day and night, chatting, laughing and joking, on a bench or in one of many “meeting points”. The state of straitened circumstances of many is evident, but luckily, it is also clear that many people are reacting, struggling and move forward. And, in general, the situation is not much worse than in Italy.
Afternoon at the studio of Don Forty’s and Blaqk
A pleasant stop of these early days of street exploration, was the visit to the studio of Blaqk and Don Forty. Blaqk wasn’t there, so I spent the afternoon with Don Forty; although he was very busy with a job and required delivery, we spent 2-3 hours together, drinking beer and discussing bunch of stuff. We’ve been talking a lot about several subjects and many different aspects of street art.
Don Forty told me he had started painting on walls in 2002, both in the city and in abandoned factories. What he loves the most are the abandoned places; he likes drippings and improvisation, paint quickly, without sketches, always inspired with places and surfaces, using only stick, water and painting, nothing more. For him art is the expression of his emotions. His favorite subjects are animal and plant. One of his favorite artwork is called the “Black Forest“, an abandoned factory, entirely painted by him, where, abstract signs, water and natural elements make the place look even darker, almost ghostly, transporting the viewer into a gloomy landscape that flows water and life: more than just a mural, it’s a project, with great visual power.
Always attracted by the study of materials, Don Forty, recently, started focusing his works and his pictorial experiments on rocks and minerals.
Speaking of his artistic production, he talked a lot about his installations, created on specific themes and often built with natural elements such as branches and sand or other objects found on the street. He also showed me many collaborations with his friends Blaqk, whose artistic fusion creates a combination of abstract, figurative and calligrams.
Their studio is full of surprises: many experiments, some t-shirts and a lot of unique pieces, all are hand-made. He told me that in Greece there is no market for silk-screenings and prints, that’s why he prefers to sell original works.
Talking about the street art scene in Greece, he said that his favorite artists are Stelios Faitakis and Vasmoulakis, but that the Athenian scene of street art is big, unique and interesting; he also recommend me three names of artists to get in contact with in the following days. Long story short – it was a very interesting meeting! I hope I’ll meet him again sooner or later, and I’m sure he has the right stuff to success in the street art world.
Muralism and graffiti writing with JDL Street art and Ints
Another significant meeting of the first days in Atens was the one with the writer and “street artist” JDL Street art, a young and really talented female artist from Amsterdam, and Ints, graffiti writer from Athens. I’ve seen them painting together, and I spent a nice evening with them and other guys, aspiring writers. While talking about her mural, JDL explained me that the portrait of the woman belongs to a project; each artwork is a representation of a mix of cultures, a cocktail of two different ethnicities. Her aim is to shed light on issues such as discrimination and racism, especially in a city like Athens where the number of refugees is rising up every day and some of them are victims of abuses. The phrase below the mural, realized by Ints, is a clear invitation to reflect on rights and equality, “we are all children of the world”.
While pursuing with passion and talent her career as “muralist” the first great love of JDL is the graffiti writing: that night, we went out with Ints (who’s a writer since ’99 and a founder of PhattCaps, a “Worldwide Community Graffiti” born in 2012) for a small graffiti jam, in a half abandoned parking.
It was a good chance to chat with Ints about the great local graffiti writing scenes: he told me that there are plenty of crews and halls of fame. So many things to see in the city that he decided to help me with some tips, writing down on my notebook a (precious) list of shops, stations, neighborhoods, streets: must-see things to do to know better and admire local graffiti. I could follow and put into practice only a small part of his suggestions – another for sure will be useful for my next trip to Athens! During that night I also talked a lot with a group of young people, aspiring graffiti writers: these conversations were the firsts that made me realize how hard it is to live in Athens. All of them study and work hard, none of them has ever had money or an opportunity to travel, some told me that their biggest dream is to move to another country, but they don’t even have enough money for a low cost flight. However, they are group of close friends, positive people who needs to say express their opinions and creativity, with words or spray cans.
The very beginning: meeting Nar and other artists in Psyrri area
Despite some very nice people I’ve met and so many beautiful discoveries, the fifth day of my trip I was really tired and also a bit confused: great distances and no local guides had been really stressful, and I was also worried because I had just three days left before going back home, since I couldn’t find any cheap flight before Monday.
In the first days I sent messages to the three artists suggested by Don Forty to get in contact with, and I also sent friendship requests on Facebook, but I received no replies and I thought that maybe they were busy or simply offline. Waiting for a sign or something to happen I finally decided to visit Exarchia, the anarchist neighborhood of Athens. Some people exaggeratedly and erroneously described it as a place well known for criminals, and that “even take a picture there can be dangerous”. Let me say that it’s a total bullshit, as I discovered later. Anyway, deciding to ignore these opinions, I studied the best way to get there by foot: believe it or not, problems were faced not in Exarchia but in the area next to. I was being followed and approached over and over again by a guy on a motorbike: I kindly told him that I had an appointment with a friend of mine, in about twenty minutes. The guy, however, didn’t give up and continued to pursue me. When I understood his real intentions I said “fuck off” to him and walked away as quickly as possible… as a result, I got lost.
Luckily I left him behind and nothing bad happened but I decided to give up on going to Exarchia and instead to go to one of few metro stations that I remembered well, the one of Monastiraki. Although I wanted to get away as soon as possible, when I saw a mural on the left, I decided to ignore Google Maps and follow my instincts. What I found left me speechless: I realized that, by chance, I’ve finally found the heart of the Psyrri area, that I’ve been searching in vain in the days before, because it’s one of the must-see places for street art in Athens.
While taking some photos I saw a guy walking fast toward me, pointing at me, and asking whether I was Italian or not. I thought to myself, “here we go again, today is not my lucky day” but I answered jokingly and we started talking. After a few minutes he told me he was an artist whom I had sent the friendship request on Facebook to, and that he recognized me since he reminded my profile photo, especially thanks to my red hair and tattoos. I discovered that he’d never received my message, due to spam regulations, perhaps. It’s really true, good things happen when you least expect them: that accident encounter appeared to be the turning point of my stay in Athens. Iakovos Volkov (NAR), the artist’s name, was so nice to make himself available for a “street art tour” and was willing to answer to my questions about the local scene. Thanks to him, I could finally began a real exploration, starting from Psyrri and Metaxourgeio.
The “abandoned art” by Nar in an abandoned factory in Athens
The following day we decided to meet up early in the morning (“luckily” I had an insomnia at that time so it wasn’t such a big effort for me) to go exploring an abandoned factory, where there were some of his recent works; I couldn’t wait to see them! Before taking the metro we had breakfast, or better, he proposed to drink “the best orange juice in Athens”, and it was! Thanks to the big plastic glass and drinking straw (which I still have in my bag) we started a long and interesting chat about the impact of all these plastic debris on environment. The artist told me that there are very few people in Greece really conscientious about environmental issues, most of them just don’t know or don’t care.
I found an interesting connection between his care about pollution and his “abandoned art“, which is in situ and site specific, made with materials which most people throw away and been neglected next to garbage bins or in abandoned buildings and ex-industrial zones, found objects such as toys, shoes, fabric, fuel oil.
His art is a creative and symbolic way to recycle objects and to make people concerned about these issues. His installations got a strong communicative power; he put together found objects, with them he composes phrases, sometimes political, funny or erotic, and his works include the use of painting and sprays and other materials such as nails, buttons, wires. We spent the morning observing and taking photos of some of these works, which situated in a big abandoned factory. Once we got there I was surprised of an easy access, but he said that “the police are not interested in these things” a phrase that I’ll hear several time in the following days?, referring to graffiti and illegal street art in the city.
The factory was one of the most ruined I’d ever seen, but its three floors, the lack of entire walls and some parts of the ceiling and presence of perfectly preserved objects, made the place incredibly fascinating. What made the place even more impressive were original and surprising installations by Nar: columns and mattresses covered with brightly colored clothes, used blankets that belonged to refugees and letters dripping or glittering, had a strong emotional impact on me. That’s exactly what Iakovos wanted – an observer feels with his unexpected constructions: wonder. I couldn’t just wonder how much time, reflections and patience it took him for all these works; Iakovos confirmed, there is a hard effort behind every installation. As we walked through his artworks, through dusty rooms frozen in time, he told me that he does his best every single time, for each installation, “as if it was the last, his masterpiece”. While I was admiring the factory I also took some pictures of some beautiful abstract works by Blacq. Once we finished the tour we went back to Psyrri, where we spent the whole afternoon with other artists, wondering around the area, going back and forth from a fantastic bakery where I could finally taste some typical dishes; moreover, I spent the remaining time in two urban art galleries, also known as Exit and Sarri 12.
Finally, I could experience the real Athens, talking to people, living like them, discovering opinions, habits and much more. It would have been only a sneak preview of the next perfect day, the last one of my trip.
The real Athens: Exarchia and local artists in Psyrri
Looking back now at that moment, it seems almost unbelievable how many experiences I lived, how many people I have spoken to and how many things I’ve seen in a single day.
I started a day with the long-awaited visit to Exarchia, must-see rebellious and anarchist area. For many years artists from all over the world have been in this area, painting freely everywhere around, thanks to the allowing local politics. So many different street art, which often (but not always) support dissent, political and social protest.
The best way to explore the area is to wander and get lost in its alleys: even if I spent there about two hours, I’m pretty sure I’ve probably missed half of street art works and graffiti writing… well, it’s another good reason to come back!
The “art bombing” literally make your head spin and take your breath away, especially some roads and some impressive facades of palaces, completely covered with graffiti and murals.
The next stop was again Psyrri, where I met Iakovos and other artists. They seemed more than a group of artist friends; they looked like a family to me. All of them deeply connected because of the common passion for art and attachment to street, and because they all have a positive and cooperative attitude. They really made me feel at home and done everything possible to show me their everyday life with its pros and cons.
Almost all of them come from graffiti writing and never stop painting in the streets. If the attitude towards the road is the same for all of them, they are diverged with techniques, styles and, above all, messages; not only protest but irony, happy and positive messages. “United we stand, divided we fall”, that seems to be one of the most relevant quality of this scene of street art, as probably a few in Europe. They help each other, compare one with another, ask for advices, collect ideas and look together for inspiration, work on common projects, fight together, stay focused on the art, experiment together, trying not to think about money issues. The difficulties are obvious, some of them, despite the low prices, had to quit drinking alcohol and smoking, someone has three jobs, someone sleeps three hours a night to have enough time for studying and art, and someone has creative kind of jobs. But they never stop smiling.
To better understand the local scene they recommended me a documentary movie filmed two years ago, and I recommend it to you as well, is called Alive in Concrete, by George Gounezos.
What is also obvious is the common disappointment and anger for almost complete absence of initiatives and events for artists, especially in the city of Athens, a little less in the other “headquarter of street art”, Thessaloniki.
In Athens artists regret the past; couple of years ago there were initiatives such as “No Respect“, a group exhibition with 40 graffiti writers and street art artists, and places like the cultural center, now closed, “Onassis Cultural Center”, or the Beach Street Festival, a big international meeting with street music & graffiti jams, in the island of Lesbos.
They also complained that in the last two years, occasional local initiatives, are involving almost exclusively foreign artists, cutting off the local scene. But no matter how much troubles they have to face, what you’ll find in Athens is a positive atmosphere and a great will to roll up the sleeves and to seek or create new opportunities.
Apart from common projects and acts, of course they work hard for personal artistic career and success. Many of them travel abroad or exhibit both in Athens and in other cities, in solo or group exhibitions. The artists who I’ve had the great pleasure to know are Exit (thanks for the nice chats!), Cacao Rocks and N_Grams, of whom I had visited the respective studios, This is Opium, the tattoo artist and graffiti writer Zofos, Pars, who gave me a lot of information about the Street Art and Graffiti Festival of Thessaloniki.
What really impressed me were the simplicity, helpfulness and kindness of all of them, the availability to chat and show me their works or pieces on the street. I’ll always be grateful to Exit for showing me an illegal piece by Os Gemeos (some of my favorite artists), otherwise it could be unbelievable and impossible to find it by myself.
That day was really exciting and full of emotions, but also chats (also on the Italian scene), falafel and beers. The afternoon ended in the studio of Cacao Rocks, all sitting in a circle and chatting, I must admit that was really hard and sad to farewell all of them.
At the end of the day, before coming back home, I had a last chat with Iakovos/Nar. He spoke a lot also about a next project in Italy, and after that we said goodbye to each other at the metro station. Once again, as in Berlin, I walked home with tears in my eyes, both for sadness and happiness, with mixed feelings, memories and thoughts, but, most of all, with the feeling that I was deeply connected to that city, a bond that cannot be broken. I sighed happily, waiting for the imminent return to the complicated, lively, rebellious, beautiful city of Athens.
Photo credits: Ivana De Innocentis