Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Artistic graffiti


   "We just make art" - before and after the store was made empty in Dec. 2013

Spaces need not to appear desolate. Rather they can indicate a way to go forward, provided this newly opened up space is used wisely. An indication thereof may be how in a period of crisis empty shops become new spaces for artists contemplating what to say at this time. Naturally these art works do not last long. New owners come, clean out the store and with it the traces of art. All the more it is crucial to make some observations about these ongoings changes. To this can be added the distinction in need to be drawn between graffiti as art and defacement of walls. Altogether once artists start to express themselves, graffiti transforms itself into public art.


              Signature besides a hair dresser saloon

Something signified, Derrida would contemplate, entails more meanings than what appears at the surface to be the case. This applies all the more to that type of graffiti which combines art and design to create a kind of logo which is easy to spot and functions like an advertisement sign. Naturally there can come immediately counter moves. The graffiti displayed along the walls of Athens and elsewhere shows this opposition to official set norms can bring about other forms of expressions immediately. Like a prompt reply, it does not take long and an entire white washed wall is transformed into a display of different signals and signs not necessarily linked to the immediate surrounding, but much more to the collective sense of responsibility and memory. As an appeal, it requires to be as frank as possible but equally subtle, if the message is to be brought across. Thus many modern expressions end up in a design like limitation. It suggests a dilemma prevails between the wish to do something about a specific issue but due to not being organized, the organized side of society appears to be much stronger than what needs to be the case. This is only because so many other people seem not to respond in such a way that the entire movement would take on a collective weight in the deliberation of terms spelling out under which conditions things can continue. That means development itself is perceived as being in a haze like state and the number of disenchanted people on the increase. There is one specific reason for this: the misconception of space leading to further misuse of especially public spaces.

There prevails a consensus not only amongst architects, but equally amongst urban planners, philosophers, educators and others that all this is due to one crucial aspect, namely use space has been neglected by the Greek educational system. This lack of sense shows itself not only in how buildings have been constructed, but what kind of behaviour in the streets and public places prevails. It is not unusual for sidewalks to be occupied by all kinds of objects, including parked motor cycles. There seems to prevail hardly any or no consideration at all for other people. Likewise at visual and logistical levels moving about seems to be constantly interrupted as something else tends to interfer. The outcome can be easily such a desorientation that even taxi drivers do not know where are side streets as their maps like everyone else relies on familiarities and thereby engageds in quite another mapping exercise than what is assumed on the official side when studying and designing roads and spaces in order to keep traffic flowing and letting people walk about safely. It seems as if graffiti contradicts this enshrined way of moving about to do business.

Given Michel Foucault's wise remark, namely "it is an art to create space without occupying it oneself", an exploration of the artistic side of graffiti in Athens requires another look as to what is happening in the various streets and along a variety of walls or surfaces. For already aesthetical considerations enter when those doing 'code poetry' look at the texture and immediate surroundings of walls, in order to see what colours they have and what would, therefore, be more conduicive for such a tag. An artistic creation of any kind does not go on just any wall, but requires as well a really good texture for the paint or else a combination of creation and 'natural' elements an abandoned house can entail. Important is as well a resolute standpoint.

Unknown artist transforming graffiti into performance - Bansky

Over time, there is a preference for certain spaces to become more noticable. What catches the eye, what provokes, what is more subtle, what underlines thoughts of the passer-bys? Graffiti artists no longer take to just empty spaces in tunnels or offered by freight trains. Rather artistic graffiti has been making their way into the city. It includes mysterious graffiti artists whose works become over night invaluable, so that the owner of the place protects this work of art rather than let it be destroyed by someone else painting over it or a construction company coming to pull down that piece of wall to make way for a new housing estate.

For instance, the Guardian reports about graffiti artist Bansky doing guerilla like attacks in New York. Since he has remained anonymous, all the more mysterious whenever his art works show up the next day. (See http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/oct/19/banksy-new-york-graffiti-art)


The artist as surfer of time

Insofar as graffiti reflects changing times, the artist can be perceived like a surfer in especially depleted areas or where unused spaces lend themselves easily to marked expressions calling for a new kind of attentivitiy. Such is the nature of artistic graffiti, that they mark a time zone. For the space at that specific location finds itself in-between becoming completely downgraded and being pulled down or erased to make way for something new. Thus graffiti takes place in-between these times of development. They reflect the changes spaces undergo and which are about to enter the next phase of transition.

As signatures of time, graffiti bridges the before with what is to come. Even when the overall perspective of the city has been tilting towards the gloomy or negative side as if the future does not entail any promise to become free from a depressing urban environment, the graffiti translates this emptiness into a space to be used to express something which captures the present moment. Out of this much more can be developed. It is like the discovery of new potentialities, or to what other and better use this space can be made. Naturally a contradiction is involved nevertheless. While art knows no progress, those principles which will justify the next intervention i.e. tearing down of the abandoned house to make space for a new development project, will have to claim that they are developing the area. But making use of something and developing things in a better way are two different things. Rather a marcation by a graffiti offers an artistic view of what might be claimed but which can appraised aesthetically and political-philosophically. For it is not necessarily the case that the new development shall be progressive. This is especially the case if it takes away space and lets 'the lines of creativity' vanish. Klaus Heinrich referred to them, in order to explain what fascinates architects. For they do not like to look so much at a completed building but rather prefer to retain a visibility of their lines of thoughts which led them to that design. This is why a half completed or half destroyed building reveals much more of those moments of inspirations. These lines of thoughts can be translated intuitively by the graffiti artist into what has been called before a signature of these times.

No other art form is so much dependent upon this form of time. It seems as if graffiti cannot even grow grey hair. Even before it may have declared itself to be redundant time sweeps over it weather wise but also by others painting over. That was especially the case along the Berlin Wall, but does not apply, generally speaking. For graffiti artists would also add their own signatures to claim this space to be theirs. Territorial marcations will follow such claims. 

However, there is no convincing argument for permanence wall use inherent in the very act when doing graffiti art. Generally speaking, it is recognized that it is but a temporary art form subject to changes outside the personal control of the artist. Practically concessions are made to various outside forces: weather, seasonal changes, other works, responses by onlookers. All this can lead to new acts of effacement.  

Graffiti does declare the entire city to be a gallery. When that happens, everything outside becomes a public space. Usually it begins when a looming and sordid emptiness is so revolting that it needs being commented upon. That shows also a way to succumb to a kind of temptation, namely the inability to leave alone or empty a space. Especially such a space cannot be left alone if it screams out what everyone feels as being essentially urban life. Graffiti seems to be more than anything else an urban trauma working itself out.

Consequently a debate about graffiti being art or not has set in without making a clear distinction between kinds of responses which are possible and manifestations of protest. Moreover in alignment with many other forms of expressions which go along with protest movements while seeking at the same time a much more daring and enduring form of expression, there prevails a reason for a graffiti becoming an artistic expression.

Given all the violence in the city, people tend to express a desire for and a need of what is called in German 'Zärtlichkeit' - gentleness. A poetess in Chile would give her collection of poems in the wake of Pinochet's bloody coup in 1973 the title 'Zärtlichkeit'. It entails as much a gentle kiss as it does flower petals weighing in the wind. Equally a woman can be surprised by a man she thought until then to be just rough and uncouth, when he suddenly touches her in such a gentle way that her entire body quivers. Normally this contradiction between the soft and the hard has been called by George Steiner in the wake of National Socialism as the likely 'ennui' in the arts, and by which he means the sensitivity of the arts may not contradict or be strong enough to prevent someone from doing something violently the very next day. He called it a puzzle.


Prohibited blossoming of gentle expressions

      Group depicted as seeking 'common ground'

Marginalised and impoverished people seldom cry. Life is tough but they harden over time. Amazing is how they cope and with what they put up with. Their tolerance for others goes much farther than any tolerance those can show or demonstrate when driving past those sitting around a fire to warm themselves during a cold night. The angle of perception matters. So do materials not merely used but an outcome of weather and time passing by. The reworked wall is then no longer a mere background, but becomes an integral part of wishing to say more than metaphorical pieces can allude to. That is why significant in this mural painting of a group of people is as well the person in blue pants who appears to be underneath the blanket. Also noticable is the meditation like posture of many of those sitting around in a circle like form while many of the faces are hardly recognizable - a possible illusion that poverty wipes out the personal identity.

In midst of a city constantly in turmoil with people ending up in collective situations such as cafes, this group depicts another distance to the usual behaviour. Each of the figures has a unique identity through what action it performs. Above all the gestures of the hands remind what Giotto did to show one thing unifies people, and that is 'human pain' expressed best through a common link made explicit by the gestures of the hands. If such a strong compositional element is included then it can be called for sure an art work.

To have such a treasure on the wall while having been given freely says something about how life is valued in the city of Athens around this time. The modest gesture reminds symbolically of Egon Schiele since some of the figures approach that skin of the nearly dead people. The skin colour entails the colour of chalk over the rusty colour of the still existing but soon vanished blood.

All the more important is when graffiti art turns to other colours to show that there exist still other ways to materialise life. What Kokoschka did when making his portraits was to rip off the impression of the whole face pieces which he would then re-unite in a wild mixture of colours as if they would reveal contours. And stepping back, they do indeed give body to the impression. Something happens in such a moment of perception. It takes time to take the eyes off the wildness and to find a place in the human universe.

             Face by unknown artist                                    @HF    Athens 2013

What surprises, and even shocks is how the lines running through the face delineate and connect at one and the same time. There is some ambivalence in the use of such lines as they speak with the clearly marked fields by a specific colour. As if no conclusion has been reached, the story of the face continues to tell an unheard of story by means of the expressions in the eyes. They suggest a dreamer or someone who is not sure if not blind on one eye. The latter has always been a powerful metaphor for those who do not wish to see the full picture of reality. But it may also a way of letting the other escape since there is a pretense in that left eye either closed or even so absent that it can evoke the image of an eye gone completely blind.

The technical answer to this question of seeing what is not seen even if by agreement, that reflects survival needs. As the video documentarist Slawomir Grünberg said he had to pretend not to see everything at the street corner in New York where he was selling nuts to make a living. Had he insisted on seeing what he saw, he would not walk out of that square alive. (That was around 1981 when martial law had been declared in Poland and he could not return - he happened to be in the United States at that time - for otherwise he would have been arrested.)

If graffiti can bring out such real life experiences, then it adds another dimension to these urban settings in which many questions are played out while the times are being experienced and characterized as if constituting if not a whole, then something which allows for an understanding of the times lived through.

Quite another portrait is following artistic work since set into such an amazing tone of colour that another kind of strangeness seems to sweep over the entire face.


       "1 Kilo I want" - "Bonfire for my body"

This image entails more than just a simple estrangement for a life which has lost apparently the means to provide food, and may it be merely a can of tuna fish, and some heat to keep away both hunger and cold. The anarchist signature on the jacket trades a glance with where the slogan '1 Kilo I want' is written. For like a tattoo the deprived sense is engraved in a strange figure or expression thereof. Most likely it is due to the colour. It lends to the entire expression some association with the orient even though the hat suggests as metaphor still another kind of cartoon like resemblance with 'Michel': a German figure depicted always with a typical ski-hat (Mütze). Artistically placed is the still life in the background i.e. the already mentioned tin can with 'Tuna' written on it. That the painting of the face interacts with a written text in both the English and Greek language signifies even more so a strong wish to communicate to both worlds as they are needed to explain the current predicament.

Artist together with children

Artistic attempts can include the painting of an entire house wall. Such initiatives can take place within the neighbourhood and therefore in knowledge of all as to who did it. This is the case of artist Alexandra Nassioula who let children under her guidance or rather attentive presence go ahead and literally climb like flowers do the wall.

 Alexandra Nassioula and children on Dafnomili               completed in Oct. 2013

The wall which was painted exists vis a vis the entrance to Alexandra Nassioula's atelier. She is known in the neighborhood since passer-bys can catch a glimpse of her atelier since on the groundfloor. She is located vis a vis a local supermarket with the owner Nikos often putting out a little table and chair in front of his store. Soon his neighbours and customers sit down to enjoy with him the occasional coffee or beer. Alexandra Nassioula often crosses the street to take a break, cigarette and a cup of coffee the most prefereed. Alone this familiarity with the surrounding area gives a different flavour to what might have prompted her to undertake with children suddenly one day to do that art work on that wall. Already the curvature of the wall is enticing. It reminds of the Bauhaus like architecture which led to the design of many Athenian houses in that area. A rounded corner invites to all kinds of interesting interventions but this kind is unique as it seeks to transform this space into an organic like setting filled with flowers. Especially their petals stand out. They seem as if star fishes which have come out of the water and fastened themselves onto the wall. Their colours glitter. The explosion of colours does remind as well of how they would paint and decorate things in Mexico or some other Latin American country. In some ways, the wish to enliven a space felt overwise to be dead or just negative can be felt.

Hatto Fischer


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