Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Graffiti in Exarchia and Athens

A lonely face in Exarchia, Athens January 2011                         @ Hatto Fischer



Graffiti draws attention to slogans which in turn illuminate upon the image. Some of them speak about the need to destroy everything while certain people should be freed from jail. But this form of protest and demand is not so wide spread as generally assumed. For quite a few of the graffiti are linked to 'writings on the wall' which reflect more despair, agony, fear or else just rage. Naturally many of these graffiti can be interpreted as making a direct political statement.

Generally speaking, it appears that much of the graffiti owes its origin to such social and political conditions no longer easy to bear either as an individual or as a group. Like the graffiti along the former Berlin Wall, it may even amount to a search for an exit door from a system applying an ever more coercive logic. Hence in many graffiti a lot of anguish is being expressed over so much helplessness vis a vis a nearly anonymous world. The latter is perceived as being highly indifferent to the plights and worries of so many people, especially migrants and youth in particular.

Once despair and anger translate themselves into graffiti, it marks a kind of outcry best described as 'silent screams'. They ricochet off the walls especially in a city like Athens, and more so in Exarchia. The latter is a special district of Athens. Besides many abandoned or depleted houses, there exist multiple narrow or confined urban spaces. In that district of Athens prevails as well a long political history. Always things are happening there and which can spill over at any given moment into the streets and squares.      

Altogether the streets of Athens and Exarchia are no longer how the city looked like in 2004 when the Summer Olympic Games were held, for then everything - side walks, squares, even many houses - had been beautified. Rather the first impression anyone can get when walking through the streets is that a lot of graffiti or tagging of walls catches the eye. A high variety of expressions, some distinct and direct, others abstract or even incomprehensible, have transformed houses and streets. Graffiti has become a general part of the city's fabric with an overall tendency to express through graffiti any dispute one may have with the state or how the Greek crisis has been handled so far.

The city as open space gallery

Literally speaking, graffiti and anything else put on walls transforms the entire city into a kind of open space gallery. Over time, what is written on the wall reflects in very real terms existing tension fields. Graffiti, but also the tagging or stencilling of walls tends to depict what issues people have to face or shall not put up with any longer. The images and writings on the walls amount to another kind of outcry in public when compared to what had been traditional forms of criticism and protest such as newspapers and journals. Now the street is transformed into a kind of public theatre. It is a stage for everybody and used by those who wish to declare foremost a huge dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs.


    Street gallery on Oct. Merlier Street                                               Jan. 2014

As was the case with murals along the Berlin Wall, once graffiti is painted on a wall, it amounts to a declaration that this is public space and anyone is free to express him- or herself in this space. Regardless whether or not that is really legal, the claim is upheld by just doing it i.e. spraying onto the wall something. It amounts automatically to a form of protest against a state or municipal authority asserting quite another public order. The latter is linked to laws which have been designed and passed to protect private and public property, and therefore are based on a value system which a majority of people no longer adhere to.

So far public space had prompted a certain public behaviour. Especially in Greece it is expected that archaeological sites and their artefacts or monuments are respected, equally accessible to the public and all this due to this heritage having taken on over time a certain value. Basically the demand for a respectful conduct underlines what needs to be upheld, if there is to be a continuity of existence and of identity.

Of interest is how this expectation does play a role in how archaeological sites and other public objects are treated. Consequently big disturbances in public and collective behaviour can be expected if the Greek state would proceed to privatize these sites as part of the austerity measures adopted, in order to manage somehow a crisis spun out of control due to nearly insurmoutable debts. Already a different behaviour thereof was observed by a Greek curator when she visited Malta and saw when stepping out of the cathedral, a major cultural heritage site, that the people entered immediately a private zone, a cafe, so that it was no longer clear what was public and where the commercial zone started. As a result people left rubbish everywhere and thereby degraded both the private and public spaces.

With regards to public behaviour, it is of significant interest that the Metro in Athens has largely remained free from vandalism. Even though during some demonstrations which turned violent in recent years and therefore some of the marble at the entrance was torn out, it meant that this technical neutral system has been adopted completely by the population. The system is even fondly nick-named as the 'metro running through museums'.

Likewise the cultural consensus prevailed for a long time in Greece that free access to the sea has to be the Right of everyone. Yet during the period of expansion of a city like Athens and the development of second homes along the sea side, this Right has been violated more and more. Private houses and clubs lay claim to the beach in a way which denies access to any person not belonging to the privileged. It underlines a link between exclusive rights and exclusion and which functions contrary to EU principles designed to promote a reflective and inclusive society.

Given the importance of public space in which everyone can debate and be informed about what laws are being proposed as used to be the case in Ancient Greece with the Polis being based on 'active citizenship', this has been neglected far too long in Greece. The lack thereof touches as well upon the role the media plays and whether or not a free, equally independent press guarantees that governments stay accountable to the public.

Even before the crisis broke out fully into the open and Greece making constantly headlines, democratic governance was far from being a reality. As a matter of fact, many Greeks are double bounded by both family and a political party with little or no space given to people so that they can inform and articulate themselves independent from this super-ego like organizational structures. Notably the philosopher Jürgen Habermas drew early enough attention to serious consequences in alterations of 'public openness'. He noted a steady deterioration in publicness due to media tycoons like Berlusconi or Murdoch influencing single handed the news. Consequently Habermas declared that this development amounts to transforming a free press into a news- and information network based primarily on imagines and which ends in a 'pathology of communication'. This modern form of 'sickness' has yet to be understood.

In historical terms, public spaces are subject to change. For example, the national park in Athens is now open to the public. It is located just besides the Greek parliament at Syntagma Square and includes Zappeion, the official meeting place of the government. It was once the private garden of the king of Greece. Along that line the question can be posed whether graffiti is about the change the public sphere once again, and therefore calls for a change of behaviour? It might be the intention of a number of graffiti, but many tend to blur at the same time the distinction between private and public. They do so at the risk to negate the values which have been attributed until now to both spheres and which call for a distinct individual as well as collective behaviour.


                       Image of B. Hughes in Belfast's street gallery

As graffiti tends to alter the sense of space within the confinements of city streets and houses lining those streets, there will have to be asked what all of this amounts to? For instance, the wall murals in Belfast have become not merely a permanent feature of the city but they scream out constantly allegiance to either the Catholic or Protestant side. When walking through these streets the impact can be felt. It is like keeping everyone in a kind of frenzy only to be experienced likewise once constantly exposed to or being bombarded by the same kind of propaganda.

Any wish to point out to supporters of graffiti that this involves as well vandalization or would destroy the aesthetical tension in the streets of Athens, would encounter immediately fierce arguments and denials that this would be the case. Supporters of graffiti justify it out of political reasons but this is in need to be explored. Altogether they are more than a mere expression made visible in the streets.

Consequently one interpretation has it that graffiti reflects a battle not only against the existing order, but more so it entails a conflict of values once a society has become engulfed in an 'economic war'. The latter has left so many wounded by a largely 'invisible violence', the lack of money perhaps the clearest indication of a general malaise. People suffer in terms of dignity and self-pride once all values are equated only with money and therefore a person apparently nothing worth once found to be without money. This was not always the case, especially when Greece enjoyed still a variety of independent existences based on just living outside any dwelling, that is beside the sea and underneath some olive tree spending shade. Once trapped inside the urban grid and exposed solely to images transported by the media, there is lost a dialectic between sense perception and intellect. It may explain why the sense of wonder is missing and with it the ability to think freely. As a slogan would put it, in the city one is forced to think about everything, including death.


          "In the same endlessly declining city, but we never spoke about death"                                                                                 Exarchia 22.January 2014

Although a Greek poet observed already in the 1930's that amongst the men playing cards, there was always one fellow who would always win, namely death, this complex expression may ressonate much more with what goes through the minds of everyone more strongly since the death of Alexandros on Dec. 6th 2008.

Altogether graffiti and the writing on the walls reflect what happens once the city is transformed into a visual battle ground between alternate ways to relate to the current situation. This does include expressions of rising tensions between those seeking local identities while everyone feels the pressures coming from European and global interests. The conflicts and scars thereof are shown on the walls in multiple ways. Equally they reflect what ideas of reality have become in the meantime a common acclaimed truth. That is why most of the graffiti and the writing on the walls address something already known but which until now no one dared to or could address in such an open way, that is in public i.e. in the open spaces of streets and squares.

Interestingly enough such a way to address others runs counter to a society dominated by one kind of media based on assumptions of 'virtual reality' being more effective as medium of communication and advertisement. Naturally the latter is directly linked to quite another wish on influencing people in behaviour, consumption patterns and general attitudes towards a variety of things, including life in the city and the way it is being governed.

Graffiti seeks to change the sense of communication as it alters the image making processes within the collective sub-consciousness. The latter is much more subject to a mix of opinions expressed between taxi drivers or what civil servants explain to their wives and children at home than an objective expression of something novel. It is based on rumours and follows the path of various narratives with the archive of ERT, the public television station which was shut down by Samaras of Nea Democratia in 2013, critical for upholding memories thereof. That archive contains 80 years of history not only at national, but as well at regional and local level. It includes remote areas and has preserved in a unique way Greek identity in a subtle way. Despite repeatedly being object of various political efforts to influence ERT and thereby risking to make it highly inefficient, its core journalists and workers have been able to uphold something with which many Greeks could identify with. They would do so in a simple and quiet way as many can sing along once in radio or television music by Theodorakis and composed to poems by Ritsos could be heard. So graffiti tries to invoke another memory path without which there cannot be found a path into the future.

Too many archives have either been burned or are neglected, so that the Greek society is weak in its real memory base. Besides recordings can easily be falsified or media strategies are substantiated by other less obvious campaigns but still effective to set facts straight. Insofar as they do have an impact upon public opinion they end up distorting primarily the truth since only negative contents are believed. Thus what is to be found on nearly all walls is some kind of writing which shows that the movement seeks to fight back at collective level and thereby bring about an active memory base.

There is one prime danger. For once graffiti is no longer art but a political message, the message turns immediately into something which is equivalent to an anti-state, anti-politics articulation of dismay. To what extent such disgust leading on to outright rejection can be considered to be a well founded criticism of current state of affairs, that is highly doubtful. Most of the time, a painful experience made in confrontation with the authorities is followed by rage and then after a hard confrontation with reality, often in the form of protest against the police, a lack of knowing appears to lead to a collapse of all efforts. There remains but the typical expression of "let's see what shall happen!"

Various groups exist within this overall movement and which have different levels of sophistication, the Autonomous group perhaps among the most literary and theoretically orientated ones.

Still, there is a need to connect to such a political culture which would allow the emancipation of 'theory' in order to reflect reality from different angles of perception, and at the same time learn to question not only the more obvious, but primarily the hidden assumptions of the system. The latter expresses itself in the form of a well adapted jargon pretending to be the common self-understanding, when in fact it is but a bare imitation of so-called successful models linked to how business is made internationally.


  Anti-Fascist graffiti of Autonomous group         Petrouralli Street January 2014 

Once the entire city is used as a kind of open or public gallery, it amounts by any stretch of the imagination to a 'radical' transformation of urban space. The city is perceived thereafter as a kind of giant bulletin board on which all kinds of messages can be posted. Depicted on the walls are as well declarations as to who is the enemy in this invisible battle against fear. Some also name cases of death due to state violence and link this to such injustices which are not reflected upon adequately or at all by the usual news media. Consequently graffiti seeks to address the people while in the streets. It is done on the basis of a vague hope what stands on the wall shall reach them, and if not consciously, then subconsciously. That puts, however, the communication strategy of the entire movement into a very weak position.

As a saying goes, not many people are able to look behind the scenes and still manage to live without loss of faith in humanity. All the more the risk of the political graffiti to be found everywhere in the city. For it seeks to tear off that veil of pretence any state may have in seeking a civil type of governance and thus by destroying all forms of trust expose civil order to some real dangers existing in society once all give in to violence to settle scores. That risk is intensified by hideous forms of assertions as if the police in the street means immediately dictatorship. Once a public truth about democracy cannot be found apparently or is at least not convincing enough in the crisis, then people are ready to give up principles of freedom. They can turn to forms of coercion and dictatorial methods to unite people in militant groups which only deny the diversity of the human being. In the end, it would let Cassandra like cries rise up to the sky above the city for all the screams on the walls went unheard.

In that sense society becomes as well polarized and revives in Greece the still not overcome traumas of a civil war during which the Right fought against the Left, and vice versa and this with a greater verocity than what Greeks had experienced under German occupation. While in Germany there have been created at least groups which try to motivate youth and others to get out of right wing radical groups, in Greece confrontation and street battles between the Left and the Right reoccur now more regularly. After the rapper Pavlos Fyssas had been stabbed to death by one member of Chrysi Avgi on Tuesday to Wednesday, 18. September 2013, there were shot to death two of their members on November 1st, 2013. It amounts to an escalation of the confrontation which has taken on many forms of direct fights in the streets. But since the arrest of the leader of Chrysi Avgi and some others, a political group which had managed to gain 18 seats in Greek Parliament during the election held in June 2012, provocations and angry fights have become more tactical, even though often pride and stubborness are involved just as much. Thus chase is given by the one side of the other without ever asking how could this kind of estrangement amongst Greeks themselves become such a violent struggle once again?


            "No title"                                                   Exarchia January 2014

The Anarchists and others like the Autonomous group oppose most distinctively and clearly the threat of a Neo-Fascist movement to dictate once again what people can say and do in public.

By 2014 the situation has become so grave, that the writing on the wall underlines with just one line that only either/or alternatives exist. In political terms, the intention is obvious, namely to declare that there is no real choice for the real alternative is 'self understood':


           "Either Nazi or human being"        Alkmenisstreet 17.1.2014

Much reflective of the crisis is another 'either/or' put up as an alternative on the wall: either get busy living or get busy dying.


            On wall of the German church, Lycabettou                      2013-14

This latter alternative reflects the feeling of those the crisis in 2014 has become 'crunch time', or as one observer would put it either you make it or the crisis shall destroy you. The answer to that is, of course, 'destroy to create' as if old artistic slogans are suddenly revived especially when walking through the Plaka and in seeing in almost every corner some kind of graffiti.

In reality, many walls are either a part of private houses or an essential wall of a public building. In both cases, legal issues are involved. To this the movement behind the graffiti have yet to articulate a clear position while on the other side municipal authorities all over the world have tried and failed to contain this movement. At the same time, cleaning up operations are costly. Often such paint spray is used which the wall absorbs and, therefore, even when trying to paint over it, still the original writing can be seen through the various layers of what amounts now to a cover-up of a different order. The latter may best be understood by what Michel Foucault called the choice of words to designate things: 'les mots et les choses!'

When listening to arguments against graffiti or else justifying it, there have to be added still other dimensions of considerations. One dimension not to be neglected is the aesthetical reflection, another is what amounts to a contradiction. For inscriptions on any wall of a private house contradict the intention of the owner who wanted that the freshly painted walls stay empty i.e. are not assailed. It is still another matter, if a historical monument is vandalized. Altogether all these inscriptions on walls reflect in turn different notions of historical memory. For encountered but also struggled against are tendencies to forget many details which make up the life of a society.

In that sense, many monuments display how official recognition works in favour of the established order and what amounts often to a national narrative by highlighting the so-called heroes of great battles and political fights. All this seems for today's youth to be rather hollow and empty when compared to what memories of inflicted injustices a protest movement wishes to bring to the attention of the general public. In that sense, it amounts to a battle about memories just as disputes on how to name streets reflect more than a mere preference.

People have good reasons to object a street to be called after Stalin or Hitler even though a political system reveals itself as well by naming reality only in a certain way. The latter may be the outcome of structures of ambivalence designed to keep people in a situation of not knowing fully what is happening in reality. Alone such hesitation works generally in favour of those wishing to keep power to themselves and at the exclusion of the majority of people push through such decisions which create facts on the ground.

What is most stimulating, equally of importance about Graffiti is that it reveals through its more realistic language something which cannot be smothered or suppressed so easily anymore. It is out in the open. From there it is another question as to what keeps alight the creative spirit. What surprises is that even if the times are not at all favourable for such expressions on walls, it is still done very often with a kind of humour which has a human touch to it. And humour is also a good way to show opposition.


             "Now she is mine" (English phrase written in Greek)   11.2.2014

The very indication of these and many other controversies says simply that graffiti is not apolitical. Nor does graffiti strive to be innocent. Rather graffiti shows best what plays out in the realm of public space once aesthetical and political factors are conjoined. It reflects the assumption something beautiful needs to be truthful while the ugly can be linked to political attempts to distort the vision of the human being.

Altogether graffiti take on and assume another role when it comes to diffusing knowledge about not only as to what is happening right now, but as well what needs to be done e.g. paying attention to what happens to migrants in detention centres as something the general public likes to ignore.

Above all, graffiti in the sense of an art work amounts to seeking another kind of balance not only between the private and the public, but also as to what is being proclaimed in public mainly by those with power and not being said by the majority as there prevails the fear to speak up in public. In that sense, graffiti turns into a visual contradiction of official versions issued by the governing power and counters in the process as well versions taught at school and passed on from generation to generation as to what legitimises apparently the existing power structures. Like most of the monuments reflecting but one historical narrative, graffiti is brought about by a wish to create more options in how the story is told. Hence they are created by a consciousness as to what is apparently not available to everyone.

Consequently the dispute along the walls indicates best that the social contract which was signed in 1974 after Greece emerged out of dictatorship has never ensured 'social justice'. To this false compromise which that social contract entails the graffiti on the walls of Athens says simply 'no'. It is, therefore, not at all surprising that the writings on the wall underline one basic fact: a liveable compromise between different forces in society has not been found as of yet. Hence the need to strive for a 'revolution':


             "Revolution"                                             Voulis Street. 11.2.2014

Whether or not graffiti amounts to a kind of 'work in progress' towards such a balance, a lot depends upon whether or not these spontaneous impulses of protest on the walls can create an environment which is conducive to change, and thereby open to working out a new social contract. For this is needed a mature understanding of what compromise entails, or as the Greek poetess Katerina Anghelaki Rooke puts it in the form of a question, 'when is a compromise not something to be refuted on moral grounds?' If that is any indication of things still in need to be enhanced and to be worked on, then it is the articulation of an ethical vision. The latter has to be linked to such notion of democracy which does make sense to everyone.

It goes without saying, such a compromise must entail a sense of humour for the human being in society is never perfect, but mistakes and incompleteness not withstanding, it does make a difference if everyone allows the dialectic between public space and public truth to mean as well the freedom to question the opinion of the other. If dogmatic truths fail to uphold the democratic spirit needed if contradictions are to be worked out peacefully, then this dimension of 'non violence' has also to be taken much more serious than what is the case right now within the larger protest movement.


   "Red Wolf" at corner Asklipiou and Didotou Street              January 2014

The graffiti to be found nowadays throughout Exarchia and Athens indicates this form of expression along walls has left remote and abandoned spaces used in the past. Instead graffiti has spread out, moved into the centre of the city and from there reached into the different suburbs. Wherever one happens to go now, it can be noticed that graffiti has started to grip like an invisible hand any wall which is available in the city. So wide spread has become this phenomenon, that it cannot be ignored any longer. When walking through the streets of Athens or after having entered Exarchia where this expression on the walls seems more virulent than elsewhere, it becomes clear graffiti assumes a greater role than mere art works shown in private or public galleries. For with graffiti comes the direct notion of freedom, or making use of free space. Alone that consideration or how things are taken to be, allows for further contemplations on how the collective subconscious is being addressed, and what is transforming the spirit within a city like Athens.

Greek state in crisis


       Keeping an eye on the homeless                                          9.6.2013

Ever since Greece has been going through a debt economic crisis since 2009/2010, graffiti tends to focus on multiple problems. Insurmountable appears to be the state deficit which was declared in a half hearted way at the end of 2009. The full truth never came out, only bits and pieces, with every unsolved situation prompting the Greek state under the tutelage of the Troika to adopt even more severe austerity measures. By the beginning of 2014, it has been established that the GNP of Greece has dropped by 25% when compared with 2009. (1) Of interest is that this puts the economy in worse shambles than during the time of the civil war which raged in the country from 1945 until 1948, that is immediately after the end of Second World War.

Once an entire country and the state go into a crisis mode, it appears as if it makes no difference in how everyone responds. For a crisis manifests itself in the form of something becoming so independent from what people think, that there is no longer possible any adjustment or adaptation possible from a previous model of existence to a new one. It makes any kind of transition appear impossible. Above all, there is no longer any future to look forward to. By not getting a grip anymore in terms of knowing what is going on really, no knowledge can be shared with the others. Naturally it would have meant quite a different path through the crisis, if all problems would have been put on the table and everyone could be involved in deciding on how the resources left could be used wisely to fulfil both individual and collective needs. For that to take place, there must be public trust in public truth and the space given to discuss various options on how to emerge out of the crisis on an equal basis. Instead inequalities appeared to be much greater than previously presumed and the way the crisis is handled that inequality has only been deepened even further. That leaves any question about social justice short changed.

While the established political parties did not take any political responsibility for their contribution to the crisis, things have deteriorated to the point that many extreme critics would call it simply a 'failed state'. This can still be the case if Greece defaults, the only difference being an orderly as opposed to a disorderly default. Powerful mechanisms have been set into motion to prevent an disorderly and thereby safety measures introduced so that even if a default would come, that Greece could not take down with it all the other EURO members and as well the entire European Union.

Greek crisis - hope between SIEMENS and Troika             Ermou Street Feb. 2014

The protest movement responded to the negotiations between Greek government and Troika by an absolute refusal to be drawn into the usual political game. The latter manifests itself by the readiness of an already weakened political elite to agree to the first, second and third Memorandum of Understanding with the Troika. Confined to a very limited scope as to what issues are in need to be tackled first and primarily, the crisis was reduced to some outstanding issues. One ranking very high is the inefficient administration, but instead of asking for the reason why, the response was to claim as diagnosis that the state has employed too many civil servants and this has made the public administration highly inefficient. The political elite of Greece accepted this version and translated the demand by the Troika to make the administration more efficient into the crude measure of simply reducing the number of state employees. Not only was this crude measure highly unjust, but it never really worked due to its very crude nature. Efficiency is brought about by real reforms of the civil service, and this would mean developing even independent from politics such a public administration which could also be run by officials coming from civic society and not by those obtaining their posts thanks to connections to a certain party machine or trade union organization.

By having included in the Troika the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and specifically European leaders made sure they would not get all the blame, while at the same time reduction of the state deficit by severe austerity measures was considered to be the only bail-out strategy. In reality, by not putting all the problems on the table and sharing responsibility, a fake compromise was entered. Instead of participation, crisis management moved more and more to a technocratic type of government. And since nothing was really analysed in terms of social justice, nor thought through concepts sought, the outcome has been a series of disastrous applications requiring ad hoc adjustments to resolve outstanding issues.

While at overall level, it is said the neo-liberal strategies pushed for stringent austerity measures affecting mainly the most vulnerable, those responsible for the crisis seem to be gotten away with it. Tax evasion and corruption are virtually the two sides of the same coin. Clever mechanisms had been installed on how to make as quickly as possible money but without ever thinking about the future and the need to make substantial investments so that efforts to rectify the situation would eventually be rewarded. Before anyone else the youth felt this absolute neglect to think in practical terms as to what lies ahead and what it needs to enter a life based on bringing together productive and creative energies. That was simply not given, not after a disastrous educational path and not what they found to be the case once at university level and able to become more reflective of the political options the established parties and trade union organizations were able to offer. More and more the youth wished a form of independence from all of this but they were squeezed out by the mechanisms still grinding away. Most telling was when they started to give up the role of being mediators between their parents' generations and their own needs. Going into revolt meant for them literally to no longer mediate but to confront the state and everything which goes with that kind of bad compromise leading only to being established within a corrupt system. They wanted to breathe and be honest with themselves. Everything else disgusted them.

By the time the crisis of the Greek state erupted, the youth had switched already into full gear. It is a crisis which has a variety of names. The younger generation calls it an 'economic war'. That term alone says it all. What the graffiti and the writing on the wall reveal, is that they no longer fit or want to fit into such a system. It may also amount to a kind of rationalization of own failures to listen to early warnings and adapt in time to future needs. Definitely the youth is not to be blamed for opting out of the system but they have to find their own bearing in reality.

The youth of todays feels and experiences not merely a lack of opportunities but also a much stronger police presence. The latter has the task to make sure their protest does not get out of control. For any state must be able to guarantee some kind of governance and thereby is capable of maintaining public order. This primat of politics makes graffiti on the walls a kind of testing ground as what can be said in opposition to this imposed public order. It is a sort of measure of the extent to which people and in particular the youth can resist. Some might call these artistic measures even a kind of shadow boxing along the walls.

It is said that the austerity measures adopted by the Greek government as a result of the Memorandum of Understanding it signed with the Troika has left over 60% of the youth unemployed and many more people scrambling because they know no longer how to make ends meet. At the beginning of 2014, one report states that more than 44% of Greek households are living by now under the poverty line marked as having an income of 665 Euros for an individual. (2)

Graffiti of a youth in revolt 



   After Demonstrators clashed with police at Syntagma          5.February 2012

Graffiti indicates that times are changing. Today's youth does not accept what measures have been taken to rectify the economic situation. They link the reason for the crisis directly to the kind of politics which the older generations have been practicing nearly unchallenged up to now.

Naturally besides the active youth, there is another part of youth who are just angry but do not know what to do. For joining a movement is a political choice. It entails not merely risks but another kind of socialization not to be obtained, generally speaking, at home or at school. 

Consequently the youth undergoes a variety of adaptation processes to the overall crisis. While some accept minimal jobs such as doing telephone services for Apples computer, others make sure to get out of the country. They seek a counter balance to what they cannot find in Greece. This may include doing volunteer work in a refugee camp in Eastern Turkey or else taking up studies in a foreign country. Still, those who decide to stay, do that for a political reason and for the sake of trying to have a future in this country.

Fore mostly the youth which feeds the protest in Athens and Greece has turned ever more so to self organisational principles. They dismiss political parties and their way of organising things. Most telling is, therefore, one of their measures of success, namely if they manage to organise themselves in freedom from hierarchical structures. Accordingly they create a common space for everyone to participate in. Likewise they develop a new concept of technology, one which aligns with their notion of effective resistance.

As for organisational principles, while they still seek to relate to the overall movement, there does not exist a formal structure nor are they coordinated by some leading figures. Rather this movement is made up of common shared values and defines itself through the very absence of any leadership. That political underpinning is expressed above all by symbols which indicate that they belong to the 'anarchist' movement which has its prime base in Exarchia, but not only.


          Anarchism = Freedom

Since the crisis has gone through several phases of developments, that can be best followed by just watching what is happening along the walls of houses and buildings located especially in Exarchia but as well throughout Athens.

Graffiti in Exarchia and Athens

In Exarchia and Athens, the state of affairs which has fuelled graffiti as prime form of expression, can be perceived as something which accompanies the street protest. It is an attempt to bring about a publicness of a different order. All this is accentuated by many kinds of expressions to be found along the walls. They reflect above all an anarchist movement which has become in recent years quite strong but also a counter movement identified primarily with the Neo-Fascist groups which have started to spring up with the crisis.



              Inner court yard wall in Exarchia                           16.10.2010

What is being expressed within Exarchia reflects a restless mood. Repeatedly this district produces challenges to the overall system. Here exists the famous Polytechnique School known world wide ever since students staged an uprising against the military Junta on 17th of November 1973. Mixed in with the students of architecture most knowledgeable about the plights of a city like Athens, are the homeless, drug addicts, drop outs, workers on the fringe of society etc. Besides countless cafes and restaurants, there are book makers and printers, while one street is full of stores for everything needed by those working with the newest information technology. There are, of course, the "normal" residents as well.

This Athenian district may be comparable to Kreuzberg in Berlin. In both districts the mixture of all kinds of people creates at times a kind of volatile cocktail. This is the case like when an earthquake occurs, two shields of information collide in the collective sub-conscious. The latter is made up of myth, rumours, complaints, anecdotes, prejudgements, utopias, dreams etc.

Next to sharpening political viewpoints, at various spots and locations different groups or components of the overall movement shape their strategies. For most of them the world has not turned out to be what they had wished for when growing up or what had been promised to them by their parents. They do not call themselves 'drop outs' nor would they consider themselves to be lost bodies. Rather they prefer to live and act in defiance of the system. This leads to adopting such ethical principles clothed in Robin Hood kind of justification of taking things from the supermarkets without paying and while keeping some distribute the bulk to those who need it the most.

While others search for jobs, and it is a hard experience to be without money for more than two years, they seek to overcome this estrangement from 'normal' life by seeking an way to sustain life which is compatible with their thinking. Their search is made up out of a lot of responses and challenges, while everything is directed in the end against the established system.

At times, the message seems simple and clear, but then again protest can petter out, especially if there is not much to go on but mere rumours fill the streets. The stretch in-between revolt and recuperation will quite often take place during endless night discussions. How much space they have, that depends often on how much time the police gives them. The latter has adopted all along a policy not to intervene unless absolutely necessary but rather to let things just burn out by themselves. Likewise many youth show after a while the symptoms of being burned out. That this fatigure syndrome surfaces when nothing is apparently happening, that is most revealing.

Philosophy would reflect what does prevail besides a resolute political will? While the latter is feed by certain theories based on key assumptions, it matters if criticism thereof is accepted and therefore an understanding shared that reality is much more complex than what is being suggested by all these political ideas being floated and distributed in various ways. The latter aspect, or the way things are done, that is not often articulated in Exarchia or elsewhere in Athens. Instead it appears as if the overall movement wishes to stay focused on only certain key actions and therefore sets its own agenda. That promises to be a movement with a substantial theory. Yet a flicker of doubt seems to accompany like a shadow the protest movement. At times, serious doubts do seem to influence the general consensus and helps to shape an agenda after having assessed as to what matters the most at the moment.


        Political graffiti near Exarchia Square                              January 2014

Above all Exarchia is renown to be a difficult territory for the police. Here rule the anarchists or else at odd times a rebellious spirit most difficult to grasp. This unique mixture determines the atmosphere. Things can be lovely one moment while in the next everything seems ready to boil over. There is never any certainty how long the 'uneasy peace' shall last in the narrow streets. Noise is here a good indicator. Different sounds are heard according to times of the day, the night usually very loud as a lot of young people are still afoot when others try to sleep. There is always a great intermingling of people with a constant flow of various carriers for all kinds of goods, while messages traded include wishes to know what to do next.


 Banner hanging at Exarchia Square                                      January 22, 2014

Briefly said, Exarchia has all the flavours of a kind of outlaw kind of territory but it matches unconsciously as well an overall trend within Greek society. The latter aspect concerns not just the mix of people, professions, ages and dispositions, but as well what has all the making of 'chaos' as state of affairs. The latter is a seeming disorder with always some underlying pattern emerging to ensure in the final end things work out so that some kind order does seem to exist. Certain things function like the various kinds of restaurants and food joints with a huge variety and always waiters quick on their feet and alert in their minds to remember precisely the orders given.

Altogether it explains why many Greeks still perceive the state as if that of the Ottoman empire and not their own state, or why the anti state feeling found its adequate expression in an altered version of Anarchism. It explains why 'nomos' or law is as much feared as not obeyed. It is not called civil disobedience, but rather an attempt to live in freedom and in equality with the others.





                     View from Lycabettou Hill of Athens with Piraeus

By now, graffiti and the writing on the wall is no longer restricted to just the Exarchia area. As a matter of fact, it can be seen virtually everywhere when walking through the streets of Athens. Graffiti has become an overall trend. It seems as if any given free space is used immediately to make explicit the slogans of the day. Indeed, the combination of slogans and images reflect what is happening in Athens during a period of economic and political crisis.


          "The abstract cube"                      Aesklepiou Street in Athens, 2014

The city of Athens is in reality only a small part of the sprawling Metropolitan area. The international airport is, for instance, way out of town in the former famous Attiki region where olive groves and wonderful vineyards recollected ancient history. Once the road network was in place to prepare for the Olympic Games, someone said coming into Athens could be just like Los Angeles. For the endless road network makes all cities appear to be the same. 


     Graffiti near Gazi                                                                       Feb. 2014

Once graffiti spreads all over a city with over 4 million inhabitants, it says something about current state of affairs. Athens has nearly half of the population living altogether in Greece. In the Attici region about 60% of all business is concentrated while Athens suffered until the Olympic Games under the negative image of being dirty and just having air pollution, so that visitors would end up staying but a day and half, time enough to see both the National Museum housing the archaeological artefacts of Ancient Greece stretching into the Roman time, and the Acropolis. Now this has changed due to the unification of archaeological sites and the new Acropolis museum which local residents have adopted as a much preferred place to eat since the good food there does not cost much and while eating there is the tremendous view of the Acropolis.


     View of Acropolis from the new Acropolis Museum


Political art

However, there is a danger that graffiti sprayed or painted out of protest is but a faint replica of 'public art'. Not just anything goes. That was equally the case when graffiti started to appear along the Berlin wall. For then not only anonymous people left their mark which might be painted over the very next day, and which has been documented by Heinz J. Kuzdas, but artists went to work and set standards with regards to what counts as truly public art. 

Once too much politics intermingles with art, the outcome is a tendency towards mere propaganda. It may still express a wish but in the end it will amount merely to a denouncement of reality and therefore shall not do justice as to what other people try to undertake to change despite of the given order. To remind, the Berlin wall lasted from 1961 until 1989, and till the wall came down not many believed this to be ever possible. Today people bicycle through Brandenburg Gate and hardly remember what it was like when the wall stood with its death strip. Graffiti was the first to paint a door on the wall and called for a possible exit into freedom.

Simply said, graffiti as art is of a different genre than mere tagging of the walls. Both seek to leave a mark on the wall yet their contents and messages are quite different.

Attempts in an artistic direction can be seen throughout the city. From small graffiti to entire wall murals urban space can be used like a huge gallery. Once graffiti reached that level, the University of the Arts entered as well this creative process in public and offered spaces on its premises to a group of graffiti artists. The outcome was a special display of black and white graffiti of a special form of expression.

Moreover, the Municipal government, but also private foundations like Neon, seek to promote artists as avant garde to reclaim public space for private interests. When a discussion took place at the Benaki museum on Piraeus Street, an event which was organized jointly with the Fine Arts University, and financed by the NEON Foundation, the front for a private collector who wishes to obtain permission to use the National Garden to exhibit his private collection of sculptures, not one speaker on the panel referred to the ongoing street art in Athens and elsewhere. Rather they reflected individual artists like Serra or Banksy to illustrate what can be done in public spaces, but which should not be used any differently from what has been so far the business of galleries and their curators, namely to select certain artists and their works for advancing notions of art through special exhibitions and installations.  

What then is the difference between graffiti art and graffiti as form of denoucement of everything? Since difficult to judge, many more criteria need to be considered, but surely the expression should reflect in a telling way the real complexity of life. Free artistic expression means the artist is not determining the outcome but lets something work out in this space given to the paint brush or spray can.

Thus some distinction needs to be made between mere tagging, graffiti of political declaration and artistic graffiti. Each of them spark different insights and cast a light on various aspects those living in that urban space have to face. And it is still another genre of graffiti if the expression of a wide open but equally resolute movement. That is to say, graffiti allows doubt to be played out in a unique combination with the surrounding, for the context is already given by the existence of the city and the people who move about within its confinement or matrix.

The answer to the crisis can be "don't look into the mirror but take a look as to what is happening on the wall". For then one shall come away changed - many older and only a few younger. For the revitalization of the spirit within the youth is an ongoing search for a wish to have a promising future. The despair not to have that readily at hand in the present marks the walls. But nothing what can be said about what graffiti is really self understood. 'Empathy' for these forms of expressions requires a distinct and very different approach, the conventional art historical method will here not work.

There are art historians who like Hans Haufe turned very early to the wall murals in Latin America to follow up on the Cobra group. These wall murals reflect what is possible when not one person but many paint together on a wall. Above all, it is more or less an anonymous act with no individual artist claiming this work to be his alone. In that sense, a correction between creativity and collectivity in the community of man is re-created at least at imaginary level. They may depict more dreams having been disturbed just like pigeons flying all up in the air once a motorbike rider lets the engines roar so much that even the security alarm in nearby parked cars is triggered off.


    "No frogs"  2013

Fear mixed in with colours of the rainbow, but soon all washed down by weather and tear, may well be the modern urban fabric out of which surfaces for projections are made. The cave analogy would miss this point insofar as graffiti never really stands alone but is to be found within a specific urban context. As such graffiti describes what has become the immediate environment of people struggling to survive amidst a confusion of hybrid like slogans all calling out, so it seems, for a collective sense to be just and fair. Like wrinkles in the face, this graffiti along faded walls takes up the pulse and the rhythm but also shows some teeth. While no where is to be seen the decisive factor of such an urban life, courageous presence is shown by finding almost everywhere the typical sign of anarchists having passed by here.

Indeed, this art movement especially in urban centres strives to make ends meet. In the meantime, no one seems sure in Greece, if there is a learning process going on. Since no one is ready to admit of having made a mistake, no learning out of mistakes is possible.

Likewise the dominant perception of political reality is that nothing has really changed despite Greece having gone into a crisis since 2009. This impression prevails because it is not merely an economic but more so a moral crisis. It can be called lack of honesty, inability to work together, corruption, etc. but no matter how it is named, the reasons for the crisis remain highly evasive as if no one can make really out what is ahead on the road. A sort of collective blindness seems to exist or as the poet Yiorgos Chouliaras puts it, everything has the appearance of a calm sea but no one sees the strong under currents. The latter explain why there can happen sudden outbursts. All what is needed to set off an explosion, or outburst of anger, is fear mixed with hatred, till one spark ignites everything.

Then came the 6th of December 2008. Suddenly something horrific happened. Within hours the entire district of Exarchia was literally a scene of revolt which spread from there to grip the whole of Athens. Looking back, that evening in December when the news spread that the fifteen year old Alexandros had been killed by a policeman, it showed what one single event can set off street riots as if the time was ripe for something to happen and especially the youth really only waiting for a real cause to let out 'rage'. Such an outburst of anger amounts to being nearly uncontrollable. Wisely decisions made by police and political leadership was to let this fire of rage burn itself out. But this first wave of rage was an enormous expression of hatred of the police. It gave a first real indication as to what the youth felt to be up against: an entire society which had gone literally speaking down the drain due to corruption and indifference as to what needs to be done, in order to have future. (4) The future is the youth. The one which went into revolt over the death of Alexandros showed that they were struggling well ahead of the rest of society with what had all the makings of becoming more than just a mere crisis. (5)

Text and photos by Hatto Fischer

Athens Jan./Feb. 2014



1. Rober Stevens, „European Union demands more austerity in Greece.“ 29 January 2014 http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/01/29/gree-j29.html

2. "The poverty threshold is measured as 60% of the price-adjusted average income in 2009, or up to 665 euros per person per month and up to 1,397 for a couple supporting two underage children. The AUEB researchers also found that last year 14% of Greeks earned below the adequate living standards, compared with 2% of the population four years ago."

Source: "Crisis: Greece, nearly half of incomes below poverty line". 07 January, 12:06 http://www.ansamed.info/ansamed/en/news/sections/economics/2014/01/07/Crisis-Greece-nearly-half-incomes-below-poverty-line_9859730.html

3. During the entire panel discussion about "public life, public space, public art", not one of the panelists or the moderator touched upon what was happening in the public spaces of Athens due to the graffiti on the walls. Instead the discussion seemed to  preparing the grounds for individual, well recognized artists to replace the spontaneous and wild expressions. Aesthetical suppression is being done by political forces in coalition with private interests, in order to regain the public space and control over the so-called 'freedom of expression'. It underlines a strategy so as to uphold that, what has value in both public and private terms. The so-called public-private partnership amounts to a rearrangement of public resources in favour of private interests. After the waves of protest since 2008, aesthetic suppression is right now in Greece the main task of foundations. It continues the old mistake, insofar as the lack of public debate means a voice is given to only private power and money holders, as if they are the only ones capable of doing something due to the money they have. Thus they will make their influence be felt by dictating a definite imprint upon the public space. It means the public is being appropriated by those who wish to imprint the collective mind and thus they leave a mark upon society in recognition of their contribution. That it silences all the others is not critically reflected upon.  Two things stand out: it is no longer heroic deeds done in the name of the entire society which are being honored, but the transformation of public space into what can be considered an uninhibited private expansion which will stand out e.g. iconic buildings; the private intiative clothed in public gowns will alleviate the politicians in power from having to assume responsibility for the whole society. It is an exchange at highest political, equally cultural level: money for influence upon public domains.

More can be said about this discussion which took place at the Benaki museum on Piraeus street and which was done in collaboration with the Fine Arts University. For above all the professors were horrific as they talked in such a neutral jargon that any student entering such a field of knowledge would put their personal identities into a meat grinder and out would come merely shreds and bits and pieces of information about who you are! Only one person in the audience mentioned graffiti but ended up with a statement that things have gone too far and therefore the wild beast must be tamed, while another person came close to a protest like stance. He spoke without using the microphone to criticize the fact that aesthetics was no longer taught at university level and no art courses were given to children in elementary and secondary schools.

Source: OPEN DISCUSSION | Public Life, Public Space, Public Art held on the 19.02.2014  at the Benaki Museum | 138 Pireos & Andronikou St., Athens



4. Recent revelations indicate to what extent NGOs financed by the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Culture were involved in this corrupt scheme, and therefore amounts to a perversion of civic values especially when it came to deal with volunteers as deployed especially during the Olympic Games. Thus it was reported on 26.2.2014, that the organization for that was:

"Set up by former prime minister and culture minister Kostas Karamanlis in 2004, Ergo Politon didn't come cheap: its chairman/CEO was paid €9,500 a month while its offices cost €16,500 a month in rent.An organisation established under a previous New Democracy government (2004 - 2009) to register all the 'volunteering organisations' (NGOs) in Greece managed to spent up to €7.5m in state funding from 2005 to 2011, without achieving much of what it was set up to do." 

Source: Nefeli Tzanetakou, Georgia Dima „Another NGO, this time with New Democracy links, in the spotlight“. EnetEnglish.gr 25.2.2014


5. The documentary film by Makis Trochidis, "Self Portrait" (2012) shows what poetic and philosophical expressions the graffiti in Athens have come about due to a common doubt as "who we are?". It is not an identity crisis, but much more an openess to new identities of the future, and this without having to be Greek, an Anarchist or an child of a certain urban area. 

Takis Trochidis, "Self portrait" (2012) can be seen on you-tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNe3wk57gjo



Top 10 Graffiti Images from around Athens:


Stigmalab - see Facebook coverage of graffiti all over the world along with artistic projects in Athens and other places. http://www.stigmalab.gr/

From The New York Times: Across Athens, Graffiti Worth a Thousand Words of Malaise The five-year economic collapse in Greece has spawned a new burst of creative energy that has turned Athens into a contemporary mecca for street art in Europe. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/16/world/europe/across-athens-graffiti-worth-a-thousand-words-of-malaise.html

The billboards along Attiko Road leading out to the airport have seen as well a transformation. It reminds of the 'urban screen' movement wishing to convert spaces used for advertisement into spaces for artistic expressions. See https://apolasos.wordpress.com/2014/04/11/tο-μυστήριο-με-τις-πινακίδες-της-αττική/

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