Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Just tagging of walls or vandalizing the city?


       Walls turned red and black, and only missing is the blue     Jan. 2014

Anger and frustration can be expressed in many ways. However, expressions change once an entire city is considered to be but one 'public gallery'. While many take this to mean some kind of protest, others consider graffiti, 'writing on the walls' or more precisely 'tagging of walls' nothing but simply smearing or vandalizing. Moreover not everything which goes up on the walls satisfies aesthetical criteria. Still, the moment protest as a political act is involved, there is the inherent danger of graffiti being either misread or simply ignored, even before the 'writing on the wall' could be understood as a clear warning sign for society. Likewise there is another danger for those who tend to advocate graffiti, and, therefore, justify generally speaking everything which is on the walls of the city. For a closer look can identify that some of the graffiti or mere writing on the wall can become just another type of propaganda.

But even then, there is something which cannot be dismissed so easily in the case of graffiti! Ever since the outbreak of an economic crisis, there are signs on the walls that say an 'invisible war fare' is being waged in the city, and not only between Anarchists and Neo-Fascists. Hence it would be crucial to understand what graffiti does wish to bring across before simply erasing them. This is applies especially in times when the youth considers the times they are growing up in to be marked by an 'economic war'. Consciously they link that term to what previous generations experienced during First and Second World War, while searching at the same time for explanations and possible responses to this economic war in their own i.e. contemporary terms.

Consequently the messages put up on the walls can be deeply personal and at the same time highly political, and at times just a silent scream for help. Hence graffiti and everything else what goes up on the walls of Athens should not be dismissed right away, but rather be approached with an open mind before labelling it as being merely an act of vandalization.

Of course, there are people who do not like graffiti and therefore ready to dismiss this kind of expression altogether. They not only reject graffiti outright but call for a 'forceful' end of such kind of vandalization of the city. This is especially the case when graffiti damages not just newly painted buildings but defaces monuments and public buildings of great cultural heritage value. It may equally not refrain from distorting street signs. Altogether it can amount to an outright 'pollution of the eye'.

There exists as well one additional problem prevailing especially in an Information Society which tends to overflood people with all kinds of images. Thus graffiti risks to add merely to this overload of information when people walk or drive through the streets. This is because of multiple kinds signs wish to attract the attention of the passer-bys, hence graffiti risks to follow merely this negative trend towards over use of public spaces to send out 'visible' messages.

But just as 'urban screens' were conceived to replace billboards used for advertisements with artistic expressions, graffiti does distinguish and sets itself apart from all kinds of propaganda tricks. The paintings on the wall are not manipulative by intention. Moreover they are conscious of their temporary nature. And they are not identical with the usual images to be seen on television, laptops or in what can be captured by a digital camera. This is because graffiti goes hand in hand with 'aesthetics of resistance'. By being visual in the streets, and therefore existing outside the virtual world being created by new technology, it does not follow the illusion that technical means can replace a 'theory of society'. Rather graffiti is very much an integral part of human reality and can electrify an entire urban society with a common sense. By including the wild and untamed imagination, it expresses best what can spring to life once certain human spirits are aroused and rather than being mere shadows of themselves, project upon the walls very much like the cave dwellers of the past what fears need to be overcome, before an imagined life can really be lived. Alone the experience of that intertwine between image and real life makes all the difference to the virtual world of mere images which are after all merely technically reproducable (Walter Benjamin).

Of course, it does make a difference to be able to walk through streets and pass by houses which have no advertisement signs whatsoever. The feeling thereof can hardly be described in words. For it amounts to an unusual visual pleasure. This was the case with Weimar when European Capital of Culture in 1999. The historical town of Goethe and Schiller had been restored for the occasion. In so doing, Weimar learned out of the mistake Antwerp had done when renovating houses for being European Capital of Culture in 1993, but then allowed advertisement. The result of this over commercialization of urban spaces was everyone's gaze was limited to street level. In the end, hardly anyone noticed the historical building which had just been renovated.


              Space in-between villa and museum in Marseille     2013

Interestingly enough Marseille 2013 did something similar to Weimar when opening up public spaces along the old harbour. That space was free of any advertisement, so that water, buildings, and people could speak while interacting within that freed space from any commercial or other linkages. Unfortunately, now that the year of being European Capital of Culture is over, Marseille may also follow the usual trend by devaluing what the city had achieved at a high level of cultural sophistication. For the municipality is set to allow a casino just vis a vis the two new buildings: the Villa Mediterranea and the Museum of Civilization from Europe and Mediterranean.

To sum up, it is all about letting the buildings speak for themselves rather than have everything being distorted by a flood of images linked to all kinds of advertisements and signs. Too often this is being overlooked as private interests are allowed to impose their symbols and images upon public spaces. When Berlin was reunified and reconstruction of Potsdam Square started, unfortunately what was once one of busiest traffic intersections before Second World War, and afterwards a no man's land since the Berlin Wall crossed over that territory, became a conversion into a new kind of business plaza. The prime sign became that of Mercedes Benz and two other global brand names. For people of Berlin this was highly ironic. For they remembered that when the National Socialists took over Weimar in 1933, it was at Potsdam place where they put up their symbols first to declare that they were now in power.

As for Athens itself, there had been made an all out effort to beautify the city for the Olympic Games in 2004. This included the unification of archaeological sites and which allows today in some spots for an unspoiled view of the Acropolis. Since then graffiti and its spill over effects have become an increasing problem for city officials. Some would say that especially the Plaka, the old town close to and below the Acropolis, has been hard hit. When compared to all the efforts made to prepare for 2004, and this meant not merely new side walks but as well granting extra money to house owners if they paint their houses, developments since then are in some places simply horrid or to use other terms mainly out of control when no longer graffiti or tags, but only scribbles on the walls. But even here a more differentiated viewpoint has to be taken since many of these walls are of abandoned houses. That then precludes something while it allows for an anticipation for things still to come in near future e.g. restoration of the house.

However, one thing has to be said before passing any judgement about graffiti. Prior to graffiti and the tagging of walls, it has been a long standing custom of many people to deface public and private walls with all kinds of stickers and advertisements. This pollution of the eye has been going on for many years. It includes illegal billboards which the authorities try over and again to remove but with only limited success. It has provoked, for example, the 'urban screen' movement to counter the use of every possible space for the sole purpose of advertisement. Likewise graffiti has to be understood as a counter movement to overuse of the media for sole commercial purposes while leaving the urban space empty of any personal or for that matter social and political message. For when do people address each other in references to a common sense of responsibility for what is happening to their city?

Once Greece went into crisis mode and adopted austerity measures to come to terms with a state deficit which has gone badly out of control, the youth no longer limited street protest to just a loud articulation of their demands and criticism during demonstrations. They wanted something to be visible in public space, even if only of semi permanent nature but definitely capable of sticking around a bit longer than a demonstration. The latter shall be disbanded at the end of the day and yet nothing shall have changed the political landscape. This kind of disappointment of the youth has to be understood, for it gives the underlining tone of the graffiti another sense of urgency. Given that their protest went largely unheard, they started to look for other outlets and to lay claim to public spaces to express themselves as it had never been done before i.e. at such a wide scale. Soon the challenge to the system meant above all a willingness to overstep limits imposed by the kind of public order system which has existed until now and which calls for a double respect of both private and public domains. Clearly that meant a kind of double negation of any 'freedom of expression'. Whether at home or at school and any other social institution, the youth found no way to articulate their own agenda. Only along the walls they discovered new spaces to articulate themselves freely, and most importantly 'freely'.

Briefly said, graffiti reflects a society in which public truth is at best very weak, and therefore not really in a position to question the kinds of propagandas society and its people are subjected to on a daily basis. There is the power of the mass media but also the coercive principles behind them to ensure only certain models of success prevail. It ensures that many succumb to this modern kind of public relation exercise mixed in with all kinds of advertisement and marketing strategies. It is the equivalent of propaganda used in the old days, and which has come again into fashion indicated best when the film maker Wim Wenders recommends that the European Union should resort to propaganda techniques to sell itself better. Anyone who grew up in Poland or East Germany during the reign of Socialist / Communist governments would be familiar with that term, for it designated a method used to pacify and to keep calm the largest portion of the population. In the meantime, these techniques to influence people in their opinions have been refined and therefore remain mainly 'invisible'. Especially children and youth are most vulnerable to this kind of 'violence', and therefore are in need of a different kind of literacy not taught at school to counter the impact thereof.

Propaganda along with various techniques e.g. play on fear to lose security can convince the public to go in the end against its own better judgement. As this giving in to all kinds of contradictions amounts to an acquiescence to power, and often enough reference is made to a 'silent majority' ruling, no wonder when problems do pile up. For the youth has yet to learn how to articulate these contradictions without harming itself or previous generations. It is all about resolving some apparent paradoxes in life as well. Adorno put it eloquently when advising if society commands the youth and everyone else to love the other, then the best way to break (not to obey) this command is to love the other. Too often the tragic end is programmed once alternative options are reduced to either/or choices because that means only false alternatives. Likewise the case with graffiti for this form of expression should not be reduced to either embrace or erase it, since first of all a much more differentiated viewpoint is needed. 

An open minded attitude is all the more needed because no one seems prepared or willing to talk openly with the youth about the outstanding problems of this society. If there is written on the walls the slogan 'Capitalism is killing you' and on another wall someone writes a final declaration that "I want to die", then this is an indication of an alarming state of mind due to a state of affairs which threatens the lives of both the youth and citizens. Such alarming signs may be written on the walls out of fear of loss of job, and therefore to miss out on integration chances into society, but even more important is to recognize the fact that the youth finds hardly in teachers or friends of their parents someone to talk with openly about what is on their minds. Also hardly anyone is able to give them access to public figures who would be willing to discuss the reasons why these problems continue to persist in a modern society, and why all these problems have remained unresolved for such a long time by now.

Behind all that stands the question why there is such a strong unwillingness to change despite so many problems being reproduced by all kinds of behavioural patterns. They go from sheer negligence to direct violent actions bent out to destroy things, and at times even people? It is a huge moral crisis once public institutions and the political order has lost all legitimacy due to only short changing people in terms of making necessary resources available to cope with all the challenges of life.

The fight involves, therefore, implicitly and explicitly as well a matter of contention as to what is a legal space for all kinds of public expression, what not! Definitely graffiti cannot be dismissed as easily as before nor has there been found a way to trigger still other kinds of reflections on how to use public space.

For instance, it remains to be seen whether this particular youth can be convinced to leave the walls alone and instead express on a moveable large canvas as the case with Kids' Guernica - Guernica Youth. Alone if that difference between wall murals and a large mobile canvas would be recognized, it could alter over time the disposition towards using permanent walls to paint on them graffiti.

However, if this kind of protest along the walls of the city leads to an overall downgrading of the aesthetics within a city, these expressions will have their own pitfalls. They would be perceived as a collective 'nonsensical' answer to what is afoot and even foul in this world. People would take the graffiti merely as a wish for change but like themselves unable to overcome the indifference they encounter in the real world. Hence they would dismiss or ignore generally as to what is up on the wall. Consequently, the graffiti would in effect earn what it wants to protest against, namely an indifferent world. Whether or not this would classify a large portion of graffiti as a kind of wake-up call, that may be even a dangerous way to arouse some other, not intended emotional disorders. In order to do something about the growing threat of unemployment or even worse the rise of Neo-Fascism care has to be taken not to forget that even a calm sea hides some very strong undercurrents .

For sure, there will continue discussions as to what constitutes public art and how to deal with graffiti art in a sensible way. Likewise house owners and others will continue to pressure the municipal authority and the police to do something about it. Yet prior to recommending any public policy, graffiti is in need to be explored and be understood as to what many of these anonymous artists wish to express.

Moreover, before graffiti disappears altogether, it should be recalled that preservation thereof can be linked to the term 'cultural heritage'. The latter includes 'memories of the future', insofar as graffiti reflects what cannot be realized 'here and now', but hopefully a just society and a proper functioning of governance shall be brought about in near future. Moreover, to remind, "in France, the historical association of 'heritage' with the Left comes from the French Revolution itself. The term patrimoine was a Jacobin coinage, an inspiration of the egalitarian priest, l'Abbé Grégoire, who used it both to combat iconoclasts and wreckers (he invented the term 'vandal' to describe them)..." (1)

Just tagging of walls


        Just one example of a tagged wall                           Lycabettou 2013

Once it is no longer about graffiti but fore most about mere tagging of walls, then the critical judgement thereof changes. For tagging increases the risk to be perceived as merely defacing walls and public spaces.


       Corner Sina and Oct. Merlien Street                                       Jan. 2014

Why tagging is done on such a large, equally wide spread scale, there may be many explanations for this phenomenon especially in a city like Athens, but it is certainly not unique. In many cities all over the world these characteristic letters and simple signatures can be found. Yet while it has become even a widely commented upon matter, in the final end tagging remains a mystery.

It has gone on for such a long time by now. But putting a signature on walls says something in an age when hardly anyone still sends hand written letters but uses the Internet instead. The disappearance of personal written messages has excluded one dimension of getting to know the other person through his or her handwriting. Even firms used to employ specialists who would examine the hand written forms prior to hiring that person or not. Also an artist like Mariusz Lukasik had always problems with his bank for never was his signature the same on the next cheque. Moods and other emotional states could be reflected in the mirror of how one would write certain letters or what was the overall image of the written text. When done mechanical, nothing of that interpretation possibilities remains.

Putting a signature on the wall lays also claim to something while making a kind of declaration in public even though hardly anyone will notice it, never mind link it concretely to one specific person. For that is unknown. This dimension of the unknown is being exploited in various ways. For it reflects as well the consciousness of doing something 'illegal'. It is, therefore, a conscious violation of mainly unwritten laws which include respect of the property of the other. That is why many walls of abandoned houses were preferred just as graffiti and tagging started with underground tunnels or with freight trains. It spread out from there and encompasses by now the entire city.

Or vandalization of the city

While tagging makes no sense in many cases, it does cost a lot of money to restore buildings and monuments. The city of Athens has taken up in the meantime the fight and a fight it is for hardly have defaced walls of either public or private buildings received a new coat of paint, it seems as if the next day that provocation is taken up and the reverse order sets in. Again some scribbles typical of the sprays used reappear. It  seems as if there is no sense for aesthetical space but a revolt against clear and unused spaces and walls. That marks then a special kind of aggression.


     No free space in Exarchia declared as free zone                      Exarchia 2013

One crucial conclusion can be drawn out of the existence of so much graffiti and tagging of walls in Athens. The youth does not seem to have the space needed to express itself. Hence to a large extent their discontent is spilled literally out and onto the walls. By doing so they defy consciously public rules which prevail. Instead they wish to express in the open what they feel about their situation and respond with direct criticism as to what seems to be going wrong in this world. They perceive the seeming public order mainly negatively and have already experienced on many different occasions in their short lives various times all kinds of efforts to silence exactly that what needs to be said in public.

Once there appears no longer to hold any 'self restraint' within a collective body, use of public spaces shall be perverted by succumbing to sole private and therefore egoistic use. Given the trend towards privatization, societal needs for public resources risk to go unrecognized. Likewise public spaces, even though they should be kept free for others to come along and use them, will be claimed by only certain users and thereby undermine the Right everyone has to community.

This difference between use but not occupying the space is not seen by many who advocate and justify graffiti for various, including political reasons. 


           Wall of the University of Athens, Administration building on Academia

In many places graffiti, or just a mere spraying of some unreadable sign onto the wall, has gotten out of control in Athens. Something arbitrary tends to degrade the area. Once artistic expressions are no longer supported by a collective will, urban society will be subjected to contradictory forms of expression. Many of the youth will engage themselves in all kinds of protests. They may do it merely out of daring to trespass, in order to test the limits of legality. If so, it implies as the saying goes, that they do not know their borders or what limitations have to be respected not because the adult world says so but because they make sense. The latter may even indicate what constitutes 'common sense', or the kind of rationale needed to be observed if many people are to live together within a relative small and confined space.

Naturally own discoveries, once made and ready to acknowledge where true limitations begin, are more convincing than being simply told by teachers or parents. It is after all a strive for 'literacy' brought about by a socialization aiming to be conducive of a certain behaviour in public spaces. That includes as China experienced when hosting the Olympic Games the need to teach its taxi drivers not to spit out of the open window as had been the habit before 2008. Likewise if this socialization either breaks down or never succeeded in the first place to convince, then the public space reflects more a wish to overturn traditional values rather than adhere to what used to dictate rules of behaviour.

At times, the present youth does not seem to realize what they are doing. When they just tag a building freshly painted, and even if this is in reality vandalization, they may still shrug that off and instead hint at something which has apparently provoked them. One possible clue is given by them when they declare it as a wish to protest at a kind of beautification which they perceive as a general cover-up of prevailing problems in society. Since the concept of beauty is controversial by any measure, they feel at times more authentic when already close to misery to contradict this attempt at a cover-up. Tagging of walls can thus be interpreted as a wish-like attempt to spoil methods used by the authorities to create a fake illusion as if everything is alright when that is definitely not the case. Without being an explicit method to express the contradiction, it is their way to oppose a general trend. As a consequence they would tend to justify and even mystify their act as opposing the making of a public lie. 

The public order - issues of health and cleanliness

Much of the mess created in the streets and left as it is, that is without anyone raising a hand to pick up the rubbish lying around, signifies a loss in social cohesion. Interestingly enough, once the Arab spring prompted protesters to occupy Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, people showed suddenly a strong sense of civic responsibility and began cleaning the square.

As if a sense of ownership matters to make a difference in social behaviour, others would be inclined to say during the happy hours of a collective protest a creative mood allows everyone to observe aesthetical principles in a most natural way. Only once the police intervenes and the situation turns ugly, then the malfunction of a disorder can be seen. Over turned rubbish cans, smashed windows, broken benches and seats, toppled monuments etc. accumulate to give this negative impression. It can be an aesthetic of ugliness which gathers strength in times when the only appropriate collective sentiment to be expressed seems to be that of disgust or even worse of rage. 

However, there seems to exist as well a correlation between how someone behaves at home and what is not taken care of in public. Generally speaking, children and the youth are brought up to consume but never to take care what traces they leave behind. This over alienation from nature is a general characteristic of humanity. Already outer space is full of flying debris which can endanger even the satellites. The disorder created by merely using something and once no longer useful to discard it out of disgust, is very often the result of bad habits most difficult to correct. Such habits are best demonstrated by the smoker who lights the cigarette with high reverence but once smoked to the end discards the butt with such a rejection since no longer of any use. He or she seem not to care what traces this leaves behind. Even the sea has become an ash tray.

Likewise those inclined to throw away society out of sheer disgust would never think of picking up the discarded rubbish. Such an act they would deem to be below their dignity. In India, those who touch rubbish may not come into contact with those who live in an illusionary world where such things do not exist. Still, it is amazing to see many public places staying clean and hygienic despite thousands of people using them every day. Naturally municipal services ensure that cleaning operations take place regularly. That difference can be noticed immediately when the rubbish collectors go on a strike and the entire city begins not only to stink but poses a health risk.


                    Rubbish not collected in Dafnomili Street

Also children and youth are known to leave their rooms to be but a mess. It appears that they behave in public as they would at home when spoiling the aesthetical tension of a public space completely free from any sign, including advertisements. For this pollution of the eye has gone too far in the Western World. Especially when everything is left just lying around at home, while all kinds of things are written or painted on the walls, it appears as these children and youth go through an anal phase (Freud). They may end up even smearing their own shit on the wall to spark an outrage of the parents. It is a kind of averbal sign language to express their opposition to the seeming order the parents may want to impose. The same kind of intention to provoke and to oppose is behind many of the seeming thoughtless expressions found everywhere on walls.

Issue of visual orientation - street signs and other landmarks



               "No stopping sign" on Piraeusstreet                   January 17, 2014

Starting with the latter term, it does get dangerous if road signs are pasted or written over. A street sign forbidding either a left or right turn because that would lead into one way streets has a purpose. If a driver cannot read the sign, then there looms danger if he takes the wrong turn. Thus even if at times this intervention of street signs can be very beautiful, such a disorientation is highly problematic and not only because people experience difficulties to find their way.


       Painted over street name

Naturally the painting over of street names or signs does remind of resistance movements when at war e.g. in Prague 1968 all street names were taken down to confuse the approaching Russian tanks when they entered the city. And for sure a youth which feels there is being waged an economic war, will feel all the more justification to counter such a public order which merely wishes to keep people silent while equally deceiving them about the real purpose behind a seeming public order.

Defacement of buildings

In this protest resorting either to graffiti or tagging of walls, there is something constant: an arbitrariness of protest. This form of protest has prevailed over many years by now. It is directed at one and the same time against something very general like the system and yet as well against something very specific. The latter is the case once related to a recent incidence e.g. arrest of someone or even the death of Alexandros on 6th of December.

The nature of this protest is that no one seems sure who is going to be addressed. One of the graffiti artists in the documentary film called 'wake up call' states even that if passer-bys are addressed at all, then more 'unconsciously' than directly. (2) In such a reflection has entered already the subversive nature of the arts as explained by Carol Becker but can equally be linked to advertisement strategies which have become in the meantime very sophisticated e.g. placement advertisement in films by having a certain brand of car or hair spray being used by the actor.  as if a situation of no communication prevails.  indicates that the protest stays negative as the expressions along the walls indicate nothing has altered. Repeatedly defacement is the most simple equally arbitrary form. It can be seen onhand what happens at the outside walls of the classical buildings of the University of Athens which exist downtown on Academia Street.

                                               University building on Academia Street

Further analysis shall be needed to interpret what is written on the walls, but the vicinity to death has become a certainty. Once that grips the minds, then the killing of Alexandros in Exarchia on 6.12.20008 is remembered by now every December 6th with a renewed kind of demonstration which seeks to protest against any effort to white wash what happened back then.

Still, the Anarchist movement making then its full appearance in public, has since then to fight more and more against the Extreme Right. And the battle woes leave everyone sometimes high, at other times very low as if close to victory or defeat. This means forces are pushing each other around and whoever gives in more ground is deemed a loser. In turn, to lift the spirit again, some slogan and certain symbols are used to re-motivate the movement. All this plays out despite the government calling for signs of Patriotism to carry the austerity measures.


       Slogan at top: Anarchism = Freedom                              December 2012


Defacement of monuments


         Monument in park at juncture Piraeus and Petrolis            17.1.2014




The transformation of the German church


  German church on Lycabettou Hill                                            January 2014

Quite a different situation has been created at the German church. A transition from artful graffiti to tagging, and vice versa can be observed onhand of a wall facing the Dafnomili street entering Sina where the French Institute is located. First just slogans linked to football club defaced the newly painted wall but then something else took over. It may be due to a school being nearby or just a matter of wisdom if you cannot beat the taggers, then let the wall become a playfield of open ended interpretations made colourful to express a certain dream about life in the city.


Originally there was written in green letters the name of the Athenian football club called Panathaniakos and once that was done, others, perhaps children took over as a way of saying, if you cannot beat them, join them in a more frolic way.


        Red fishes or red hearts, the German word for God: 'Gott' and Yannis

Since the wall is linked to the German church in Athens, it is no surprise to find amongst many other things the German word for God: 'Gott'. It leaves one wondering if something similar but still very distant to the wailing wall in Jerusalem shall be considered as something holy in a city of a country made to believe all the economic pressure is exerted by Germany within the European Union.

Public policy towards graffiti

Graffiti and the tagging of walls have become such a wide spread phenomenon, that the City of Athens is highly alarmed and seeks to develop effective counter measures. Consequently there is an invisible tug of war going on. Hardly have some walls been cleaned, and this especially in the Plaka area where many of the tourists wander about near or directly underneath the Acropolis, immediately the next day new graffiti goes up.

Kaminis, the mayor of Athens, went on record by saying:

Consequently Kaminis pledged in Sept. 2013, that he will do what it takes to clean up the capital: “We will keep removing (such graffiti) until it becomes understood that this type of behavior is not tolerated by the majority.” (3)

The answer of those doing graffiti and tagging of walls was that there appeared immediately on the wall the following slogan:


                        ‘Kaminis, no wall will be left untouched’

                        Monastiraki Square, Athens

Call it defiance or a dialectical mood, there is slowly an awareness growing that this fight needs to be taken more serious. For what is being staged by the municipal authorities against the invisible hand writings is not merely about the wish to maintain a public order. For it amounts as well to a cover-up attempt of governmental failures to uphold, for instance, human rights with regards to migrants.

If such an effort is linked furthermore to a wish to white wash all the mistakes the establishment has been making all along and even though the entire country ended up in a severe crisis, then this suppression of public truth needs to be questioned or at the very least some differentiation would be needed on how this protest is responded to. This is the position of the critics of the public policy adopted by Kaminis, insofar as Andy Dabilis in his article about 'Athens losing battle on graffiti' cites the counter argument:

Certainly it would be counter productive to criminalize a segment of the youth by giving the police such wide range of power so that every act to mark a wall would count as a criminal offence.

As stated already, there is a wide range of expressions and not everything can be easily dismissed as not being art but a mere act of vandalization.

Clean-up actions

Already in August 2012 Rajan Datar for BBC News shows what is entailed in this „drive to purge Athens of graffiti“. Together with the vice mayor Andreas Varelas, he went to one of the most sensitive areas: the traditional houses in the Plaka and therefore directly underneath the Acropolis. More and more this area frequented by mainly tourists has been transformed due to graffiti on almost every wall, including the one which protects the Tower of the winds and an archaeological site. So together they started to paint over all the marcations or else to scrape off the walls posters which had been posted there.

Already a year before residents had asked the Municipality to take up this undeclared war since it affected in particular two sensitive areas:



 Before December 2013


 After the clean-up in December 2013

        Monument below Lycabettou public school and above Dafnomili Street

What used to be sacred, is defaced. The loss of public values is a highly elusive certainty in this uncertainty. Since monuments play a role in what a society remembers, it is most difficult to explain to youngsters why they should refrain from such a defacement even if they might want other public displays they consider worthwhile to be remembered. About 'work of memory' a lot more needs to be said since this is especially in Greece a huge problem. If the establishment seeks to make unforgettable heroes because they upheld the power, then naturally the youth is opposed to that.

Still, the Municipal Authority is obliged to clean up these defaced monuments. In this specific case it took nearly a whole day for two workers to restore the monument, and that is after the bust of the head had been taken down and cleaned in a special laboratory. Consequently not only time and effort, but costs are involved. No wonder that the Municipality has to come up with a policy containing a range of measures all aiming to reduce the amount of damage done to buildings. This includes the possibility of the police to arrest anyone caught spraying onto a wall some sign.

Monuments depict quite often a national narrative. It is made up of 'false' heroes and reflects an one sided view of history. Usually things are described in terms of extraordinary heroism or else it stresses the need to make a sacrifice for the nation. There is no where a moment of sober reflection becoming audible in such monuments which can silence much of the criticism surrounding the events being elevated by the monument into lofty heights. For this reason it is of importance that the younger generation emancipates itself from the need to make a sacrifice. But once they do that the older generation resorts to other forms of criticism and castigate the youth as if following merely a form of hedonism or else they admonish them for seeking merely pleasure. It makes visible the slogans linked to all variations of Nationalism. Nowadays that is being modified by claiming in a period of crisis not so much Nationalism is asked for but a clear demonstration of Patriotism. What the real difference is to Nationalism, no one seems to know. It reflects as well a state of affairs in which no one seems to be sure any more of being able to make a difference.

Critical remembrance of the past should be linked to giving recognition to those who have contributed to the life of the community. In Greece, this is usually made impossible due to the severe divisions in society not only between the poor and the rich, but between the Left and the Right. The outcome of this division has been that hardly any social cohesion exists. Privileged are then only those individuals who come from well connected families. Later on, once they have made their fortunes, they have a chance to put a stamp on the rest of society. They do so by donating to the church or constructing icon buildings as have done all the major foundations like Niarchos, Onassis or Lambrakis. As this overpowers all the other cultural infrastructures, it leaves again the rest of society standing not so much in the rain but in the shade. The latter can be taken as metaphor for places where it is too dark to recognize the faces of anyone. That ends up being emblematic for a society in which too many people go unrecognized, and who suffer consequently under this strain of being no one.

Obliterated by society at an early stage, the youth will have difficulties making any connection to history. For instance, the period of the military junta 1967-74 is nearly obliterated as if it never existed. In view of such a general amnesia, most of the graffiti expresses the frustration which goes along with a full self conscious way of looking at this society. At another level the same graffiti indicates how difficult it is to conceive such a society which is based on a real social contract. The latter would allow some experiences of equality to be made within a just society.

Municipal policy measures against political art

At times, the Municipal Authorities attempt to make in their clean-up actions a distinction between aesthetical graffiti (equals non political) which is left untouched and tagging of walls which is removed.

If this policy is directed against 'political art', new controversial discussions are in the making with those who support graffiti and who would call this censorship, if not outright dictatorship. When looking at the documentary film about four graffiti artists by Kostas Kallegeris, „The Wake Up Call: political graffiti in times of crisis“ (6) some arguments and justifications can be heard such as not really living in a democracy when dictatorship is being expressed through talk shows which impose only certain opinions while not really hearing others, and in particular that of the youth. Since this touches very much on public media and what is being communicated in the name of whom to the general public, the syntax of the arguments is in need to be studied more carefully. For justifications may be just a clever way of turning around arguments against graffiti but without reflecting the wider ramifications. Usually this leads very quickly to an outright denouncement of anyone who is critical of graffiti. 

Besides values and rights of freedom of speech and artistic freedom of expression being involved, there can also be raised objections when graffiti constitutes if not incitement of hatred, violence and insult of authority, then using propaganda like methods to further stereotypical images (false generalizations) rather than support open dialogue.

Still, there remains the question whether other solutions can be found aside from clean-up actions by residents together with officials from the city and arrests being made by the police? Certainly it would be counter productive to criminalize a segment of the youth by giving the police such wide range of power, so that every act to mark a wall would count as a criminal offence. As stated already, there can be seen and found such a wide range of expressions along the walls so that not everything can be easily dismissed as not being art but a mere act of vandalization.

Some philosophical thoughts

Whenever some argumentation is started with those who claim everything is graffiti, and it does matter, politically, to make this statement on the walls, it seems impossible to convince otherwise. Here would help if a saying by Michel Foucault would be heeded, namely that "it is an art to create space and not occupy it yourself."

Especially public spaces are meant to be used by others even after they have been used by many others. That goes even for the unwritten rules in the Canadian bush. Someone using a site for camping should leave it best without any trace that there had been someone there before coming to that spot beside the water falls. It is an art not to leave traces in the form of rubbish and even the construction where fire was made ought to be demolished and erased so that just natural ground remains.

To leave things how they were before, namely untouched and untamed, that is generally speaking not in the habits of mankind. Even outer space is literally filled by now with litter. There are all sorts of things orbiting and increasingly they pose a danger for new satellites. The same applies to beautiful beaches literally transformed into rubbish bins if the wind comes from a certain direction.

Consequently it appears this littering of space is a kind of obstruction which hurt the eyes. It disrupts and breaks the aesthetical experience of a city. No where can this be noticed better than in the old town below the Acropolis and near the Ancient temples. Also public buildings like the entrance to the Metro station or a church remain no longer untouched. What that means can be reformulated as philosophical questions about the legality thereof, the ethics of creativity involved, the risk of political art entailed to become just another form of propaganda, while leaving open the question of what is to be commemorated in a society which functions without memory?

Critically reflected, once graffiti / tagging of walls is reduced to an expression of mere hatred of everything having to do with the system, it will transform the protest into an anti aesthetical movement. By not supporting the need to beautify the urban environment, that enhances the risk of losing any sense of beauty even though this has very much to do with any claim of truth.

The question about use of space: legality / illegality

Still, when graffiti artists and others who spray something on the wall call it 'resistance', it implies immediately that they are equally aware that they are aware of doing something semi-illegal or completely illegal. To call it resistance may risk as well an inflation of the meaning of their actions, for nothing compares in this contemporary situation with what resistance fighters had to face during German occupation. Naturally the term itself evokes thoughts about doing something worthwhile even though it may not be legal according to the official position. Since they oppose the system, they can justify their action. Often they do this in full knowledge of anyone caught spraying, shall be arrested if caught by the police. In Germany, there was the case of the famous lawyer Otto Schily when he was Minister of Interior in the Schröder /SPD government, that he wanted even to chase graffiti artists with the helicopter. Clearly he was on the side of the house owners and more specifically his radical equally reactionary attitude gained him the support from all those who wanted public order to be upheld before anything else.

Resistance against such official declarations means, therefore, to be provoked to do precisely the opposite rather than resolving the paradox. One example for an intelligent way to resolve a paradox gave Adorno. He advised when society commands to love each other, then the only way to break that chain of command is to love. In that sense resistance falls into the trap set by provocations, if it refuses common responsibility and instead adopts the form of a self acclaimed self responsibility. As this asserts a kind of freedom to do whatever one likes while everything else is being blamed for the state of affairs which allows apparently no other choice, a new paradoxical situation is being created. Much what has been done along the walls reflects that paradox.

One crucial conclusion can be drawn out of the existence of so much graffiti in Athens. The youth does not seem to have the space needed to express itself. Hence to a large extent their discontent is spilled literally out and onto the walls. By doing so they defy consciously public rules which prevail. Instead they wish to express in the open what they feel about their situation and respond with direct criticism as to what seems to be going wrong in this world. They perceive the seeming public order mainly negatively and have already experienced on many different occasions in their short lives various times all kinds of efforts to silence exactly that what needs to be said in public.

Once there appears no longer to hold any 'self restraint' within a collective body, use of public spaces shall be perverted by succumbing to sole private and therefore egoistic use. Given the trend towards privatization, societal needs for public resources risk to go unrecognized. Likewise public spaces, even though they should be kept free for others to come along and use them, will be claimed by only certain users and thereby undermine the Right everyone has to community.

This difference between use but not occupying the space is not seen by many who advocate and justify graffiti for various, including political reasons.

Ethics of creativity

There was once the chant popular in the radical movement, namely "destroy what destroys you". That was in the 1980'ies when was also discussed the famous question posed by George Steiner in his book 'Silence and Language', namely in view of what happened in Germany under Hitler ending in Holocaust, how is it possible for someone to play Schubert on the piano the evening before he goes the next day into the concentration camp to kill people? George Steiner posed that question since always the arts was assumed to be on the side of the humanist reflection. The latter was exemplified by someone like Albert Camus who wrote a "letter to his German friends" prior to him entering the resistance movement against German occupation of France. Many writers and poets still claim that artistic expressions can if not prevent outrightly war and violence being enacted upon another human being, at least bring about a pause in the fighting to let everyone involved to reflect in a sober way if the conflicts cannot be resolved in a different way than slaughtering literally each other and thousands of innocent lives. That question resounds all the more urgently as the first peace talks are under way in Geneva in order to seek even some truce in Syria so that humanitarian aid can reach the desperate people stuck there more often between the different factions fighting each other until the bitter end.

Post modernism may claim that it is possible to be even creative if working in a dictatorship, but 'socialist art' proved the contrary. It matters if the art work speaks up itself rather than being dictated to say something specific. That would mean to subjugate the artistic expression to the need to underline a specific message.

As for creativity itself as prerequisite for human self consciousness and for feeling alive, once people feel they are no longer a part of a positive tension, they will go literally astray. And once they see how the economic recession is responded to by many forms of protests spilling out into the streets and squares, then everything becomes a reversed language. For this street protest supposes the untamed and wild is the best way on how the system can be attacked when in fact it amounts to a kind of demolition of the city. When windows of a bank are smashed, then it is assumed this shall hurt Capitalism when in fact banks as symbol of power are mere derivatives of an economy which puts money first and people only second.

The question becomes, therefore, how to put the human being into central stage when the streets are converted literally into battle fields? Even the form of demonstrations are defined in a way so that political protest becomes ritualized while the doubt as to the impact thereof is merely silenced by everyone joining ranks and waving some symbolic flags as if a declared will to be against something and not a part of one and the same society. The need for a clear enemy so that blame can be put squarely on his shoulder is the much preferred form of making just demands without reflecting under which conditions they could be fulfilled. It is a far cry from assuming any common responsibility. 

Whatever the explanation and even 'excuse', once a rage turns wild, then things which matter to others are smashed or if not broken down, then smeared and transformed into what seems to be the underlying motive of it all, namely to give the city a "negative image". At least, this is what the official language used to describe graffiti tries to suggest as if these expressions were counter productive to both tourism and attracting inward investments.


Art is not propaganda and propaganda is not art

Briefly said, graffiti reflects a society in which public truth is at best very weak, and therefore not really in a position to question all kinds of propagandas it is subjected to. Propaganda is an old, equally familiar term to designate a method used to pacify and to keep calm the largest portion of the population.

It can also convince the public to go against its own better judgement. As all of this amounts to an acquiescence to power, and often enough reference is made to a 'silent majority' ruling, no wonder when problems do pile up because no one seems prepared or willing to talk about them openly. May it be for reasons to fear loss of job, the youth finds hardly in teachers or friends of their parents, never mind access to public figures who would be willing to discuss the reasons why these problems continue to persist and why so far they have remained unresolved for such a long time.

Yet the political message of the writings on the wall should also be clear. They attest to a different memory track for they can recall also unpleasant things which the official side would like to eradicate out of collective memory, or at the very least suppress the truth about this matter.

Commemoration - the memory work

One way to justify graffiti and all the writings on the wall is to remind and to remember what otherwise could easily be silenced and forgotten. As methods seeking to counter official attempts to efface such political cases which could prove embarrassing to the regime, graffiti serve a purpose. Hence they should not be seen as something causing damage to public buildings and therefore breaking the law protecting private and public property. Rather their contribution to 'work with memory' should be recognized.

Justice in a society can only be served if people are not imprisoned and even killed for political reasons, while the official version thereof remains one sided in favour of only the regime which ordered this suppression of truth. Still, not all expressions on the wall can be justified but are in need to be critized if they resort to an untruthful over exaggeration by equating a crack-down by the police during demonstrations to being nothing but proof to be living in dictatorship. Criticism of existing power structures must be linked with an effort to let another language speak, one which is more humane and truthful.


            "In honour of Lambros Fouda"                         Exarchia Dec. 2013

Even if this not at all clear in all cases, a graffiti honouring Lambros Fouda underlines the need to uphold memory of his existence. It was alleged that he was somehow involved in firing a rocket at the American embassy but which was never proven. Later he was killed. 

Set apart from serious allegations, graffiti shows a wonderful sense of humour by depicting Lambros Fouda not only as a warm and bearded figure, but like Sherlock Holmes holding a magnifying glass. The latter can be understood as this case needs further clues even though it may be self evident what occurred. It is a matter of a search for light equal to a wish that society may shed more light into this case and find out what really happened or took place.

Does there exist any common responsibility?


      Slogan found on Sina Street (near Skoufa)                         Dec. 2013

Given the crisis with many denials being transformed into an imitation of British defiance, these times are becoming increasingly difficult with regards to assuming common responsibility. Defiance is already entailed in this slogan: "we did it!" It is an answer to many kinds of accusations till they have become negative social determinants. It is like Genet saying in his youth he was continuously called a thief until he finally accepted this role and became a thief. 

There are many different categories for responsibility: civic, social, political, personal. Solshenitzyn is famous for saying every writer has to assume to be the second government of his country and assume responsibility for everything which goes on. Likewise a vocal component of the anarchist movement is to say the whole of society should take responsibility as to under what conditions migrants are kept in detention centres.

In Germany, co-determination (Mitbestimmung) became a new industrial policy tool, in order to allow workers and trade unions enter the decision making process of factories. As a consequence they had also to decide when a company was no longer able to generate profits, whether or not to close it down. This would mean they had to decide whether they could keep their jobs or for better economic reason had to take literally their hats. Usually trade unions were unwilling to go down this road that far but assuming common responsibility implies that as well.

For sure, if graffiti wishes to initiate a clarification process in terms of common responsibilities, then likewise it has to be acknowledged that there is another process of denial under way. For many dodge taking the blame for the crisis even though everyone contributed to a culture or morality which made corruption a way to facilitate some extra income and therefore by definition a clever way of doing things. Yet still others refuse to accept any responsibility and place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the politicians, and if not they, then the bankers or the Troika. Moreover as the crisis continues to deepen after having gone already through five or more years of recession, there are those who cannot take still further burdens. They negate common responsibility and seek to survive on their own.

Given the heaviness of all the burdens, something light hearted is needed as well. Some of the graffiti functions like good medicine. As outlet, with a good slogan added, it can evoke at the very least a smile when seeing what is written on the wall is to the point.


      House on Sina 56                                                                January 2014

Something else comes into play and which is being discussed more and more as another kind of responsibility claiming public space. If the epistemological meaning of the word 'responsibility' is taken literally, then it means fore mostly to be willing and ready to respond to things happening in society and affecting individuals or groups of people in different ways. Generally it is felt, that consumer society and more so one in crisis does not respond sufficiently or at all to the fact that it exposes many people to plights known until now not to exist in a Western Society with a functioning welfare state.

Some conclusions

That graffiti is used to protest against such a dismal state of affairs has been pointed out. How the issue of legality versus illegality is resolved, remains an open question. A defining term for all of this is what 'damages' are inflicted upon buildings, whether private or public, monuments, street signs? If these objects have not their own voice and means to protect themselves, then likewise nature. As of late news has spread that even rare trees in national parks have become objects of tagging efforts. Due to the social media, such a feat or attack is quickly spread and soon enough imitators thereof do likewise. But even if many do it, that is still no justification. It is here that any protest movement encounters the need to discover its own sense of responsibility.


In a discussion about vandalism, following contribution was made by fiona hernandez who is a Conservation Intern, Objects at Canadian Conservation Institute:

"Alison Young, criminologist, wrote a great article about developing anti-vandalism policy in Melbourne that involves city councils, property owners and graffiti artists, to work out 'negotiated consent'. She talks about the consequences of zero tolerance approaches to vandalism, and makes a great point for education from all the concerned parties: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13604810903525215?journalCode=ccit20#.UxPwWvRdUcQ


Text and photos by Hatto Fischer

Athens January 2014


1. Raphael Samuel (2012) Theatres of Memory. London: Verso, p. 289

2. Kostas Kallegeris, "The Wake Up Call: political graffiti in times of crisis". A documentary film about four graffiti artists in Athens.


3. Andy DabilisAthens losing war on GraffitiSeptember 11, 2013 in Crime, News, Society


4. op.cit.

5. Dimitris Rigopoulos (2012)„City of Athens fighting a graffiti warhttp://www.ekathimerini.com/4dcgi/_w_articles_wsite4_1_09/07/2012_451285

6. Kostas Kallegeris, "The Wake Up Call: political graffiti in times of crisis." A documentary film about four graffiti artists in Athens. http://www.thewakeupcall.gr/



Andy DabilisAthens losing war on GraffitiSeptember 11, 2013 in Crime, News, Society


Rajan Datar for BBC News „The drive to purge Athens of graffiti“ 21.August 2012 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/fast_track/9744948.stm

Kostas Kallegeris, "The Wake Up Call: political graffiti in times of crisis." A documentary film of four graffiti artists in Athens.


Dimitris Rigopoulos (2012)„City of Athens fighting a graffiti warhttp://www.ekathimerini.com/4dcgi/_w_articles_wsite4_1_09/07/2012_451285

Raphael Samuel (2012) Theatres of Memory. London: Verso.

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