During my time in the Greek capital, I have become fascinated by Athens street art. It's certainly not something that was top of my ‘Must Do in Athens' list, and to be honest, not something that normally interests me at all. As the days went by however, I found myself drawn more and more towards these urban street murals. What were they for? Who was painting them? What did they mean?
Well, whole books have been written on the subject, so I was never going to become an expert. But, it was helpful to get some insight into the Athens Street Art scene by spending a few days with Vanessa Fou. Vanessa runs alternative tours of Athens, and I first met her on a walking tour of Athens focused around the Rebetiko music scene, and organised by Dopios Tours. (Originally, I had planned to write about Rebetiko music, but the street art ended up interesting me more). During the tour, she had pointed out a few of the murals focused on Rebetiko, but it became obvious that there was something far more going on here. Just plain graffiti to the unaccustomed eye, it soon became political commentary, social statement, and twisted artistic genius. Sure, there is a lot of ugly tagging in Athens, but there are some real works of art hidden away on the walls and steel shutters of the city.
The Rebetiko Murals
So, let's start with the Rebetiko murals. For the uninitiated, Rebetiko music is basically an urban kind of Greek folk music. Again, there is far more history behind it than I can go into here, but its influences draw from both Greek and Ottoman backgrounds. First coming to prominence after the massive population exchanges between Greece and Turkey in the early 1920's, it is now a part of the national psyche. The murals depict typical musicians and the way they used to dress.
Rebetiko was blues rock n roll ahead of its time. Song lyrics concerned th0emselves with drink, drugs, hookers and violence. Indeed, fights would often break out between musicians or the audience, and the whole music scene was kept underground by harsh police crackdowns. You can see why I was interested in it now!
These were just some of the Rebetiko murals that we walked past on our walking tour. I suspect there are many more, tucked away down the alleys and side streets, as well as other Athens street art.
The evening ended with a pleasant meal, whilst Rebetiko musicians played in the background. Great company, amazing food, good music and a little wine made the party roll on until the early hours of the morning.
Athens Street Art
The following day, Vanessa met up with myself and a couple of Finnish brothers from the night before (check their blog here – www.calrainer.com). We had gotten on so well, that we decided to make another night of it, although this time, it wasn't an official tour. After visiting a Cretan street market, Vanessa kindly took us to see some more street art, this time centred around the Exarcheia district, which is where the infamous riots started.
The Exarcheia district has long been associated with anarchist and socialist groups and people. It is a bohemian student area, with a history of fringe politics that goes back decades. That the riots associated with the banking collapses should start here was no real surprise.
The nearby Athens Polytechnic or National Technical University of Athens as it is also known, is also a hive of left leaning politics. It played an essential part in the overthrowing of the Greek military dictatorship in 1973, which was known as the Athens Polytechnic uprising. Walking around it at night was quite a revelation to say the least!
In a way, it looked like a place where the kids had taken over the school. Street art and general graffiti was sprayed onto the walls, both inside and outside. In fact, if you didn't know better, you would suspect that the building had become derelict! It was all a bit of an eye opener, and proved to be a great way to peel back another layer of Athens I might not otherwise have seen.
Leaving the ‘riot area', we made our way to a bar for a couple of drinks, passing this example of Athens street art on the way. It is probably one of my favourite pieces, although I have no idea what it symbolises! If you can work it out, please leave a comment below!