Street artists have turned the Greek capital into an outdoor gallery, and Athens now has a new museum of modern art, too.
People pay most attention to Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” on Pireos Street during rush hour. Painted onto the wall of a former street-car depot that recently housed an exhibition honoring the Renaissance artist, it stretches along the road for 100 meters. Right nearby, Mona Lisa’s eyes gaze down onto the traffic rushing past below. Both pieces were created by INO, an Athenian artist who is well known only throughout Greece even though his murals have adorned the Cyprus Parliament Building in Nicosia, for example, and facades in Reykjavik and Miami. As there’s no photo of him anywhere online, nobody knows what he actually looks like. This way, he can move unnoticed through the streets of Gazi, an Athenian neighborhood known for its bustling nightlife. Only the well informed might recognize him by the spots of paint on his sweatpants. But according to the thirty-something with the close-cut hair and gentle look, it doesn’t matter how he looks, even though his days as an illegal sprayer have been over for 10 to 15 years. Focusing on the artist, in his opinion, devalues the art.
The “Last Supper” is INO’s latest and most ambitious work to date. It took him exactly 117 hours to apply the paint with a roller and a telescopic extension pole. Pointing to the calluses on his hands, he explains that he works out in order to keep fit for his art and even took a climbing course so he would be able to abseil down the sides of buildings. Why all the effort? Why not just paint on canvas? He says it’s because he wants to reach larger audiences – and that there’s always a deeper meaning to his work. His version of the “Last Supper,” he tells us, lacks the central figure of Jesus, and people are free to interpret that as they like.
“The financial crisis caused creativity to explode in the streets of Athens,” says graphic artist and former sprayer Nikos Tongas of the tour company Alternative Athens; he will be taking us on a street-art tour of the city. “In difficult times, people feel a greater need to express themselves,” says the 37-year-old. “There’s more urgency to art. Fewer police on the street also means there’s more creative space to work in.” Psyri neighborhood, another nightlife haunt, looks like a giant open-air gallery. We follow Tongas in his red tartan shirt along uneven sidewalks and through streets and alleys crowded with cafés. There’s street art to be found in every nook and cranny of the traffic-calmed area: over the entrance to a parking garage, on the wall of a half crumbling neoclassical residential building, on the back of a building on Platia Iroon square, from which three surreal, contorted faces look down onto the hustle and bustle below. Created by Alexandros Vasmoulakis, a pioneer of the city’s street-art scene, whose work now hangs in museums around the world, the trio palpably liven up the atmosphere of the otherwise gray square.
“Well-executed street art can add something to an area – that’s something even the government has now realized,” says Tongas. He points to a sign beneath a mural stating that it was officially commissioned by the city administration. A few streets further on, we come to the Heart of Athens design hotel, which not so long ago commissioned artists to paint and brighten up a dreary alley. Nika Louka is now the neighborhood hot spot for taking selfies. “Since Athens’ graffiti is increasingly being replaced by murals created by trained artists, more and more people are accepting it,” explains Tongas. “Both Alexandros Vasmoulakis and INO studied at the Athens School of Fine Arts.”
All this creative freedom results in many different styles. “Graffiti hasn’t come from a can here in a very long time,” says Tongs. In the Metaxourgio neighborhood, he pushes aside some derelict furniture in front of a wall to reveal a picture by Stelios Faitakis. At first glance, it looks like a painting from a Byzantine church, but then we soon recognize contemporary street scenes.
The “calligraffiti” created by the Athens-based graphic design duo Blaqk is also quite unique and inspired by Arabic script. The artists use a paint brush to apply it. “Ten years ago, Europe’s street-art capital was Berlin, but today it’s Athens,” says Tongas as we finish up our little art walk. “The graffiti walks are our most popular tours, right after the Acropolis and food tours,” he adds.
So what does the mayor of Athens say about his city getting more and more colorful by the day, I wonder?
Athens should be just as proud of its dynamic present
as it is of its glorious past
Kostas Bakoyannis receives us at the town hall. Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, he walks toward us with the springing step of a Barack Obama. The 41-year-old is a member of the Nea Dimokratia party and has only been mayor since the end of August 2019. No sooner are we seated at the conference table in his office than he gets to the point. “You have to differentiate between tags and street art,” he explains. “Tags, usually just scribbles on house walls, are something we take action against. Street art we support.” The art scene in Athens has made huge strides since the financial crisis, he says, and young people in particular feel a strong need to express themselves. “This is something we encourage because in my view, Athens should be just as proud of its dynamic present as it is of its glorious past.” But isn’t the city infringing on people’s freedom of expression by deciding which art is allowed to be created where? “Of course, there’s always a risk that a space will lose the oxygen it needs to breathe when art is regulated by the state,” the mayor says. “But that’s why we’re explicitly asking the artists to make their views known. Athens is the birthplace of democracy, after all. Having art in public spaces gives people a chance to reclaim and fall in love with their city all over again. And there are so many wonderful artists here. My job as mayor is to ensure that they are given the attention they deserve.”
Bakoyannis doesn’t just appreciate the creativity of the Athens’ street-art scene, he also stresses the importance to his city of established cultural institutions. Just last October, only a few months ago, Athens’ art scene gained a new attraction in the Basil & Elise Goulandris Foundation’s new museum. One of the world’s most valuable private collections, which once belonged to a shipping magnate and his wife, is now housed in a four-story neoclassical townhouse in the Pangrati neighborhood. It includes works by all the masters of classic modernism, paintings by Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh finding themselves in the excellent company of sculptures by Auguste Rodin, Alberto Giacometti and Edgar Degas.
At the ticket counter, a portrait of Elise Goulandris painted by Marc Chagall demonstrates just how influential the museum’s patrons were. On the second floor, there’s a self-portrait of Cézanne that once sat on Basil Goulandris’ writing desk. Goulandris died in 1994, his wife in 2000, leaving the foundation a collection of masterpieces worth an estimated 2.7 billion euros. Among the most famous are van Gogh’s painting Olive Picking and Claude Monet’s Rouen Cathedral. The wealthy couple invested in contemporary Greek art, too, and the fourth floor is dedicated to painters, such as Tassos Mantzavinos and Maria Filopoulou.
We leave behind Athens’ latest treasure trove and head toward the place where the art of tomorrow is taking shape: the Athens School of Fine Arts. The state-run art academy resides in a former cotton mill on the edge of the city that was one of the most important exhibition venues during Dokumenta 2017, which was hosted both in Kassel and in Athens. We want to speak to the school’s director, Nikolaos Tranos, who is known to be a big street-art fan. The 62-year-old with the gray-flecked bun receives us in an office filled with abstract sculptures. When we bring up the Goulandris museum, he doesn’t hesitate to speak his mind: “I think it’s good that masterpieces by the likes of Picasso and van Gogh can now be seen in Athens – but the selection of contemporary Greek art there only represents the taste of the collectors and has nothing to do with reality,” says Tranos.
The academy’s director describes himself as an archeologist of the present. In an attempt to form a picture of the current aesthetic in Athens, he embarked on a five-year art project that consisted of copying down with a ballpoint pen more than 200 graffiti images from the streets of the city. He thinks very little of the statues of warriors and busts of great thinkers that are still dotted around so many cities today. “They don’t reveal anything about what people have to say,” he says. “But street art is truth, that’s why we have to preserve it.” Tranos’ conviction that young, up-and-coming artists are good for the city is naturally something he has shared with the new mayor. “Kostas Bakoyannis had only been in office for ten days when we met,” says Tranos. “And I said to him: You don’t have to fight the street art, it draws tourists to the city. That’s also why we talked about a possible collaboration with the School of Fine Arts for more murals in public spaces.”
Tranos considers tags to be just as relevant as street art. “I’m mostly interested in sprays that are thrown up quickly, that don’t follow a particular concept but spring directly from the soul.” He is adamantly averse to making street art too academic or even using it for teaching if it’s to stay fresh. And he has naturally forbidden his students to paint the art school building, although walls, corridors, lockers and even the cafeteria are covered with graffiti. Tranos’ slow smile when we point this out makes us think that this was exactly his intention all along.
Eat, sleep and find your way around
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
Alternative Athens offers tours for visitors interested in gaining new perspectives on the city.
The restaurant at the Ergon House hotel is laid out like a market place. Chefs prepare specialties such as zucchini balls or grilled octopus.
The Urban Frame is a boutique hotel in historical Plaka. Book a room with a view of the Acropolis!
Discover Greece, the website of the nonprofit organisation Marketing Greece, offers tips for trips to Greece.
Lufthansa is offering up to three daily flights from Munich (MUC) and two daily flights from Frankfurt (FRA) to Athens (ATH) in January. Use the app to calculate your miles: miles-and-more.com/app