Athens Street Art

Monday, October 13th, 2008 by Kostis Kourelis

Graffiti Artists Leave Their Mark on Athens“on ABC Australia discussed the rise of graffiti on the archaeological sites of Athens. I thank Tim Gregory who sent this link to Bill Caraher who sent it to me. Indeed, walking through the streets of Athens in 2007, I first noticed the explosion of Greek street art. The Plaka especially is saturated. In an earlier posting, I explored Anastasios Orlandos’ act of resistance by transcribing graffiti from the Parthenon during the German Occupation, seeWriting off the Wall: Transcription as Resistance. I think that graffiti has not been seriously discussed in relation to Greek archaeology. How could Greeks archaeologists categorically condemn graffiti but, at the same time, celebrate Lord Byron’s scratchings on the Temple of Zeus at Sounion? As an archaeologist of post-classical Greece, I find myself closer to the side of the vandals “defacing” the ancient temples than the purists. One of my favorite archaeological illustrations is a drawing showing a tapestry of graffiti at Ramnous; see Ο δήμος της Ραμνούς, vol. 1 , Τοπογραφικά (Athens, 1999), p. 270. Vasileios Petrakos is one of few Greek archaeologists to publish such defacement in a site monograph. My love of graffiti should not be dismissed at face value on account of my period interests (Byzantine over Classical). We tend to associate spolia, reuse and appropriation with the Late Roman and Byzantine periods. Classical Athenians, however, did a fair share of it, too. For details, you must ask my wife, Celina Gray, who labors over reuse in Athenian cemeteries. For my favorite article on Late Antique spolia, I send you to Joseph Alchermes, “Spolia in Roman Cities of the Late Empire: Legislative Rationales and Architectural Reuse,”Dumbarton Oaks Papers 48 (1994), pp. 167-178.

In this posting, I wish to discuss neither the archaeology of graffititi nor the graffiti of archaeological sites. Rather, I want to highlight the burgeoning scene of Greek street art in a positive manner. Its cultural relevance should be taken seriously. It is Greece’s greatest public art and one of the few instances of constructive civil disobedience. I will start with a simple question, which is more than rhetorical. Is modern graffiti inferior to classical art? Of course, classical art is more important, but can we be so sure? One way to test the relative relevance of disparate art forms is to gauge contemporary interests. Although my methodology is by no means scientific, I decided to test cultural value in my local Border’s bookstore by conducting a simple statistical study. So, on my way back from work last Tuesday, I stopped at Border’s at New London’s Crystal Mall. The store contains a modest art selection, covering 18 shelves, or the equivalent of 54 linear feet of shelf space. Scanning carefully all the shelves, I was surprised to find absolutely NO books on ancient art. By the way, my job at Connecticut College is teaching ancient and medieval art (incidentally as Joe Alchermes’ sabbatical replacement); my informal survey obviously devastated my sense of academic value. I was disheartened to see that antiquity was found sparingly only in a few general books. I concluded that, similarly, my ancient survey will be the only exposure that my students will ever have to this material. At Border’s, a little more than 2 linear feet were devoted to street art, that is 4% of the total shelf space. Thus, we can conclude that for a general American audience, street art is infinitely more important than ancient art. Modern Greek graffiti, moreover, is highly respected within those publications. An excerpt from Nicholas Ganz’s, Graffiti World: Street Art from Five Continents (New York, 2004), pp. 128, 162-163, best summarizes the Greek scene:

“Greece and its local activists were thrust into the limelight through theChromopolis project. Concentrated in Athens and Thessaloniki, the movement is enjoying a boom, particularly in pieces. Over the fast few years, pioneers such as Bizare or Woozy have continued to make their mark, and new artists are emerging, often working with stencils or characters.” Have the archaeologists quoted in ABC missed the movement altogether? Most likely. Reading the official condemnation of graffiti might give us the impression that street art is strictly an underground subculture. This is another misrepresentation. Preparing for the 2004 Athens Olympics, the Ministry of Culture went hip-hop by sponsoring Chromopolis, a project organized by graffiti magazine Carpe Diem. In the summer of 2002, Greece invited 16 internationally acclaimed graffiti artists, including OsGemeos, Besok, Codeak, Bizare, Mark1, and Loomit. The artists created large scale compositions at 10 sites (image above). The works were proudly included in Greece’s official Cultural Olympiad and elevated graffiti with venues such as the archaeology of Minoan and Mycenaean food at Birmingham, or a Post-Byzantine art exhibit in New York.

Although by no means would I promote vandalizing archaeological sites, the recent growth in archaeological graffiti seems to fit a larger pattern, the explosion and international prestige of Greek street art. In the American context, it would be difficult to ignore the prestige of street artists like Shepard Fairey, who designed one of the most desirable images for Barak Obama’s presidential campaign; see my posting “Punk Archaeology: Glue.” The recent press on Fairey is more concerned about his mainstream status; see Melena Rizik, “Closer to Mainstream; Still a Bit Rebelious,”(NYT, Oct. 1, 2008). The elusive Bansky also seems to have made a surprise installation in SoHo, and the press went wild, see David Itzkoff “A Could-Be Bansky Appears on a SoHo Wall” (NYT, Oct. 1, 2008). I fall in the group of people who worship those idolatrous artists. And judging from the 4% coverage at Border’s, I’m not alone.

The fans of Greek street art are harder to find. But I’m clearly not the only archaeologist of Greece to see cultural vitality in modern Greece beyond the national love of the Parthenon. Guy Sanders, Jan Sanders and Petros Sandamouris administer a wonderful Facebook Group, “Alternative Athens: Beyond Your Comfort Zone.” It’s defined as follows: “Εκτός των συνόρων: how can you find a real Athens beyond your hotel or institution or group? A member of one Athens based institution has likened their closed community to a huge sow to which its piglets return and suckle year after year. How do we find out about the life beyond our Comfort Zone? This group is intended to be a place where venues outside the bubble are shared and evaluated.” Some of the Group members (Jess Hackman, Eva Akashi, Sara Lima, Isabela Sanders) have been photographing Athenian street art and adding it to the communal images. What we need now is a systematic survey, the archaeology of Athenian street art, the mapping of Greece’s newest masterpieces. The Wooster Collective is such an organized venture documenting street art globally. I’m waiting for the Essential City Guide to Athens!!!! I had started photographing street art in Philadelphia, but that was a few years ago. One of my objectives had been to record locations through time and show the temporal nature (both deterioration and addition) of this art form. The survey of Greek graffiti must take inspiration from the Geocaching craze, a hobby that unites GPS, Google Earth and treasure hunting. Deb and Colin Stewart introduced me to this and I look forward to joining. A search under Athens, Greece, produced 91 caches in Athens alone. What are we waiting for?

People catalogue all kinds of things. My dear friend jules, for instance, catalogues built-in ashtrays. Although she doesn’t see it archaeologically, she is creating the only existing database of this extinct socio-type. In fact, if you have more instances, send them to me, and I’ll send them to BUILT-IN-ASHTRAYS. Needless to say, this is the pet project of a reformed smoker and quite the social thinker.

Curious about street art bibliography? The least that I can do is share what I found at Border’s in a measly New London mall. You can map that, too; click here. In the spirit of free art, I bought nothing but browsed to my heart’s content. In browsing order: Tristan Manco, Street Sketchbook: Inside the Journals of International Street and Graffiti Artists (San Francisco, 2007); Josh J. MacPhee, Stencil Pirates: A Global Study of the Street Stencil (Brooklyn, 2004); Roger Gastman, Caleb Neelon, and Anthony Smyrski, Street World: Urban Art and Culture from Five Continents (New York, 2007); Nicholas Ganz, Graffiti World: Street Art from Five Continents (New York, 2004); Eleanor Mathieson (ed.) and Xavier A. Tapies, Street Art and the War on Terror: How the World’s Best Graffit Artists Said No to the Iraq War (London, 2007); Stephen Powers, The Art of Getting Over: Graffit at the Millenium (New York, 1999), Steve Grody, Graffiti L.A.: Street Styles and Art (New York, 2007); Ryo Sanada, Suridh Hassan, Rackgaki: Japanese Graffiti (London, 2007); Jon Naar, The Birth of Graffiti (Munich, 2007); Bansky, Wall and Piece (London, 2007).



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