It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when our street art obsession began. But New York City has been the ultimate enabler, feeding our addiction from a well that never seems to run dry. Alas, junkies are never satisfied. Our appetites grew, and pretty soon we found ourselves down deserted alleys in foreign cities trying to get a fix. We’ve hunted down street art in ditches and mansions. And then in Athens, we nearly overdosed.
Street Art is everywhere
The city of Athens is a massive, sprawling metropolis, devoid of skyscrapers, with only its hills drawing the eye. It’s the exact opposite of the claustrophobic density and sheer height you feel when walking the streets of New York City. But that’s not the first thing you notice upon arrival to the ancient city. The first thing you notice is the overwhelming amount of street art. It’s everywhere you turn: sides of buildings, rooftops, utility polls, awnings, fences, walls, even cars. You’ll find everything from epic murals to more traditional graffiti (tags and bombs) and everything in between (stickers, tiles, and wheat pastes).
To get the inside scoop on the street art scene in Athens, we partnered with Alternative Athens for their street art tour. Nikos–a street artist and graphic designer who goes locally by the moniker, Rude–was our guide. Nikos was the Pied Piper leading us through the streets and alleyways of Athens. He grew up in Greece then studied art, among other things, in the United Kingdom before eventually finding his way home. His deep appreciation for the city, for its neighborhoods, for art, and for the technique and history that informs it–both ancient and modern–are on full display throughout the three-hour adventure.
And what an adventure it was.
Getting to know real neighborhoods in Athens
Nikos introduced us to areas we never would have explored on our own, exposing us to a robust cross-section of Athens’ neighborhoods. The tour doesn’t attempt to sell you the glossy, packaged-for-tourists version of city. We wandered Gazi–named after the old gas factory–which is now home to a vibrant cafe and bar scene. And we trekked through the more humble backstreets of Metaxourgio, where run-down properties littered the landscape.
Though street art is the highlight of the tour, Nikos also serves up insights on Greek history, socio-political issues and current events. The pieces he selects aren’t just meant to deliver perfectly Instagrammable images, but to educate the participants on technique and style. He initiates discussions about messages and commentary contained in the imagery. Some pieces are from well-known Athens street artists, while others are simply unknown works he appreciates.
Highlights from the Alternative Athens tour
We stopped to admire a portrait of Loukanikos (which affectionately means “sausage”), one of Greece’s most famous pets. The celebrity canine was often photographed defending protesters during the anti-austerity riots and was even named one of TIME’s personalities of the year in 2011. He became a symbol of the resistance in Greece, and the mural “All Dogs Go To Heaven” by street artists Billy Gee, N_Grams, and Alex Martinez celebrated his role in history after he died in 2014.
We also discussed a piece by Dimitris Taxis which was posted in response to the Greek elections of 2012, depicting a man sandwiched between two stacks of books. The stack beneath him includes titles like Socrates, Plato and Democracy, while the stack above him includes titles like No Future, Economics and Survival Guide. It alludes to Greeks resting on the laurels of their prestigious past while an ominous future weighs upon them.
If three hours sounds long, it certainly doesn’t feel like it. Alternative Athens has the logistics down pat. The walk is easy, and Nikos allows ample time for wandering photographers. In the middle of the tour, we stopped for a coffee break in a local cafe, which also allowed the tour group to get to know each other better.
Street Art as a universal platform
Bertolt Brecht once said, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it”. Street art began as a decidedly urban cultural phenomenon, rising up from the undergrounds of major cities going through periods of acute turmoil or decline, like Philadelphia, New York, and Berlin through the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Since that time, street artists have stood as sentinels amongst the urban decay, their message clear: We are here. We are witness. We will not be silent. Athens, the foremost city in the foremost culture in the history of the world lays claim to many firsts. But with this emergent art form, the city embraced something new, something other, and yet still made it their own.
Thank you to Alternative Athens for partnering on this post. You can sign up for their street art tour here.
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– L. & J.