Colorful mural of a girl's face on the side of building in Athens Greece via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Tag, You’re It! A Street Art Tour With Alternative Athens

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

Three murals on store shutters depicting the faces of classical Greek gods in Athens, Greece via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

A wall mural depicting jazz musicians on the side of a building in Athens, Greece via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Wall mural depicting a portion of a female face resembling Marilyn Monroe in Athens, Greece via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Couple in a graffitied alley in Athens, Greece via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

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

A mural of a gas factory worker on the side of the former gas factory building in Athens, Greece via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
A mural on the former gas factory building depicting a factory worker and a gas mask by iNO
Blue door with a surrounding mural with matching blue window shutters in Athens, Greece via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
A decorated home along the route
A mural of an exaggerated male figure surrounded by other murals in Athens, Greece via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
Mural by Sive which was part of a collaborative project organized by UrbanAct, a group that seeks to promote art in public spaces like this OSY bus terminal building
Home in disrepair with a mural painted between two windows of a man's head with the text "Squat ur head" above it in Athens, Greece via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
An abandoned property with neoclassical design elements common to the Metaxourgeio neighborhood

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

Mural of Greece's famous riot dog Loukanikos with flames in the background and a crown above his head in Athens via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
“All Dogs Go To Heaven” by Billy Gee, N_Grams and Martinez

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.

Wheat paste mural of a man sandwiched between two stacks of books with additional tags on the wall in Athens, Greece via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
Mural by Dimitris Taxis

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.

A heart-shaped mural containing a man, a woman and a tank on the side of a building in Athens, Greece via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
“Make Love, Not War”, a clever condom ad by Billy Gee
Wall mural with a symbolic face and cloak with Arabic lettering above it in Athens, Greece via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
A piece by an unknown artist with the word “merhaba” written in Arabic, which translates to “Hello” or “Welcome”. The piece speaks to the relationship between Turkey and Greece
Mural of three faces above a colorful building in Athens, Greece via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
Mural by Athens-born Alexandros Vasmoulakis, who often uses mirrors or “sequins” in his murals for a reflective feature at certain times of day

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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Pinterest pin with mural depicting the profile of Loukanikos the Athens riot dog

– L. & J.

 

17 thoughts on “Tag, You’re It! A Street Art Tour With Alternative Athens”

  1. Love that you brought home the art from Athens. I had noted the political lean of much of the street art here in NYC, but it seems to have even more of an edge in the home of democracy. Especially loved learning of Loukanikos. Was not aware of him and his story. Beautiful post!

    1. Thank you so much for reading, Tip! I agree wholeheartedly that the street art in Athens captures the city’s rebellious undercurrent in a much more pronounced manner. It’s definitely a great outlet for the artists.

      And we fell in love with Loukanikos too! The portrait is such a lovely tribute.

  2. It’s interesting to think about street art in a city with such a long, storied art past…..and Nikos! He needs to be cloned! Sounds like the perfect guide, getting you into different areas you wouldn’t have thought to go to, and discussing a wide range of topics. Ah, but no “Pair it With” here – I bet you did eat well though!

    1. Street art in Athens appears to be more widely accepted, which might be due to the storied art past you speak of, Lynn. Nikos shared that many of the city’s top artists studied at the Athens School of Fine Arts, which is notoriously difficult to get into! And yes, Nikos was a gem, his insights gave us a much more informed view of the city’s past and present.

      Not sure why we skipped a food pairing for this post! Perhaps we’ll consider adding a footnote 😉

  3. I took a while to get into the whole street art appreciation. I recently saw a couple of artists at work on murals- in Philly and JC. I am totally in love now!

    Beautiful, beautiful work in Athens.

    1. We were certainly in awe of the street art in Athens, Tara! We were struck by how many of the street artists have formal training and are established across multiple platforms.

      Philly is a wonderful street art destination, and we had a fun time conducting our own treasure hunt while we were there. Jersey City has been growing in renown as well. I can definitely see how those cities could make a convert of you 🙂

    1. I really can’t recommend the tour enough, Cathy! Our guide, Nikos, knows all the good spots and you’ll definitely find yourself in street art heaven 🙂 If you plan a trip out there, I’d be happy to facilitate a connection!

  4. Wonderful post, guys! I agree with Tip – I liked learning about Loukanikos, and of course I just know that if Charlie could stay awake long enough, he would display the same high character as this beloved Athenian dog 😉 I also thought the Dimitris Taxis piece was powerfully self-aware!

    I think my favorite part was the little decorated house though – how CUTE would it be to come home to something so charming? Call me a voyeur, but I would have loved to take a peek inside and see if it was just as picturesque:)

    1. Hi Lauren! Charlie would have defended the protesters against the riot police by glancing at them with a stern, sidelong, disapproving expression on his adorable face. And he’d be holding a sign reading: Don’t make me get out of this bed! No, seriously, don’t. I’m pretty tired today.

      As for the decorated house, there were a few of them, though the pic included was by far our favorite. And it goes without saying, I always want to peek inside such homes, even more so when frosted glass is used on the door as it is in this case. Bet the interior is lovely.

    1. Welcome, Denise! Without a doubt, Athens is a city constantly torn between the modern and the ancient. I don’t know when you happened to visit, but we were told that the city was altered pretty dramatically leading up to the 2004 Summer Games and then again with the financial crisis, which reared its ugly head in ’07-’08. Clearly, the crisis inspired much of the art we now see. But I think this form of public artistic expression will endure long after the crisis completely passes.

      I really enjoy a bold, colorful mural. I really do. But I also have a deep appreciation for when works seek to become a useful addition to an existing aesthetic. I think the blue door you mentioned is a perfect example of that. Thanks for dropping us a line!

  5. Love the different kinds of murals. I am curious about Athens because for some reason we have not been to it. Is it as charming as Rome? Or is that an unfair comparison?

    1. Hi Dippy. Having visited Rome, we had the same question leading up to our trip. Furthermore, we visited Istanbul not so long ago, and were wondered if there would be a derivative element. But the Athens of today is not the Athens of ill repute I recall from anecdotes (It’s dirty; All the archaeological treasures are in disrepair; and Athenians are not very welcoming to outsiders) I’d heard in my college days. A lot changed, apparently, leading up to and after the 2004 Olympic Games. I think Athens has plenty of charm and character in comparison to Rome. I was shocked at just how much more Greek culture influenced and informed Roman culture than I already knew. As for Istanbul (in case you’ve been there, too), I would describe the comparison between Athens and Istanbul to be as follows: overlap but a wide birth in differentiation–much like the cultures. It would be absurd to think seeing one is seeing the other. So, you should definitely go, though make room for plenty of side trips, too. It’s an all around gorgeous country. There’s plenty of good things to see, do, eat and drink. What more does one need?

      1. I hear you, Lynn. I had a suspicion it was unfair to compare it to other civilisations and cities with such legacies. The Greeks are one of the oldest. I am not surprised that they had enough to stun you. I would love to be able to see Athens. We shall have to plan it out carefully. I have Istanbul on my list too. Times when I want to scrunch up the world to make it easier to travel. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. 🙂 xx

  6. I am really blown away by this post. The street art in Athens is really unusual and thought-provoking, helped by your info and commentary. Photos are stunning. I am not always big on tours but this one was clearly very worthwhile; and you were able to see parts of Athens you’d never have seen otherwise. Like really getting under the skin of the city. The Loukanikos piece is now my fave street art ever. Even though he’s a dog, and not a cat. And then you quote my beloved Brecht. I am a very happy reader 🙂

    I would be interested to hear more about the relationship between Turkey and Greece. That has to be a minefield.

    1. Hi Cynthia. Thank you for the kind words. We’re happy to please Brecht, dog, and cat fans alike. And I agree, tours can be a reeeeal crapshoot. We really lucked out on this one. It sure helps your chances when you have an artist–someone who not only has a genuine appreciation but who has also done the work–giving the tour.

      As for the Turkey and Greece relationship, it is most certainly complicated. It’s also beyond intriguing if you are a student of history.

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