Athens is undergoing a cultural turnover as a result of the financial crisis. Some are calling it “The New Berlin” as the next generation of artists and designers are turning to the streets to churn out social messages. In fact, they’re reinventing their city – independent of the outcome – building their own vision for the future. Last month, I was in Athens for five days and managed to hit the street, as well as interview the key players in the scene (who prefer to keep their real identities anonymous).

Athens - the New Mecca for Street Art, Travelettes, Nadja Sayej Athens - the New Mecca for Street Art, Travelettes, Nadja Sayej

The Street Art

There are so many artists working in bright colors under this critical time of change (I guess it’s no surprise the Athens School of Fine Arts also offers courses in street painting). On the outskirts of the city, there are abandoned factories that have closed due to the crisis. The factories have become ripe stomping grounds for street artists who have taken over the spaces to paint. One artist shoots cans of spraypaint that explode in color, a tribute to William S. Burroughs, while another paints fake dollar bills with a TV-headed president. Downtown, a lot of cartoons fill the street, from chained figures to sombre portraits of the elderly. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a key figure painted in the Euro-inspired streets, sometimes where she is painted as Mickey Mouse.

Athens - the New Mecca for Street Art, Travelettes, Nadja Sayej

Types of street art in Athens

The street art scene in Athens is comical, graphic and riddled with storytelling – far more than just tags. Yes, it’s political, as you might expect. But beyond the played-out financial crisis, there is hope. With a tour from the local art collective “Wrong,” who run the street art gallery Sirri 12, I saw wooden cut-outs of golden trees, poetic catch phrases, coins by Greek artist Achilles, paper paste ups by STMTS, stencil pieces and a Euro Disney Angela Merkel. There were also tags on subway trains and cartoon faces on tree stumps. The freshness of this creative scene is a throwback to reminds me of New York in the 1970s.

Athens - the New Mecca for Street Art, Travelettes, Nadja Sayej

Safety First

The main mistake I made was wandering alone through Chinatown, which is dangerous. Moments after I took this photo [DSC_800], a female cab driver pulled aside and rolled down her window. “You better get out of this area now,” she said. “You could get your camera stolen. Be careful.” I headed to a populated street and strolled out of Chinatown.

Athens - the New Mecca for Street Art, Travelettes, Nadja Sayej

When I met up with the “Lathos” street art collective (“wrong” in Greek) at Sarri 12 Gallery, the only street art gallery in the city (and probably the country), they agreed with the cab driver’s warning. Unless you’re joining a group tour, or having locals guide you around (as I later did), don’t go to Chinatown. The artists also told me not to walk around with my camera over my shoulder, as street thefts are frequent. Wear your camera around your neck or sideways around your body and keep an eye on it!

The critic: Cacao Rocks

One artist I spoke to was Cacao Rocks, who has been working as a street artist since 2007. He is a bit of a headline master, conjuring up cheeky slogans like “This is Not Berlin,” which might have been a response to an article in German newspaper Die Zeit which called Athens “the new Berlin”.

Athens - the New Mecca for Street Art, Travelettes, Nadja Sayej

“We’re tired of it,” he said, when talking about politics and sees the city comparison as cultural hype. “This is not Berlin, it’s Athens,” he said. “This piece is political criticism because the EU and Germany decide what Athens will do, we don’t really have democracy – they act like Greece is Germany. Merkel is deciding what we do in Greece, how much tax we’ll pay.”

The feminist: Cleo43

But it’s not just a boy’s club – female street artists are also active in Athens. Cleo43 got her name from her grandmother, who was a strong female role model for her. At 13-years-old, she touched a spray can for the first time. “I love to paint, I love to create, this type of expression graffiti gives you is great, as you don’t have to be serious, you just have fun,” she said. “Being a woman in this male-dominated art scene is hard but I love seeing the work of women artists.” A few other female street artists in Athens include Lebaniz Blonde, IRIS and Simone Fontana. The challenge is on the streets. “You have to know the place you’re going and what to bring with you,” she added. “Athens is a complicated place.”

Athens - the New Mecca for Street Art, Travelettes, Nadja Sayej

The activist: N_Grams

N_Grams, an artist with the “Lathos” collective who helps run Sarri 12, has painted a variety of work in the neighborhood of the gallery. From abstract works painted on garage doors to pasted paper works on second-storey levels, one main character he paints is the TV-headed man. He has also helped paint a memorial to a hero dog which died after attending Syntagma Square protests, where the public was gassed. His work is also science-inspired and critical of financial systems. “I think capitalism is wrong, it comes from the wrong place,” he said. “They don’t give a shit about the people; it’s only for the profit.”

Athens - the New Mecca for Street Art, Travelettes, Nadja Sayej

Street Art lovers will find plenty of interesting cities covered in graffitis and paintings all over Europe, but Athens certainly stand out from the bunch and is one to look out for! Have you ever been?


 

This is a guest post by Nadja Sayej.

Travelettes Guest Blogger - Nadja Sayej Nadja is a Berlin-based arts and travel reporter and photographer who hails from Toronto, writing for The New York Times, The Guardian, The Economist and other publications. Check out her work at nadjasayej.com and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @nadjasayej.

All photos by Nadja Sayej and courtesy of N_Grams & Cacao Rocks.