For Business Day's monthly Lifestyle and Culture supplement, Wanted; February 2015
As Greece braces itself for what’s to come in the aftermath of a destiny-defining election, the walls of its capital have continued to reflect the frustrations and enduring anger of its citizens, since the country’s slide into crisis in 2008.
For the last year and a half, Yiannis Hadjiaslanis and Nastasya Tay have been documenting the conversation, in their ongoing project Scrawl of a fallen city.
For the last five years, Greece has teetered on a precipice, between the depths of fury and the possibility of hope.
Now, in the throes of possible change, Athenians are navigating a new tumult: unnerving optimism in some quarters, exhausted cynicism in others; an existential questioning what comes next, a calculation of how to survive it.
But, more than anything, the country’s very public humiliation on the global stage has left its populace angry. Many are quietly bitter, sucked dry by the austerity demanded in return for €240 billion in aid, drained by the repeated blows of bad news.
3 million live on, or below, the poverty line. Over a million have no access to healthcare. Half of all young people are unemployed. GDP is at Depression-era levels.
The residents of its ancient capital have watched the unravelling of their country through their windows, on their streets, and on their walls. They have also had to find ways to express their frustration.
The portrait of a metropolis at tipping point is now sketched in spraypaint and marker pen. Amid the grandeur of ancient monuments, its residents are demanding change, with little idea of how or when it will come. The birthplace of democracy has been shouting, in spraypaint.
The defacing of the old - the establishment - with visceral scrawl is no longer sacrilege, but a desperate plea for change, an attempt to fight depression with defiance.
Inked additions to the urban cityscape are erased then rewritten. It is a cycle of attempted renewal that will continue as long as the city’s tumultuous debate with itself.
On one downtown wall: “You will see a white wall when we see a white day”.
SNAPSHOTS / CAPTIONS
Outside the Cultural Centre on Solonos Street, Athena, goddess of wisdom and war, on whose name and principles of reason the city’s foundations were built, is blindfolded with ink. For more than a year, her marble bust could no longer watch the shops across the street go out of business, nor well with the tear gas down the road. She saw neither the unrest at the adjacent law faculty that shut down the school for months, nor the roses in her surrounding flowerbed wilt and die. Her black veil has since been removed.
At the height of the crisis in 2011, amid violent riots and the pinch of austerity, students from Athens’ Art School painted their prayer for their city eleven storeys high. An inverted interpretation of German painter Albrecht Dürer’s 16th century pen-and-ink sketch, the palms rest on each other, upside down on the road to the sea and the port of Piraeus. They called it, “Praying for Us”.
There’s an old Greek saying: “The children of the wise have cooked, before they're hungry”. But outside the offices of Idryma Kinonikon Asfaliseon, an adage about prudency and foresight has been repurposed in a time of need: “The bad boys are already full, before they're hungry.” A spray-painted accusation of corruption and selfishness, it is scrawled on the marble walls of the state fund dispensing social welfare, whose pension handouts have been slashed by an average of 40 percent form pre-crisis levels.
On the apricot walls of municipal offices in downtown Athens, graffiti has been whitewashed with paste. Painted over with chemicals that remove spraypaint, it will be washed and treated, over and over. But even those tasked with removing the scrawl are angry. “We are at a point where we speak again of bread, education and freedom,” says one restorer, “We are again at a time when we are deprived of basic goods, food, work and decent pay.”
Outside a closed shop in Omonia Square, a homeless man serenely reads a children’s magazine, O Mikros Iros - The Little Hero - the defiantly glorious fight of three Greek boys against fascists during the country’s occupation. On the aluminium door behind him, a half-hearted attempt to remove a sprayed observation of “civil war” has been abandoned. The degeneration of one of Athens’ busiest squares into a urine-stained junkie hangout has been accelerated by the city’s slip into economic ruin and search for escape. A ballpoint note on a nearby alleyway door declares, “If you want heroin, call 100,” - the police emergency line.
Around the corner from a Romanian violinist playing for small change, the marble facade of the Akademia Athenon, the Academy of Athens, has become a show of red-lettered defiance against the rise of the far right. It lays the blame for the murder of Pavlos Fyssas - a hip hop artist stabbed in the heart in September 2013 by a member of neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn - squarely on the shoulders of a government who have watched the rise of the party, who garnered 9.4 percent of the vote in 2014’s European elections.
50,000 took to the city’s streets after Fyssas’ death, in protest. Anger gave way to hatred, hatred to violence. Months later, the corrugated iron barrier erected as part of a restoration attempt on Athens’ monuments has itself been covered in spray paint. One restorer working behind the mesh shrugs, “It reflects the turmoil of those who live in the city and their protest for very serious issues. There have been times when I’ve removed messages I agree with. And once we remove it, there’s nothing to stop them from doing it again.”
On Tzavella Street in Exarcheia, a huge slice of cake for one wealthy fork, a tiny slice for the rest: stencilled commentary on how the elite has mostly escaped the crisis, with the hard-working multitudes having to pay off the past excesses of the powerful and corrupt. Austerity has been fiscally toughest on the middle class. In 2014, self-employed professionals had to pay 9 times more tax compared to pre-crisis levels.
The gas mask: a symbol of resistance in a neighbourhood renowned for defiance. Sprayed on a wall in Exarcheia, after authorities brutally tried to quell violent demonstrations with teargas and batons during the height of the crisis, it is a show of enduring discontent. The “anarchist” district has long been a haunt of artists and leftist intellectuals, becoming a locus for anti-government sentiment after tanks rolled into a 1973 student sit-in against the country’s military dictatorship, killing at least 24 people. The crisis has imbued its streets with new anger and energy.
A midnight blue Porsche Roadster is torched by vandals in Exarcheia, a costly material commentary on conspicuous wealth. Firebombed three nights prior, it is now filled with trash, and plastic bags of used toilet paper. The man who feeds the cats on neighbouring Strefi Hill, every night at 11 o’clock, is unperturbed as he lays out his tins. “We watched it happen,” he says, “and now they will take it away.”
Scrawl of a fallen city is an ongoing project for Nastasya and Yiannis’ collaboration the extra-ordinary, which seeks to document the often unnoticed in the everyday.