In the historic city of Athens, graffiti has been rampant since ancient times when people would carve messages into the stone walls. The word graffiti itself comes from the Greek word “graphein” – to write. Athens has been described as “a little paradise for graffiti artists”, “a mecca for street art” and even “an open-air gallery”.
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But why is street art in Athens such a big thing here? A combination of social, political and economic factors has cultivated a unique breeding ground for some of the world’s most cutting edge graffiti artists.
A large part is down to the euro crisis, and the feelings of bitterness, frustration, and anger among the population of Greece. Authorities just don’t have the means to police the streets, and youth unemployment is at a high.
However, this widespread unrest has not just led to people picking up the spray can in angry acts of vandalism. It’s induced a creative response, a catharsis in paint, that has created an incredible community of artists and a city that has a fascinating cultural underbelly.
The beauty of street art is that, like the politics and opinions and passions of the times, it is constantly changing. New paint is layered over old, messages are scribbled out, murals are defaced – the streets belong to everyone, and so the art is constantly morphing. For the street artist, they have to accept the temporary and short-lived nature of the work they create.
The way the walls of Athens are treated as a canvas is a fantastic window into the lives of the locals and the punchy issues of today. Graffiti artist INO famously said of street art ‘if you want to learn about a city, look at its walls’.
There are works that express huge political messages in imagery. There are pieces that portray tenderness or comedy. There are also simple taglines, graffiti in Athens that simply marks a time and a place. In a way, it is one of the most inclusive art forms.
What better, alternative way of getting to the heart of a city than by designing your own street art tour! You’ll find murals, tags, and art of all different sizes plastered over pretty much the entirety of Athens – from bus stops to multistory parking lots, to neoclassical buildings, even vehicles that have been left in one place for too long.
Here are some of the best areas to head to for an eclectic menu of the best graffiti Greece has to offer.
Street art neighborhoods in Athens
The edgy neighborhood of Exarcheia is widely known for being the most radical and anarchistic district of Athens. It has a troubled past, home to riots, uprisings, and political activism. Today, it’s where many alternative, socialist and artistic people and students decide to live. In a way, it’s become one of the most welcoming parts of the city, where immigrants feel safe and young people can express themselves freely.
As a consequence of this, it’s home to some fantastic off-the-beaten-track finds, like anarchist bookstores, interesting shops, social enterprises, bohemian cafes, and quirky record stores. This is also where you’ll find rebetiko clubs (Greece’s version of the blues).
Because of its left-wing atmosphere and passionate people, Exarcheia has become one of the most fascinating areas to explore for its street art. From members of the Athenian youth armed with spray cans itching to rebel, to some of the most famous international street artists, Exarcheia has it all. Be prepared for hard-hitting works of art and artistic expressions of rage.
One of the most famous street artists based in Athens is Wild Drawing (WD) who has made some of the most striking works. One of these is “No Land For The Poor” – a giant depiction of a homeless man, found on Emmanuel Benaki street in Exarcheia.
It makes a powerful point about Greek and global homelessness, by making one of society’s most unseen people visible. This beautiful, heart-wrenching painting is a clear response to the eurozone crisis and its all-too-real consequences. There are WD pieces of art scattered all across the city.
Amid the paint and stenciled messages, look out for the poignant memorial plaque for Alexandros Grigoropoulos. This point, on the corner of Mesologiou and Tzavella, remembers the 15-year-old boy who was shot dead by the police in 2008, an act that shook Greece and led to huge riots.
Between Navarinou street and Zoodochou Pigis street, you’ll find Navarinou Park, an autonomous park that has become an oasis of green and a community space for relaxing, exchanging ideas and expressing creativity. This park was initially destined to become a parking lot until it was taken over by activists.
Metaxourgeio is a newly fashionable area recovering from a long period of abandonment in recent history. It’s found next to the districts of Gazi and Kerameikos. It’s an area that is very much reinventing itself – a good idea to explore it before it loses its raw edge and becomes too polished and gentrified.
Amid the hip new restaurants, art galleries and street musicians, there is a pulsing scene for urban art. It’s home to works by some of the most famous street artists such as INO, Sonke, and Borondo.
The main street is Megalou Alexandrou – stroll down here to see vibrant graffiti and a whole mix of different techniques, from the basic spray paint and stencils to collages, “paste-up” (when an image is painted on paper which is then transferred to the wall), and brush paint.
Not far from here, on Achilleos street, you’ll come across a work by another of the most well-known and prolific street artists – INO. INO’s reputation is high with locals, spreading stunning works across the stretch of the city. A visual artist that studied painting at the Athens School of Fine Arts, INO (sometimes known as ‘the street philosopher’ or ‘the masked artist’!) is so well-known that the city council has commissioned specialist pieces.
INO’s Achilleos street mural is called System Of A Fraud. It depicts Solon the Lawmaker, an ancient Greek politician and poet that is credited for laying the foundations for modern-day democracy. INO comments on “the two sides of the corrupted contemporary Greek system collapsing”.
If you find your way to Latraac cafe-bar in Metaxourgeio you will see an iconic piece of romantic graffiti curled around the entrance. It’s an example of a black and white drawing of a girl with her eyes closed, mermaid-like and melancholic, surrounded by wavy hair and flowers. This beautiful image is found throughout the whole city. It’s done by local artist Sonke, who apparently began stamping this trademark all over Athens after his girlfriend left him.
Another of WD’s stunning works dominates a street corner in Metaxourgeio. It’s called ‘Knowledge Speaks, Wisdom Listens’ (a Hendrix quote), and it takes the form of a giant owl with penetrative eyes. According to the artist, it symbolizes the goddess Athena, from whom Athens takes its name.
WD says that Greece is experiencing a dark phase, and the Greek people could benefit from owl’s exceptional vision, particularly at times of low light. Find this on the corner of Samos and Palaiologos streets.
For an explosion of color and fun, head to the hip Psyrri neighborhood, found on the other side of Ermou Street from Monastiraki. Here, the art is wacky, unexplained, abstract and above all, colorful. There are political messages thrown in there too – it’s a wonderfully diverse area to explore.
The 2004 Olympics rejuvenated this area, filling it with lively restaurants, bars and music venues (great places to see authentic Greek folk music!). Here you’ll find plenty of artisanal stores selling handmade leather goods. Prior to this injection of money and support, the Psyrri district had been run down, rough and dangerous.
The shops around here have striking murals covering their steel shutters (most shop owners opt for this and commission street artists themselves, in order to avoid more vandalistic graffiti).
It’s in this part of the city that you’ll find a recognizable piece of art – a stunning portrait of a dog. This is Loukanikos, the famous Greek riot dog that rose to global fame after his part in the protests during the financial crisis. The internationally-beloved dog became a symbol of the Greek resistance against austerity.
The tagline of this tribute, after Loukanikos’s death, says ‘All dogs go to Heaven’. It was created by three well-known street artists, SMART, N.Grams, and Martinez, and can be found on Rigo Palamidou street.
Some of Athens’ first exhibits of urban art were made by two pioneering artists that you can find throughout Psyrri – Aleandros Vasmoulakis and Vangelis Hoursoglou. Vasmoulakis makes works that combine collage, paint, digital media and photography – you can see a famous one in the main square in Psyrri.
Vangelis Hoursolglou (also known as Woozy) is responsible for the color-clad Monastiraki metro station, his particular style a familiar one for street art-lovers across the globe.
Another thought-provoking piece is “To Differ” by Manolis Anastasakos. It’s a collaborative and inclusive work, relying on the input of others. Anastasakos sketched the initial outlines of people, and residents of the local neighborhood – the majority of whom are immigrants – have filled in the color.
While you’re roaming the streets of Psyrri, there’s one place you must make sure to see. It’s Loukas street, a tiny little alley, that used to be dark and decayed. A local hotel arranged an event for people to rejuvenate the alley and it’s become a beautiful hub of street art and color. The event was themed “Valentine’s Day” so many of the artistic responses reflect that.
Sarri street is a great destination for a one-stop street art fix if you’re in a rush. Here you’re sure to be able to see some impressive pieces from the most celebrated urban artists. While you’re here, you might as well check out A.Antonopoulou.Art – a fantastic art gallery with a whole bunch of contemporary art.
Plaka and Anafiotika
Plaka is a historic area of Athens, found to the north and east of the Acropolis. With charming, pedestrianized narrow streets and quaint souvenir shops, it’s probably one of the more touristy districts. This is mostly because it holds some of the most beautiful sights and streets in the city, but also attracts many visitors to its numerous hotels and restaurants.
Because of this, it can come as a bit of a surprise to see the walls plastered with graffiti. These winding streets hold some important and staggering pieces of street art, with a great variation.
The walls here are a popular canvas for the philosophical street artists – those who leave their mark with subtle, poignant statements and proverbs. For example, one building has written on it ‘Whatever we lost in the fire, we will find in the ashes’, another has “Thank you for teaching me how it feels to love”, another says “Next to you, I learned to live, I learned to exist”. Some stairs are printed with the words “By stepping backward no-one has ever moved forward”.
Thiseio train station is an interesting spot to look for graffiti. Although the work here is fairly simplistic, with bulky likes and letters and bright colors, it has a weight that isn’t found elsewhere, because of the dangerous implications of tagging or painting here. It’s known as a sacred place for many artists because of the perilous painting of train wagons. This has resulted in many deaths by electrocution.
Move on through Plaka and arrive in Anafiotika, a picture-postcard area that is found just beneath the Acropolis. These labyrinthine whitewashed streets and narrow alleys are, rather shockingly, also covered in street art. Their white base sets off the colors in a beautifully vibrant way and paired with the panoramic vista across Athenian rooftops as you climb the Acropolis hill, it’s a truly striking spot.
Strangely, many of the street artists based in Anafiotika come from France! This is reiterated by the mask of Gregos (a French artist) that are scattered throughout the area.
While you’re meandering through these narrow maze-like streets, keep an eye out for the small black cats of another French artist – Oré. Tricky to spot sometimes but it makes a fun challenge! You’ll also tick off works by Basek, LOAF, Dimitris Taxis, and loads more.
Monastiraki is a lively area near Plaka, home to a fantastic flea market as well as quirky shops and cafes. It’s also a great spot for street art so it is often tied into visits to the Plaka district. There’s a terrace bar called 360 found on Monastiraki square where you can get a great view of the area and spot out some good locations to hunt art.
Gazi and Kerameikos
Gazi and Kerameikos are two districts that are found right next to each other. This area is home to Technopolis, a cool cultural center that was recently converted by the Municipality of Athens from an old gas factory. As a consequence, there’s a real feeling of modern-meets-industrial around here. It had a load of development and has been designated a night-life district by the Municipality, filling the streets with clubs and restaurants.
During the recent transformation – that’s taken place over the last 10 years – this area of the city has become one of the trendiest, a hipster hang-out. Street art has had a large part in its transformation, converting dull, gray industrial walls to colorful fun areas.
Pireos street is the place to go for some of the best graffiti in Athens, including huge murals by INO and STMTS among others.
One of the murals on this street is sure to stop you in your tracks. Two large hands, descending from the sky, clasped in prayer. This is “Praying Hands” by Pavlos Tsakonas, a work that took him 25 days to complete back in 2011. The hands hang above a parking lot. It’s inspired by a 16th century drawing by Albrecht Durer – where the original image has been flipped upside down so as to appear like the hands of God.
Another powerful mural found along Pireos street is one of INO’s many contributions to the city’s scene – ‘Snowblind’. It’s a large painting of a faceless businessman made blind by wealth. He’s throwing money in the air around him gleefully, oblivious to the blight that lives within him.
This is implied by a splash of blue paint over his liver, suggesting an affliction that he’s not aware of. A thought-provoking comment on the limits of money. This piece was commissioned by the Prometheus Liver Patients Association as part of their Hepatitis C campaign.
“Access Control” is another INO mural, this time all in grays and muted colors. It depicts a striking, green watchful eye and a strange robotic creature fleeing in the opposite direction. It’s a nod towards the district’s industrial past and digital future: sci-fi, eerie, full of enigma.
Where Ermou street meets Pireos street you can find the ILPAP building, the bus depot that’s become a hub for illicit artwork. An impressive, imposing building that is covered in color, specifically that of Brazilian street artists Os Gemeos. They use yellow-painted cartoonesque characters to make their mark on the city, a distinctive and recognizable set of murals that is well worth seeking out.
If you have time, it’s a good idea to try and make your way to Konstantinoupoleos street where some of Borondo’s work called “Shame” still remains. It’s a series of eight faceless nude people engraved on the glass windows. Borondo is a famous Spanish street artist that has bedecked the walls of Athens and many other cities with beautiful emotive figures.
Take a street art tour
If you'd rather get some background information about the street art in Athens, consider a tour. This tour is led by an actual street artist.
If you prefer a private tour, have a look at this one.
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