“Graffiti is not about clean lines, pretty colors and beautiful blends. Graffiti is my life's turbulence exploded on a wall.”
The first and only time I ever visited the remarkable monument to Philopappos on Mouseion Hill in Athens, was in 1997, upon my return from Constantinople. Weighed down by the ‘hüzün,’ a type of malaise that Nobel Prize winning novelist Orhan Pamuk theorises burdens most of the inhabitants of the City, I found, upon my arrival in Athens, that I felt light and rejuvenated. Capitalising on this rare and rather disturbing burst of energy and disconcerting positivity, I set off on foot from Omonoia Square, luggage in tow, to take in a mausoleum that, if Cyriaco of Ancona is to be believed, was intact as late as 1436 and which is a remarkable example both of Hellenistic art, and of mankind’s futile aspirations to posterity. Philopappos’ monument, as the ancient traveller Pausanias described it, is a two-storey mausoleum, supported by a base. On the lower level there is a frieze representing Philopappos as a consul, riding on a chariot and led by lictors. The upper level shows statues of three men: of Antiochus IV on the left, of Philopappos in the centre and of Seleucus I Nicator, now lost, on the right. Today, only two thirds of the white Pentelic marble structure survive, and recent investigations have concluded that part of the monument was utilised by the Ottomans in the construction of the minaret that once blighted the Parthenon. Though in a damaged state, Philoppapos’ monument is said to perch gracefully upon the peak of the hill, losing none of its dignity despite the ravages of time.
That is until I arrived, puffed and bathed in a fine veneer of sweat, at the top of the hill, having first located the cave in which tradition holds that Socrates was held during his trial. The prison of this pillar of world philosophy itself is a dank hole in the ground, surrounded by overgrown weeds and barred by a rusty iron door. Inside there can be discerned a multitude of plastic water bottles that serve as a visual prompt to the acrid smell of ammonia that emanates from within, causing no amount of wonder as to the ingenuity and the litheness of the natives who are apparently possessed of such dexterity that they can slip through the bars of the prison and perform their defecations therein unhindered.
Pausanias’ ancient account in hand, I struggled to discern the relief sculptures on Philopappos’ tomb for its was covered from top to base in graffiti, of the most base kind. None of the convoluted, colorful confluences, meldings and mergings of line and shade here. Instead, scrawls and scratchings of English expletives, soccer team slogans and the omnipresent symbol of anarchy, the letter A enclosed in a circle, (which is so prevalent upon Greek buildings that if numbers had anything to do with it, it should really be our national symbol), ran the entire course of what basically is, an ancient person’s grave.
In his breathtaking “In the Skin of a Lion,” Michael Ondaatje postulated that “Everyone has to scratch on walls somewhere or they go crazy,” yet as a youngish Greek-Australian whose identity was partially formed by the western regard for what it perceived to be the glories of Ancient Greek culture, I was shocked that the natives could deface a monument that was part of their heritage. Looking back, I would argue that a large component of my reaction was comprised of a petty bourgeois: «Τι θα πει ο κόσμος;» That is, instead of wondering what would motivate the vandalism of a beautiful and venerable building, I was more concerned with the impression that this blatant act of stupidity would make on the rest of the world. After all, throughout the world, from Europe, to Africa, to the Middle East, important cultural monuments such as the Louvre, or the Sorbonne, the Library of Congress or the Taj Mahal are protected and rendered exceptionally free of vandalism. So is it that the Greeks do not consider the Philopappos monument important and thus relegate it to the status of any other building, and thus, is open game for defacement?
This is a question I asked my cousin Leonidas, who for a brief time in the early 2000s, was a luminary on the Athenian graffiti scene, being a «γραφίστας,» artfully paralleling the sublimation of glyphs to the art of Islamic calligraphy, in which the name of God can be discerned. In answer to my question as to what possessed a person to daub the wall of public or private property, unsolicited, with incomprehensible glyphs and western profanities, he quoted graffiti artist Banksy’s ‘Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall:’ “Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing. And even if you don't come up with a picture to cure world poverty you can make someone smile while they're having a piss.” He opined that scrawlings of this form could not be classified as graffiti, for while graffiti per se is allergic to the outpourings of the crucified ego, in this case, the ego was not crucified but spread thinly as if over bread and thus, was just a tenuous way of providing an alternative narrative to the usual social discourse. However, he was not able to explain what that alternative narrative was, nor how this was to be communicated to people if they could not understand the stylized scribble or the accompanying English expletives. Further, he could not answer why almost every single building in Athens, and especially around Plaka and Monastiraki, the great touristic drawcard, seems to be covered in ugly and embarrassing scrawl, transforming the area from a quaint olde world remnant Belle Epoque Athens into a dingy, menacing dive. Nor, I guess would he have been able to answer the question as to why such important public buildings as the Athens Academy, an architectural masterpiece donated to the Greek nation by the Epirote migrant financer Simon Sinas, is the latest victim of the graffiti vandals’ depredations.
A cursory glance at the graffiti that defaces a patriotic gift to a then renascent people that had just emerged from a war of independence reveals slogans such as: ‘Burn the banks,’ ‘Anarchy equals Freedom,’ ‘Let us not live as slaves. Rise up now!’ One would think that some two hundred years after the Greek Revolution, that the Greek people were still enslaved. For we see no pithy social commentary here. All we see is the written manifestation of irresponsible adolescents throwing a tantrum. In doing so, they reveal a Greek society that divorced from its original values and coerced into adopting western monetarist values that are at odds with traditional and organic conceptions of its stridently embattled culture is undergoing a terminal decline.
Part of the reason for this is the fact that successive Greek governments have failed to inculcate within the Greek people a sense of community and civic pride. At best, the highly individualistic Greeks are a loose federation of independent family entities rather than a cohesive people coalescing around a central state. It is for this reason that though Greek homes are generally immaculate, as soon as one walks outside their front gate, onto public land, they are met with a landscape of urban devastation – crumbling facades, cracked pavements and overflowing rubbish bins. Put simply, despite the best efforts of westernisers to convince the Greeks that they are inheritors of the Athenian civic tradition, the Greek people do not display the level of civic pride that would cause them to work together to insist that their public environment is well kept and maintained. Instead, their outlook can be paralleled with that of Near Eastern civic architecture – long high walls, with no windows facing the street, barring the outside world. Here, what is prized is what is individual and the shared is feared – not without good reason – if the history of governmental rule and abuse in the region is to be used as a yardstick.
Greek graffiti artists do not use their own homes or those of their families in order to convey ‘social messages.’ Instead they vandalise property belonging to other people, because property rights and capitalism deserve no respect, unless it happens to be our own. Let the public domain be as dingy, ugly and scatological as may be, as long as we are comfortable and our own homes are clean. This then, is not legitimate social protest, for there is no higher aim, overriding ideology or vision for the future. Instead it marks the apogee of nihilism, the hieroglyph of the scream of those who are frustrated and loathe themselves and their shortcomings as much as those of the people around them and the governments that purport to rule them. It is a cul de sac and only a good deal of introspection will serve to forge a way forward.
One’s physical environment does much to instill feelings of positivity and optimism, conditions precedent to surmounting the current despondency in Greece. Instead of indulging defacers and tolerating their scrawls, civic clean ups and prosecution of perpetrators would do much to instill civic pride and a sense of responsibility and accountability for one’s actions. To do this however, would be to sweep away the tradition that was introduced into Greece since the mythologisation of the 1974 crushing of the Polytechnic Protest – that urban vandalism is acceptable in the name of ‘democracy.’
At the same time, disaffected youth must be given a sense of purpose and graffiti placed into a useful rather than destructive social context. For after all, it is one of the most important societal steam valves we have, and the boiler truly is about to explode, as Cath Crowley shows, in ‘Graffiti Moon:’
“I spray the sky fast. Eyes ahead and behind. Looking for cops. Looking for anyone I don't want to be here. Paint sails and the things that kick in my head scream from can to brick. See this, see this. See me emptied onto a wall.”
First published in NKEE on Saturday 6 October 2012.