Saturday, October 27, 2012


"Borders are scratched across the hearts of men, by strangers with a calm, judicial pen, and when the borders bleed we watch with dread the lines of ink along the map turn red." Marya Mannes.

I knew of the border before I had ever seen it. In his reveries, Petros Petranis, president of the Panepirotic Federation of Australia was fond of constantly quoting a prophecy pronounced by Saint Cosmas the Aetolian upon his arrival at his village: "One day, this village will be cleft by an iron chain." Some one hundred and fifty years later, at the very spot where the fearsome Saint stood, the Greco-Albanian border was drawn, cutting the village in two and leaving Petros Petranis family home in Albania and his fields in Greece. Petros Petranis had also shown me an early black and white photograph of the border - a barbed wire and concrete construction obscuring any view of the mysterious lost homeland. In this tattered and frayed depiction, the king of Greece, marked by a mannered self-revelation, almost self-betrayal that comes to those who continually return to and often display anxiety and self mistrust in the midst of his most assertive and overbearing of public displays, is just putting the final strokes on a message across the concrete barrier that expresses the pious and now abandoned hope: «Τα σύνορά μας δεν τελειώνουν εδώ.»

It was Steven Covey who mused that: "We are limited but we can push back the borders of our limitations." Petros Petranis' life was spent fenced in behind that border by a totalitarian regime, risking his life crossing it with his siblings in order to escape certain death and then, for the rest of his days, in the freedom of Greece and Australia, wondering what was transpiring in his homeland. Borders therefore are fences for the mind and evermore so, the heart.

Returning from a summer holiday prior to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, my cousins regaled me with harrowing tales of them playing soccer near the Greco-Albanian border. According to their account, in a feat of superhuman strength, they managed to levitate their ball over the border and into Albania. Using only their hands, for they knew not the language, they managed to convince the unsmiling Albanian border guard to forgive the border violation and kick the ball back over into Greece. The story is of course, a total fabrication, the formal state of war between the countries which existed until 1987 precluding the capacity of any eleven year olds to come into any sort of proximity to the border, but it is apocryphal and illustrative and, well at any rate, I believed it right up until my twenties.

My first own border related experience was far from apocryphal but equally illustrative of border zeitgeist, taking place as it did, in 1997, by which time the Greco-Albanian border was as porous as a Swiss cheese. I was on a bus, travelling from Ioannina to Athens. Engrossed in my copy of Pouqueville's 'Travels in Epirus, Albania and Thessaly' I did not notice that the bus has pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. As its pneumatic doors opened with a sigh, two uniformed men bounded on to the vehicle, their grey epicanthic eyes relentlessly scanning the aisles of passengers. When they came to me, they looked at my face carefully and then my brutally vermillion shaded corduroy pants and brilliantly verdant jumper. "Show me your ID," one snarled. Before I had managed to complete my enquiry, I found myself suspended by my ear over my seat, my face, chameleon like, matching the hue of my most questionable pants. As flecks of spittle projected themselves from his yellowing teeth onto my skin, he demanded to see my papers, applying to my personage the appellation of «κωλοαλβανέ.» My protestations of Hellenism and references to an Australian passport left him unmoved. "What, with those clothes?" he scoffed. "You may think you can steal across the border, but tell your mates that you will not get very far."

Irresponsibly, I had stowed my passport in my luggage and was therefore compelled to alight from my mode of conveyance, the howls of anger and frustration of my fellow passengers ringing in my ears, rummage through the suitcases stored in its bowels until finally I was able to extricate it from between the thoroughly wrapped gifts destined for Australian relatives and wave it in my persecutors face. Instead of admitting defeat, he wanted to take me to the nearest police station to verify the authenticity of Her Majesty's travel document, that is until this caused a steady and uncharacteristically neohellenic stream of expletives from the bus driver, whereupon I was released, continuing my journey to the not so dulcet tones of the irate and by now delayed bus driver and fellow passengers lambasting me for my choice of attire, my place of birth and everything else in between.

My second border entanglement occurred while travelling towards the Greco-Albanian border, in order to attend a meeting. Three of us were halted by a patrol at Delvinaki, the legendary place where the invading Italian army was trounced in 1940 by the Greeks and compelled to produce passports, contemporaneous with my performing an impression of the Albanian border guard who, a few years previously, would not let us proceed to the Greek border unless we bought him some raki. We complied with his request, despite my attempt to guide our interlocutor through a hypothetical that would see little sense in trying to detain persons already trying to leave the country. Looking at me, and then my passport carefully, he ventured: "This is not you. This passport is fake." "Is the passport fake, or am I fake?" I responded in turn. Furrowing his brow he stammered, in a state of perplexity. "I don't know. There is something funny going on here. I'm sure I heard you guys speaking in Albanian."

It was then that I explained to him, in the words of Rabindranath Tagore that "Languages are jealous sovereigns, and passports are rarely allowed for travelers to cross their strictly guarded borders." I further pointed out that the passport he was looking at was my friend's and that mine was immediately behind it. Our proper identities being established and he affirming that he had never heard of Tagore and was unaware that Indians wrote poetry, we continued on our way to Kakavia, on the border.

Returning to Greece from Albania, I was in the company of the heroic, uncompromising and absolutely brilliant mayor of Himara, Vasilis Bolanos. After deftly dodging Albanian border officials who posed pertinently the poser as to how I entered the country without stamping my passport (the bored guard was having a cigarette and merely waved us through), we were stopped in Greece by a rather truculent official. Snatching Mayor Bolanos' passport from his hand he snapped: "You've been in an out too many times this month. I'm not letting you in." "Do you understand who you are talking to?" I screamed, swept away by the unstoppable current of bile flowing from within me. "This is the mayor of Himara. Of course he would be continuously coming and going as he is in constant consultation with the Greek government. Even now, he is due in Athens for talks with the Prime Minister."

"I don't care if he is the Virgin Mary," he sniggered. "He is not coming in, and there is nothing you can do about it." As it happened, there was plenty I could do about it. I made a great show of taking down his name and other details, advising him as I did so that I would be submitting his details along with a detailed account of his conduct to the various powers that be when I got to Athens. I alluded to circles within circles, hidden and vested interests convincingly enough to give him pause for thought. He stood up and walked into another office, Mayor Bolanos' passport still in hand. After a few minutes, he emerged, crestfallen and contrite, superior in tow. Offering profuse apologies and cigarettes, he waved us through.

It was that year that my best ever border experience took place, at Athens airport. Presenting my passport for stamping, the office asked me whether I had enjoyed my time in Greece and I related my various border adventures to him. "Never forget that this is your home and come back as often as you can," he stated with a broad smile. Just buy yourself a decent set of clothes."


First published in NKEE on Saturday 27 October 2012.

Saturday, October 20, 2012


“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Winston Churchill.

I do not believe that the prospective setting up of an Australian branch of the Greek neo-fascist party Golden Dawn will divide or rupture the Greek community. After all the most vocal and active section of that community is overwhelmingly left-leaning, articulate and culturally conscious to an extent where the expression of alternative views, at least up until now, have been socially unacceptable. Should such extremist rear their ugly head, the organized Greek community will be quick to clamp down on them.

Yet it is this domination of the social and sub-cultural discourse that has forced more extreme views underground, into a pit of smouldering resentment and alienation – moreso by some disaffected second generation Greek –Australians who use their highly selective reading of history to construct an ideology of a racially superior nation beset by enemies and thus restricted from achieving the greatness which is its due. In many ways, it operates as a displaced paradigm of their own marginal lives. And unbeknown to many, fans of the contemptible Golden Dawn have been attempting to organise themselves in Melbourne, years before this marginal group of crackpots were, through a cruel accident of history elevated so undeservingly, to parliament.

To our would be Greek Australian fascists then, who delight in squads of vigilantes terrorizing the streets in search of immigrants to brutalise, who support card carrying Golden Dawn police officers torturing protesters and who relish attacks on gays in the street, there is much to say. Firstly, that they would not dare endorse such un-Australian conduct here. Secondly, if they take a glance at Golden Dawn’s first publication of 1980, they will find a stylized Swastika adorning the front page. They should therefore be reminded, not that they are supporting an ideology that caused millions of Jews to perish horrifically in the Holocaust or which provoked untold suffering that propelled Europe to the brink of destruction, for their narrow prejudices seldom allow them to sympathise with the plight of these groups. Instead, they should be advised that they are supporters of the Nazi tyrants who invaded Greece, dissolved its government, plundered its resources, burnt its villages and terrorized and starved its inhabitants. They should be told that as a result of the Nazi occupation which they so idolise, was responsible for the deaths of one fifth of the Greek population at that time. By supporting the Nazis, these people, who are so beset by hallucinations of conspiracy and traitors, should be told squarely and to their face that they Quislings and traitors, and do not deserve to be called Greek.

Let not Golden Dawn adherents deny they are Nazis. In a 1987 article of the Golden Dawn magazine, its party leader, the corpulent Michaloliakos published an article entitled "Hitler for 1000 years" in which he extolled Nazism and white supremacy. In particular, he wrote: "We are the faithful soldiers of the National Socialist idea and nothing else," and “WE EXIST, and continue the battle, the battle for the final victory of our race". He concludes by raving: "1987, 42 years later, with our thought and soul given to the last great battle, with our thought and soul given to the black and red banners, with our thought and soul given to the memory of our great Leader, we raise our right hand up, we salute the Sun and with the courage, that is compelled by our military honor and our National Socialist duty we shout full of passion, faith to the future and our visions: HEIL HITLER!". The man who penned these contemptible words, considering himself to be a successor to those beasts who slaughtered innocent Greeks in the villages of Lyngiades, Kalavryta and Kandanos, to name but a few, is a member of Greek parliament. He and his ilk deserve no respect whatsoever. Interestingly enough, in Distomo, scene of a Nazi massacre in 1944, Golden Dawn paradoxically received 6 per cent of the vote in the last elections. Are we to assume that the Greeks remember nothing and have learned nothing?

Would be Australian Golden Dawnists would be well served to learn that their Führer Mihaloliakos is a convicted felon, having been arrested for violence and illegal possession of explosive materials. It was while in prison that Michaloliakos met the disgraced and unrepentant leaders of the Greek military junta of 1967–1974 that caused the invasion of Cyprus, that he laid the foundations of the Golden Dawn party. Remaining largely on the margins of far right politics until the Macedonia naming dispute, Golden Dawn made the news in 1992, when about thirty of its members attacked students at the Athens University of Economics and Business during a massive demonstration against the use of the name Macedonia by the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Around the same time, the first far-right street gangs appeared under the leadership of Giannis Giannopoulos, a former military officer who was involved with the neo-nazi South African Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) during the 1980s –noted for its attack on black farmers.

For those Australian Golden Dawnists who take great pains to emphasize their adherence to Greek Orthodoxy, it is also worthwhile to point out that up until recently, their party embraced Hellenic Neopagan beliefs, praising the Twelve Olympians and describing Marxism and liberalism as "the ideological carriers of Judeo-Christianity." In short, because Christianity was an offshoot of Judaism, it was unacceptable to 'true Greeks.' Today rather opportunistically and in an inept and unsuccessful attempt to gain legitimacy by soliciting support from the Orthodox Church, the party now claims that Byzantine orthodoxy preserved the values of the ancient Greeks. One is tempted to ask which ancient values the Golden Dawnists prize - in particular, whether democracy or homosexual love are included.

Fledgling Aussie neo-fascists could also be enlightened by knowledge that some of their brethren have been actively involved in the perpetration of crimes of genocide. A number of Golden Dawn members participated during the Bosnian War in the Greek Volunteer Guard, which was part of the Drina Corps of the Army of Republika Srpska. A few Greek volunteers were present in Srebrenica during the Srebrenica massacre, and they raised a Greek flag at a ruined church after the fall of the town. Spiros Tzanopoulos, a Greek sergeant who took part in the attack against Srebrenica, said many of the Greek volunteers participated in the war because they were members of Golden Dawn. Golden Dawn members in the GVG were even decorated by war criminal and international fugitive Radovan Karadžić.

Strident Greek Golden Dawn patriots can also feel proud of the fact that prominent party member, Antonios Androutsopoulos has been convicted for a triple murder attempt against three left wing activists. They can equally feel proud of the fact that the Golden Dawn member of parliament for Serres, member Artemis Matthaiopoulos, was the frontman of the Nazi punk band "Pogrom" singer of the song "Auschwitz" featuring such antisemitic lyrics such as "fuck Anne Frank" and "Juden raus.” Considering that Anne Frank was just fifteen when she was murdered, Golden Dawnists can feel proud of the fact that they are affiliated to persons who advocate paedophilia as a form of artistic expression.

The Greek economic crisis, an ancillary to a deeper spiritual and social crisis afflicting Greece in a globalized world, has unfortunately, granted undue prominence to the scatologists and hater-mongerers of Greek society. The corrupt political culture created by politicians charged with bringing the country away from the last failed fascist experiment of 1967-1974 in order to institute a viable constitutional democracy is greatly to blame for the Greek people’s apparent increase in support for marginal groups bereft of all or any substance. It is easy for Golden Dawnists to beat their chests and threaten to reconquer Constantinople or the Black Sea, as Michaloliakos does. It is a much more difficult proposition to create a liable, prosperous and harmoniously pluralistic society, as this requires discretion, discernment and respect for all. The Greek people need to trust their instincts – there never has been an easy way out of their problems and time and time again, (as if this should ever need explaining) fascism has proved to be the disastrous option.

When I was in Greece last, people would transform the final H in ΧΡΥΣΗ ΑΥΓΗ, Golden Dawn in Greek, into an A, on whichever walls these hateful words were scrawled, revealing ΧΡΥΣΑ ΑΥΓΑ –golden eggs. Golden Dawnists everywhere should be exhorted to ‘sit on their eggs,’ as the Greek idiomatic expression goes, lest they be exposed for the geese they truly are. And here in this harmonious land, the Greek community should resolve a zero tolerance policy toward the misguided proponents of such a poisonous ideology, the propagation of which, in this country, will do much to undo all we have striven for, in the construction of our place in a tolerant, multicultural society.

As a parting shot, Golden Dawnists everywhere may be interested to learn that even the name of their party is a sham, it being taken from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a magical order active in Great Britain during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which practiced theurgy and spiritual development, through the study of the Hermetic Qabbalah, attracting such luminaries as the poet Yeats.. Rumour has it that Michaloliakos originally opted for the appellation “Golden Shower Party,” became enamoured of the idea that if he waved his magic wand, he could position himself up there with the fairies, whereupon he could shower his followers with his refuse. It’s time they all grew up.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 20 October 2012.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


At what will most possibly be the last ever function to be held at the Greek Orthodox Community HQ in its present form, the Immigration Minister Chris Bowen quipped that: 'Multiculturalism is like a marriage: you have to remind each other how good it is." He did so in the context of announcing that the Australian government was negotiating a deal with the Greek government, in which it is envisaged that 500 young Greeks will be granted working holiday visas. As a prelude to reminding the sundry representatives of Greek community organisations present just "how good it is," the Minister also took great pains to lavish praise upon the Greek community in the most artful and inspired manner possible - rather than appealing to our innate sense of fashion and style, our invention of democracy, theatre, philosophy and all other things beneficial to mankind, he dexterously caressed those erogenous zones of the collective Greek ego calculated to be stimulated to full effect, by alluding to our ubiquity, in his department as well as in broader Australian society in general. His velvet tongued delivery was met with rapture, as well as professions of everlasting and unceasing loyalty and gratitude to the Labour Party by certain members of audience, for the blessings they have conferred upon us, since our arrival within their sphere of jurisdiction - one which, according to the homage payers, is a fruit of their own vision.

In her prefatory remarks, Consul-General of Greece in Melbourne Eleni Lianidou was anything but velvet tongued. In anything but diplomatic tones, she bluntly and succinctly reminded the Minister and those present of some pertinent facts: that the Greek people are noble and dignified people who do not abuse the privileges that are granted to them, that Greek holders of holiday working visas would be of benefit to Australia, especially considering that the Greeks are one of the most highly educated peoples in Europe and that the Greek community present in Australia is proof of the manner in which Greek people make lasting contributions to the countries that welcome them. In the midst of the current economic crisis blighting Greece and the ensuing negative media coverage of all things Greek, this stirring speech was a breath of fresh air, with its rousing argument that instead of pity, the Greek people deserve respect because they will, through their own ingenuity and stoicism, slowly work their way out of the quagmire in which they are foundering, themselves. Minister Chris Bowen could only agree.

As I observed the Minister, the Consul-General, and the also in attendance Greek-Australian Federal and State Members of Parliament, inform, discuss and confide in the transfixed audience, I felt that surreptitiously adopting the Minister's choice epigrams for ourselves, that it is the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria is like a marriage, in which it is incumbent upon us to remind each other of its virtues. From the stagnating in the pool of its own internecine bile, alienated, riven by factions, fragmented and marginalized, peripheral,self-serving organization it had become, under its current administration, comprised largely of bilingual, second generation Greek-Australians, it has placed itself at the forefront of Greek community activism and life in general. And it is obtaining results, building a momentum of events, ranging from informative talks by visiting luminaries to, of course, the crowning achievement, the soon to be commenced construction of the much needed new Cultural Centre.

This is no moreso evident than in the fact that the Federal Government's volte face from an earlier stated position that it was not considering offering working holiday visas to Greek nationals, comes largely as a consequence of the fervent mobilization of the Greek Community of all its resources in order to effectively lobby for the desired outcome. Here mobilization is the key word - for there is none of the amateurish, self-appointment, mutual exclusivism and desire only to take photos with politicians in order to prove and justify one's pretentions to pontificate that historically characterizes other groups that take it upon themselves to 'represent' the combined interests of the Greeks of Australia. On the contrary, the GOCMV's function hosting the Immigration Minister, provided a valuable insight into a dynamic cross section of the critical mass of the Greek community, comprised of Greek-Australian politicians and local counsellors who work tirelessly behind the scenes, providing sage advice and guidance through the pitfalls on the paths of power, academics and educators, businesspeople and leaders of community organisations.

In short, the GOCMV is positioning itself like a wise arachnid in the centre of a web that radiates throughout the complex form of the community, in order to catch and utilize the talent of all those who can further the interests of Greek-Australians, living up to the connotations of centrality contained within its usual Greek appellation of «Κεντρική Κοινότητα.» Viewed in this context, not only the change itself, but the fact that the Minister condescended to attend a meeting organized by the GOCMV in order to explain the proposed changes to migration policy to the Greek community represents a triumph of the inclusivist and co-operative spirit that permeates that organization of late. Had this fortuitous event taken place in the past, and had it been occasioned by another community organization, chances are that it would have taken place behind closed doors, with functionaries jealously keeping the kudos and the photo opportunities to themselves.

What was also refreshing about the meeting was that amidst the profusion of thanksgivings showered upon the Minister, the inquiring and uncompromisingly independent Greek-Australian mind was not slow to emerge. Educator John Milides was quick to challenge the Minister on utilitarian approaches to language acquisition, rather than fostering multiculturalism through the enhanced teaching of community languages. This in turn provoked lively debate, with the member of Caldwell Maria Vamvakinou pointing out that as a community, we need to reassess approaches to Greek language teaching that have as a sole reference point, the need to preserve a Greek identity. As she presciently pointed out, what is understood as comprising a Greek identity is, with each coming generation, of less relevance to Australian-born offspring. Instead, thought should be given to the fact that for at least the next two decades, as the tail end of the first generation ages, there will be a great need for Greek speakers in the health, aged care and related sectors and that vocational training would have to include language instruction. This certainly provides food for thought and it is a mark of a community that is mature and comfortable with both aspects of its composite Greek and Australian identity, that this debate, one of soul-searching policy and direction could be played out unselfconsciously before the Minister, as a member of our extended family.

It is now incumbent upon the Greek government to conclude the negotiations with its Australian counterpart with regard to the working holiday visa. Whatever the outcome, it owes a debt of gratitude to the board of the GOCMV and its enlightened president, Bill Papastergiadis for their passion and prescience in insisting on an accommodation on the visas and uniting the community in pursuing this through the appropriate channels. As the Minister was at pains to point out, the proposed arrangement is beneficial to both countries and the key ambassadorial role in coming to such a observations can undoubtedly be attributed to our community, coalescing its resources around a central pole. Hubert Humphrey may have postulated that "the right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously," but it was Napoleon who posited that "ten people who speak make more noise than ten thousand who are silent." Either way, perhaps the best advice on girding ones loins and preparing to do battle is provided in the Art of War by Sun Tzu: " Those who do not know the lay of the land cannot maneuver their forces. Those who do not use local guides cannot take advantage of the ground." These days, our ground seems more solid than ever.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 13 October 2012

Saturday, October 06, 2012


“Graffiti is not about clean lines, pretty colors and beautiful blends. Graffiti is my life's turbulence exploded on a wall.” Mint Serf.

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.