Rundown area of Athens given an esthetic boost by artistic action

By Constantine Callaghan

Standing tall on a junction on busy Pireos Street a colossal mural painted on the side of a building catches the eye. A pair of delicately painted black-and-white hands point to the street level. The intricate detail of the veins, knuckles and nails diverts the onlookers? attention away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Athens.

As part of the varied ?Athens-Attica 2014? urban regeneration program, the 600-square-meter mural composed by Pavlos Tsakonas has been painted on the south-facing flank of the Hotel Vienna. It is the first of three works to be applied on different buildings within Athens in what has been dubbed ?artistic interventions in public spaces -- painting on the blind sides of buildings.?

In cooperation with the Athens School of Fine Arts (AFSA) and the Ministry of Environment, the project of three works (one is already completed) aims to revitalize and improve the quality of public space.

?The site is located in the heart of the Greek capital and in one of the most rundown neighborhoods of the center,? the artist told Kathimerini English Edition.

The Environment Ministry?s general secretary for regional planning and urban development, Maria Kaltsa, meanwhile, added that ?the project hopes to provoke discussion and generate interest in parts of the city that do not have an identity.?

A fine arts graduate, Tsakonas drew his inspiration for the landmark mural from ?Praying Hands,? the iconic 1508 piece by the northern Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer.

Tsakonas described his work as ?a contemporary comment on the current reality? For my own purposes the hands were enlarged and rotated to point toward the ground, unlike the original that addresses the Heavens.

?The chosen site, scale and angle, aim to break vertically the uniform landscape and offer a different social meaning and a crucial visual message in the wider downgraded area,? the artist added.

Proud of the piece, Kaltsa jested: ?Ours is better than the 15th century original.?

The striking black-and-white mural is located in the neighborhood of Gerani and is painted on the side of a hotel on a busy street. ?The intention was to initiate a dialogue with the users of the city and relate it to the public daily life in central Athens, redefining our relationship with the city,? said Kaltsa

At a cost of 18,000 euros, Kaltsa argued that the mural is a cheaper way of improving certain corners of Athens as the economic crisis has made it increasingly difficult to gain access to public funds. Certainly, Gerani, which is a densely populated, poor neighborhood, home to ageing hotels and a large population of illegal immigrants, benefits esthetically from this visual intervention.

However, some might ask why in the grips of the worst economic crisis in recent memory, funds are being set aside for creative projects rather than practical ones. As Kaltsa explained, the projects have been financed through the relatively new and recently downgraded so-called ?green fund,? which obtains its funding through fines collected from illegally constructed buildings.

Prior to a Finance Ministry decision this week to limit the scope of the fund and to channel a significant portion of the money set aside for environmental protection into bolstering the national budget, Theodata Nantsou from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) told Kathimerini English Edition that she was pleased with how the funds were being allocated.

?The previously existing special fund for urban planning was non-transparent and nobody knew where the money went,? she said. ?We nicknamed it the black hole because there were no procedures in place and no records of where the money went. We have welcomed the green fund as it so far has proved to be transparent and the money has been used in the correct ways to improve the environment.?

Kaltsa said the ministry had set aside 130,000 euros for the visual intervention projects, though given recent developments the project may have to be scrapped.