Hijacked medium, different message

In the past, every time I tried to book an interview with a street artist something always seemed to go wrong. They either changed their mind at the very last minute or regretted what they had said and denounced publicity.

This time it was different. Grigoris at the other end of the line sounded determined. ?We can meet tomorrow morning in Exarchia and have a chat over coffee. I?ll bring the rest of the crew along, so make sure you get a big table.?

A member of the GPO street artists, Grigoris has edited a volume that was recently published by Metaichmio. ?GPO Is the Law? contains drawings by the group that went up across Athens for a few hours, days or months.

GPO?s canvases are not the walls of buildings, but rather the huge billboards along the capital?s key arteries. The authorities recently banned advertising on such structures after it was found to distract drivers and cause accidents.

People were surprised to see that the image of local porn star Julia Alexandratou?s face, used to advertise an online casino, had been replaced by weird black drawings on a white background. GPO drawings immediately caught the eye as they were not your typical flamboyant graffiti. They were signed by the GPO crew, who have a different philosophy from that of most graffiti artists.

Grigoris, Dimitris, Vasilis, Tasos and Antonia were quite open about their activity. The new book is dedicated to ?the victims of negligence, ignorance and profit.? The words are a reference to drivers who lost their lives because of those huge billboards, they said. ?We?ve lost friends too, so it?s kind of personal,? they said. ?Some advertising companies find it cheaper to pay fines for illegal ads than to take them down. Today most of them have been dismantled.?

The new volume includes an informal manifesto written by the team. ?GPO is about using the city?s white canvases because you are tired of dragging yourself from one gallery to the next, it is about engaging in dangerous dialogue, it is about the paint that makes our days a little bit prettier, it is about being with friends, about solidarity, about making use of something that has been without use.?

GPO comprises about 15 people, Greeks and foreigners, in their 20s and 30s. The name is just a random acronym. ?For us the most important thing is the method. We choose a billboard and then visit the site at night carrying a long stick. Our drawings are improvisations inspired by the specific journey and location. We cannot really see what we are doing; we can only imagine. My father often makes fun of me, saying that I really must be an artist to make something that ugly,? Grigoris said with a laugh.

Unlike the kind of graffiti that takes a lot of preparation, GPO?s works are a cross between elaborate smears and kids? drawings. Slogans, words, shapes, monsters, syringes and armored vehicles are drawn awkwardly with the long stick. Most of the times, they?re short-lived.

?It used to be that people from the advertising companies would spot the drawings and erase them a few hours later. But some works have stayed up for a long time. We always carry a camera to take snapshots of our works.? Some of these pictures can be found in the new book. All GPO members helped prepare the volume. ?We all have day jobs to make ends meet,? said the GPO members. Some of them are illustrators, others teach acrobatics or work in the free press. They are preparing their own fanzine that will circulate from one reader to the next.

?What about the police?? I ask. ?What happens if you are caught red-handed?? ?The biggest problem is that we use black paint. That is what anarchists use, so if the police find it on you, you?re in trouble.?

But the crew defends graffiti art: ?Graffiti is an integral part of urban culture, just like coffee, cigarettes or smog. You just cannot imagine a city without graffiti. A squeaky-clean road is a sign of a repressive society.?

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