City of Athens fighting a graffiti war

In the center of the Greek capital there are two spots that indisputably make it prettier: the Roman Agora on the north side of the Acropolis and Eleftherias Park on Vassilissis Sofias Avenue, between the NIMTS naval hospital and the Athens Concert Hall. While very different, these two sites are both particularly elegant and in synch with the urban environment.

Perhaps it is these elements — good taste and a clear identity, so hard to come by in the sprawling city — that have made the areas surrounding the Roman Agora and Eleftherias Park such popular targets for self-proclaimed street artists, who litter their walls with graffiti and tags, or spray-painted signatures.

The spray-paint assaults against these two sites are so frequent that something of an undeclared war has been raging between municipal cleaning crews and the teenagers who are mostly responsible for the scrawls. The conflict has escalated over the past year, after the City of Athens was approached by a group of residents from the area around the Roman Agora in May 2011, requesting that they be allowed to help battle the scourge by painting over the offending tags on listed buildings. In the first few weeks, the initiative seemed to do the trick, but the graffiti was soon back.

The City did not give up and continues to work with residents to keep the area clean. Last year it also teamed up with a popular cosmetics company in a campaign where the company provided dozens of volunteers to paint marred facades.

One of the problems in keeping this area clean is that the materials needed to paint the facades without making them look worse than they did with the graffiti cost a lot and the municipality is strapped for cash.

?The biggest problem is that we don?t have enough materials,? Deputy Mayor for Sanitation Andreas Varelas told Kathimerini recently. ?The economic situation does not help, and so we are obliged to seek help outside the municipality, from donors and sponsors. The response has been very good and we would like to say a big thank you to all the companies that have helped.?

Last year, the City also decided to pay special attention to one of the most vandalized monuments in the center of Athens, the statue of former statesman Evangelos Venizelos in the heart of Eleftherias (Freedom) Park. Sculpted by Yiannis Pappas, the statue and its pedestal are assaulted regularly by spray paint-wielding youths, many of whom use the park for skateboarding.

The fact that the park is especially popular with skateboarders and that graffiti comes almost part and parcel with the tagging culture has turned Eleftherias Park into a mess.

?We clean up there at least twice a month,? Varelas told Kathimerini. ?The problem is that there is no security in the park and it is always open to the public.?

Designed by landscape architect Panayiotis Vokotopoulos in 1960, Eleftherias Park is both symbolic and widely used by the public and the Athens Concert Hall, which screens foreign opera productions there in the summer. But its greatest virtue — the fact that it is open to the public around the clock — has made it a target.

A third battlefront that has opened with the graffiti gangs is the wall surrounding the Ancient Cemetery of Kerameikos on Pireos Street. ?There are signs that our persistence there is paying off,? said Varelas, though he admits that the battle is still far from over at the Roman Agora and Eleftherias Park.

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