Writing on the wall

Unsolicited graphic interventions on public and private property – graffiti – has a long and varied history in Greece, and it very much reflects on where society is. Visitors from more «orderly» countries, and those with a heightened need for aesthetic order, are often shocked by the barbarity of the writing and smudges on Greek walls, opening the eyes of the rest of us to a blight to which we have become desensitized. The vandalism may be a statement of an organized kind, such as when major political parties and football teams send their foot soldiers across cities, towns and the countryside with huge stocks of paint, disfiguring bridges, embankments and even country fountains with their primal message that they are everywhere and at the same time accountable to no one (this applies even to parties when they are in power and should be upholding the rule of law, which forbids such vandalism). At the other end of the spectrum are the romantics (with declarations of love for their Maria) and self-proclaimed anarchists whose black stars, slogans and incomprehensible smudges are aimed at undermining the aesthetics and values of bourgeois society. As Greece has a long and turbulent history, political graffiti has played an important role at times, declaring the presence of underground opposition to an unpopular regime or foreign occupation with simple statements such as «Freedom» or «Down with the junta.» Such declarations were painted on walls by people who ran the risk of imprisonment or death for their efforts. That is one reason for the relative tolerance for graffiti today – as long as the writing is on someone else’s wall. Another root of graffiti is the aesthetic urge – either in an effort to prettify an ugly site or to mar a beautiful one – with the Athens Academy and the old university building in central Athens, perhaps the city’s two most striking structures after the Acropolis, being particular targets of anti-establishment rage. A third inspiration for graffiti is mimicry of what happens elsewhere. The acceptance of graffiti as a legitimate artistic expression in countries such as the United States, Britain and France provided impetus for a similar movement in Greece, which has made some impressive interventions on the urban landscape, but whose efforts are nowhere near as influential nor as prevalent as the nonsense that we see almost everywhere. Even local authorities have tried to cash in on the trend at times, calling on graffiti artists to produce work in specific places in order to cover bare concrete structures and to appear cool in the eyes of younger voters. Ostensibly, it is illegal to deface private and public property, as well as road signs, with penalties of up to two years in jail. In practice, no one seems to have been prosecuted during the past few decades (lest the authorities appear dictatorial). And so, as long as youngsters can afford paint and as long as our political and sports authorities remain in their perennially primitive phase, we will live with the chaos of graffiti. What does this say about us? For one, we accept things that were once useful, and perhaps heroic, way after their time is past. At the same time, we accept the individual imposing his will on the rest of us because we do not like what we see around us in any case, we do not understand what is worth protecting, or we do not have the confidence to protect all that is beautiful – in short, we accept all this because the individual, by definition, is at odds with society, not part of it.