The writing's on the wall
George Hatzimanolis takes to the streets of Exarcheia, Athens, to look at the philosophy behind its graffiti-coated walls
In Exarcheia they say the spray can is mightier than the policeman's baton. And it shows, on the walls of almost every building throughout the tough, gritty inner Athens neighbourhood, renowned as a hub for socialist activism and Greece's anarchist movement. While most other graffiti that plagues Athenian buildings appears pointless - common tagging and territorial claims by football gangs - in Exarcheia most things sprayed on walls are written with purpose, some are even poetic.
A stroll through the neighbourhood, which has its perimeter heavily patrolled by the very policemen that most graffiti targets, indicates just how witty Greek youth can be. Even locals, who many times have had their own property defaced, tend to see past graffiti as an act of vandalism and today's more as the youth's way of expressing their anguish at the current state of affairs in Athens.
"Although I must admit I don't really like the way it has turned what was once a beautiful neighbourhood and the pride of inner Athens into what now appears as a ghetto, I do understand that in today's society, the building wall and the internet are the forum the youth are using to get their message across," says Exarcheia resident Akis Hatzichristos, who has lived in the neighbourhood for 35 years.
He says political graffiti is so prominent in Exarcheia, it's almost impossible to walk more than three metres without finding a fresh piece.
"It's often humorous, sometimes poetic, but always thought-provoking," adds Hatzichristos, who by his own admission, often finds himself laughing and then pondering the clever comments left behind on building exteriors. According to one person responsible for such graffiti in the area, getting people to question the status quo, or at the very least acknowledge another way of thinking, is exactly what those who graffiti are aiming for.
"We want to show the government, the police and the citizens that we are disillusioned, we are tired of having our dreams crushed and our voices muted by this system," says Yanni, a 22-year-old Exarcheia resident.
Born in Patra, Yanni moved to Athens four years ago to attend university and has lived in Exarcheia ever since. He is a member of the local branch of ANTIFA, an Anti-Fascist organisation that is one of the more vocal groups in Exarcheia, speaking out against police brutality and racism. Yanni asked to have his surname hidden because he does not want his identity revealed to local police authorities. "Although those illiterate bums probably never read a newspaper, let alone one from Australia," he tells Neos Kosmos.
Coming from a family that has always swayed to the left side of politics, Yanni says it was inevitable that he too would one day join the ranks. Within days of starting university he signed up as a member of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) but quickly became disheartened. "Although I love the romantic concept of a society that is fair and equal and for all, the reality is that at KKE, some people, it seems, are more special than others and I could not handle that," Yanni says. While walking from his apartment to school, Yanni noticed a series of posters plastered around the walls of his suburb. "ANTIFA publishes a series of posters each month, with news and views on the world, they are then stuck on walls around Exarcheia. I stopped to read one of them and was immediately drawn in by their philosophy."
The general message of ANTIFA, he says, is one of a world with no racism, where government would stop operating its scare tactics to keep people in line and where the police would be held accountable for their excessive use of force. "I then remember seeing a graffiti piece that read 'In this world we are all migrants', it had been tagged ANTIFA.
For some reason that message really hit home. I started thinking why on earth do we treat these poor Nigerians, Pakistanis, Albanians so terribly? Why don't we realise they are just people like us, regardless of their political or religious beliefs.
"I then recalled how police would chase these poor migrants down the streets just for selling fake handbags, while right in front of them Greek kids were shooting up heroin and the cops didn't even care, at the time it made no sense." That sprung Yanni into action. Together with a friend, they began to read more about ANTIFA and within weeks, armed with spray cans of their own, started tagging messages on the walls.
One such message has become a slogan in Exarcheia. Loosely translated it says: "I live in Exarcheia, does that make me a criminal?" referring to the reputation Exarcheia has as a hub for violent activity following the riots that proceeded the death of a 15-year-old boy in the neighbourhood, after he was shot and murdered by a member of the Greek police force. "That boy's death was a tragedy and although I don't like to use the murder of an innocent child as means to get our point across, the truth is we need to never forget what happened and most importantly, make sure that it never happens again," says Yanni. More recently he has also penned another "very successful" piece, he says.
It reads: "If you don't let us dream, we won't let you sleep". "Many people in my clique liked that one, others think that I am asking people to become violent. What I am saying is that if the government and their system continues to squash our hopes and aspirations, then we, the young people of Athens, regardless of our ethnic background, will take to the streets and continue to fight for what we believe in; to rid this country of the greedy, corrupt people that have destroyed it, and to never stop until we too are allowed to once again dream."
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