It’s a warm summer evening, the kind that make Athens such a popular destination this time of year, and the city is buzzing with tourists. A group of young German visitors are taking selfies in front of an abandoned building covered in graffiti, before checking their phones to find where else in the city they can see some of the more well-known pieces of street art Athens has to offer.
While many locals voice their disapproval with graffiti and the mayor of Athens has vowed to clean up the city, the reality is the street art scene in Athens is thriving. So much so that people from across the globe visiting the Greek capital are changing their itineraries and are now adding street art tours to the obligatory visit to the Acropolis or climb up Lykavittos Hill.
Among the most popular spots are those featuring pieces created by a local artist known as STMTS, who has had his work featured in galleries across Europe and is rapidly becoming one of the hottest names in street art.
We meet STMTS in Monastiraki before we set off on an exclusive guided street art tour with the young artist, zigzagging our way through back streets and alleyways as he explains his work to us.
“My creative name is STMTS, that’s how I sign my pieces. STMTS is based on my name Stamatis, which is a Greek name. I was born and grew up in Athens and I began doing pieces on the streets from 2012; my first piece was done in the beginning of 2012, in January.”
After that brief introduction, STMTS takes us to our first stop. On Konstatinopelos Street, right next to the train tracks, within metres of a bridge that has become a refuge for a few homeless men, he points to a piece of art showing a child with a shocked face.
“I call this piece What the hell is going on?” STMTS explained. “The child is in shock with what is going on. I did it based around what was going on in my country last year in the summer of 2015, when the politics were crazy here and on an international scale too. It’s a child looking at the world and all of its problems, he’s going insane, he is pale and says ‘What the hell is going on?'”
STMTS says he has always loved street culture and been inspired by it.
“I’ve always loved BMX, skating, hip hop music and when I saw graffiti on the streets it inspired me, without knowing the reason why it did, it always did without me having done any graffiti at all.”
We continue our tour just a few hundred metres down Konstantinopoleos where we encounter another piece by STMTS. This one shows another child, holding a slingshot.
“This piece is called Hey YOU and I wanted to show a kid holding his childhood weapon, a slingshot, as he is looking without being scared at his enemies, at people in power, the people who determine his life, and he stares them down without being frightened. He aims at them with his weapon without wanting to hurt them, just to scare them, how we would say to poke them a little with his childish weapon.”
The central theme to all of the work by STMS is children: each piece he has created features children of various races and ages.
“I have chosen children because of their innocence and their pureness. Through them I want to put across my message about society, the problems and generally messages about life and the situations that arise in our lives, not only for Athens but globally. I want to use the children’s innocence and vulnerability; I can give them the strength through my pieces on a large scale so they can share their opinions, to satire, to trouble the establishment with positive and negative attitudes, with humour, to come across showing different emotions and share my ideas with the world.”
STMTS used children in the hope of provoking society to discuss key issues, including a very hot topic in Greece at the moment – that of the refugees. Which brings us to our next stop, in a small street in Thiseio where on an old wall next to a vacant lot STMTS has created a piece depicting two migrant children with their faces painted as clowns.
“The title of this piece is What are you looking at? and it is related to the refugees and immigrants. It revolves around racism, which has increased in the past years in my country. It is two kids, the racists look at them like they are clowns and that they are painted as clowns and I want to use them to create this dialogue between them where they say ‘You are weird and I also am weird so why are you looking at me?’ with a type of humour.”
Our next stop is on Pireos Street, right by the bustling entertainment district of Gazi. It is here, with a view of the Parthenon in the background, that you will find STMTS’ most recognised piece of art: a child wearing oversized sunglasses and a t-shirt that says ‘I LOVE LIFE’.
“This piece is one of my most famous pieces, I named it I love life. I did this piece in 2012. It was [the] third piece I had done. With this piece I wanted to show a kid who is wearing big sunglasses for his size and an extra large t-shirt saying ‘I love life’. I wanted to show that every one of us can wear and do whatever they want, they have their own rights and he is poking his tongue out to whoever is teasing him, who ridicule him, those bigger than he is. So this kid is big, wearing big sunglasses and [a big] t-shirt and he pokes his tongue out to whoever is teasing – he mainly speaks about your rights.”
As we continue our walk, STMTS takes a moment to view what looks like a fresh piece of art. He tells us the great thing about the street art scene in Athens is that it is booming and claims there is a lot of variety through many artists creating a body of work that is drawing people from around the world to Athens to view it.
“Athens feeds street artists to be creative and it inspires us, we don’t live in a city that has the same face all the time, there is always something changing and it has a lot of faces for the viewer to see.”
Watch the Lost Athina video with STMTS shot exclusively for Neos Kosmos below: