13 March 2012

Athens and European Street Art

The journey from Caucasus to Thrace, from the enormity of Istanbul into the quietude of Cyprus – to tell it all by a fire at night, it would sound like a tale of caravan dust. We passed along a route that felt like the fringe of the real. In other words, this leg of our trip hasn’t felt like Europe in that classical, normative way.
But then we arrived in Athens. And what is Athens? It’s everything that Europe is, when the continent is reduced to its (narrowest) definition: twisting streets, buzzing motor scooters, leaf-shaded cafes, faded rooftiles, cigarette smoke, ancient buildings – and great, vibrant street art. Graffiti is a huge part of European urbanity, and we’ve been away from it for so long that it was suddenly fresh.
My most vivid recollection of the first time I was in Switzerland is of the graffiti. This wasn’t just tagging and big letters like I was used to. It seemed like art, like someone had created something worthwhile in the space between pretty buildings. This, of course, in perhaps the most bucolic country one can imagine.
If someone has never been to Paris or Rome, has never taken a European train or strolled the banks of the Danube, they might have an idea of Europe as a place where Graffiti is somehow antithetical to the way of life. But stone walls aren’t immune to spray paint, and the European landscape is more drenched in the stuff than anywhere else I’ve ever been.
One very good reason: except for a few picturesque and prim villages, every European town is in possession of some unfortunately ugly buildings. The continent has been populated with them in spurts and fitful bursts, concrete slab growing like fungus in the wake of war and tourist-discovery. To blame are the hotel developers and communist planners, the urbanization of cultures… but mostly a general lack of interest. In America, we had to build our cities beautifully to have beautiful cities at all. In Europe, they took it for granted that their cities were beautiful – and forgot to keep them that way. Who can blame someone for wanting to paint over this?
Athens felt, in so many ways, like a return to Europe proper, the Europe that feels comfortably clichéd from movies and first visits. It’s a place to feel at home as a tourist, because “the tourist” is a familiar role, like the role of the gruff bartender or the kindly baker. Even a neophyte traveler can slip into the part casually, like a second language. Self-conscious amazement – “the old men drink wine at nine in the morning!” – trumps caution, the eyes seem to take in more detail. The street art can be jarring, but it’s also revelatory. Why didn’t I expect this? Is this what Europe is really like?
In big parts of Europe, the answer would be no. Surprisingly, the poorer and more distressed a country is, the worse and more rare its graffiti. In former USSR block nations, there’s much less than in Western countries, and it’s done with more malicious intent. It’s not art in the same way, just spraying against a wall.
We spend a lot of time in places where being “the tourist” is to be in severe contrast to normal. At the beginning of this block of countries – in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia – we felt a kind of hunching of our shoulders, a tightness of gaze, our minds on safety. Not long ago, those mountains were full of bandits. We saw police openly bribed, the men are mostly veterans of recent civil wars. I just read about a suicide bomber in Dagestan, in a town some twenty miles from where we slept. Compared with that, pickpockets and vandals seem almost quaint. Athens is a very safe city.
And it’s also a tumbledown, ancient place where there are lots of vacant lots and neglected buildings. There are so many sacred places – in architectural and religious terms – that the rest of the sprawl feels disposable. People tear down buildings built centuries ago without flinching. What’s a hundred years in the face of the Parthenon or the temple of Zeus? What value does a blank wall have, when it's part of a broken building? It's all part of the layering of history, the growth and decay of the millennia.
(I’m not condoning property damage, of course.)
Walking around Athens, we ducked in and out of neighborhoods that played parts in a colorful whole, taking in the riot of energy and vibrancy. It felt like springtime. That it felt like Europe sounds strange, when we never left, but that was the flavor and sound of the place to our unfamiliar senses. Rebecca said that Athens is a place where you arrive and instantly feel that everywhere before is a long ways off, long ago in the past.

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