I would have been landing in Athens yesterday except for a small complication—COVID-19. Luckily my airfare was refunded and I have a $300 credit for hiking on the island of Evia. My blogger’s world has shifted tremendously since my last trip to Portugal in January. I am writing about my adventures in nature as I stay cloistered in Washington DC. I have also experimented with virtual tours led by local AirBNB hosts.
Last Sunday, I “virtually” flew to Greece for a street art tour in Athens. While I didn’t get to enjoy souvlaki at a street cafe, I did explore five Athens neighborhoods—Keramikos, Psyrri, Monastiraki, Exarchia and Omonoia. My guide was a young Athenian woman named Kallopi Markopoulou (but her family and friends call her Popi). Interviewing her for this article, I asked why she fell in love with street art. “Street art is accessible to everyone and it is so diverse. You can see different styles and techniques, from political stencil and paste-ups to large murals, legitimate or not. It’s the best way to beautify the city and transform some old areas giving them a new life,” explained Popi.
I highly recommend this tour if you want to experience “all the hip, and alternative neighborhoods” of Athens. It is an offshoot of the popular physical tour which Popi and Thomas created. “Four years ago I was wandering in the street of Athens and suddenly I realize that street art is now everywhere in the city,” said Popi. “Athens is not so famous for street art and I wanted to make an alternative walk in the city to show to the visitors the real Athens and the places that all the Athenians spend their day. That’s why three years ago I started to do this experience with the title Discover Awesome Street Art in Athens for Airbnb. Now with the COVID-19, I manage to make a virtual version of my experience and it is a nice opportunity to make friends from around the world.”
Our tour started in the historic Keramikos neighborhood which is where Popi and her husband Thomas reside. Located northwest of the Acropolis, along the banks of the Eridanos River, it is on the former site of the potters’ quarter. Its name (Keramikos) is derived from kéramos, which means pottery clay. Popi started our tour with urban art zooming in on the human face. What is it about paintings of the human eye that psychologically engage us? I knew this was an inanimate object (paint on a concrete wall) yet I definitely felt like I was being watched by a human.
Painted by Ino, it solely consisted of two eyes staring hard at an unidentified object. Popi called it The Eyes of Mona Lisa. This sepia-style brown and white color painting is interrupted by slashes of blue. If I had been standing on that street in Athens, I would have lingered for a long time trying to stare her down. Standing 90 meters wide, it was commissioned by the government. The eyeballs show the profile of Sherlock Holmes (see closeup below).
In my mind, this is the wonder of street art. Unlike the cloistered experience of viewing paintings on a wall in a museum or art gallery, street art is the people’s art—it rises up with the stroke of paint brush or the spray of an aerosol can. It is accessible. Every day it can be viewed and contemplated during the most mundane task—walking the dog, pushing the baby stroller, catching the bus for work.
Street art proliferated in Athens after the collapse of the Euro currency. There are over 400 abandoned buildings. Popi shows us a painting of a euro coin with the number zero. It illustrates the futility felt by Athenians as the economy blew up during the crisis. It also established a new cult hero in Athens—a dog named Loukanikos who participated in all the street riots. Popi showed us the dog’s mural which is titled “All dogs goes to heaven. She said it was painted by three street artists: N-grams, Billy Gee and Alex Martinez. “This dog became the symbol of the riots in Athens against the economic crisis of the previous decade,” she said. In fact, Time Magazine featured the Loukanikos as for “Person of the Year” for 2011. His photo also ran on the magazine’s cover with the caption “Loukanikos and the Revolution.”
A lot of the political riots happened in the Exarchia neighborhood. The artist Bluwalls focuses on the impact of globalization in his paintings. Popi tells us that he is like the graffiti artist Banksy; he wants to spread his message but not be known. Another painting not to be missed features an unknown homeless man. It is one of Popi’s three favorite examples of street art in Athens as “the mural ‘No land for the poor’ by a Balinese street artist with the name Wild Drawing . . . is dedicated to the poor and homeless people in Athens and around the globe. All these people are not invisible.”
I think this is why I love street art so much. It captures the passions of the ordinary man or woman of the streets. It celebrates passion as well as decries society’s fallings. It is meant to be seen every day, just like the homeless man or woman on the streets, to remind us that our world desperately needs help. This may be why Athenians also celebrate the Praying Hands street art painted on a hotel on Pireos Avenue, close to Omonoia square. Measuring 10 meters, it features praying hands upside down and possibly based on “Praying Hands” painted by Albrecht Durer in the 16th century.
According to Popi, the painting was commissioned by the city at a cost of 18,000 euros. This was an extraordinary budget item given the austerity measures in place in 2011. The painting measures 10 meters. It is meant to show how God is praying for us (thus the spotlight on the hand of God).
One of Kalliopi’s three favorite examples of street art is “the anamorphic girl by Mister Achilles because it is very unique and clever the way the street artist uses different walls to create this 3D effect. I am enthralled by Achilles’ vivid use of colors—the purple hair set against of the tangerine orange brick wall background, and the pale pink and maroon outlines shadowing her her neck.
I also loved that Popi’s shared personal details of her life. In fact, she loves street art so much that she hired street artist Sonke to design her wedding invitations. His iconoclast style features black and white swirls interrupted by splashes of red. He is most well-known for his street mural depicting an old flame. “One of my favorite Greek-born street artists is Sonke because this guy started to create his famous sad princesses after a heartbreak. For me that is romantic. That’s why I ask him to make my wedding invitation.”
P.S. As anyone reads my blog know, I am a cat lover. In fact, I was booked for an AirBnb tour of the Cats of Athens this week. Street cats congregate in many neighborhoods in Athens and are known to approach people sitting at outdoor cafes to beg for food. I was delighted to see two examples of street art celebrating Athens’ love of felines. In addition, I was charmed to meet Popi’s two cats—a white cat and a ginger cat—which she rescued. One cat is blind. We were lucky to have the opportunity to meet these two cats via Zoom. In addition, my cats Henry & Eliot both jumped on my lap so they could see meow to all the people who attended Popi’s amazing tour.
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I recommend www.streetartcities.com which is a website that showcases international street art. Poppi also provided a list of Instagram accounts to view all the street artists that we encountered during her virtual tour. They are listed below: