Graffiti crawl up exterior walls like webs of ivy, bending and twisting around rows of shuttered windows. At some street corners, layers of posters pile unevenly over this graffiti like papier mâché, stitching together urban blocks.
When I traveled to Greece this year, my original itinerary focused on ancient history sites: the Parthenon, the National Archaeological Museum, and the Agora. These places all tell valuable Greek stories from centuries past through classical busts, orderly columns, and symmetrical ruins. While these landmarks are all worth a visit, I unexpectedly also spent time seeking to understand valuable Greek stories from the present through the street art around Exarcheia Square in central Athens.
On a bright March morning, the streets are quiet as I walk to find a cup of coffee. Covering most storefronts are rusty steel sheets with accordion folds, like slumbering eyelids ignoring the daybreak. On my way to Exarcheia Square, some tree branches are bare, others have peeks of pink flowers, and others groan under the weight of bitter oranges.
The dire stalemate of the Greek economy from the last several years - the unemployment rate is approaching one-third of the population - provides a reason for many residents to paint and tag and spray. The graffiti create a real-time gallery of the fear pulsating from yet another round of austerity cuts, bankruptcies, and economic stagnation. Similar to the old graffiti of a divided Berlin, these outbursts of colors, words, and images in Athens represent a range of stories: frustration, defiance, and perhaps even, in some corners, kernels of humor.
Exarcheia Square, given its proximity to the National Technical University of Athens, has long served as a flashpoint for student protests and unrest. In November 1973, a group of students barricaded themselves behind the university gates to demonstrate against the ruling military junta. Shortly afterward, the government sent tanks to the gates, resulting in confrontations with civilians. More recently, in December 2008, riots that originated in Exarcheia Square soon spread across Athens and other cities in Greece and Europe.
After days admiring and photographing the street art, I hike to the top of a nearby hill to watch the sunset. In the distance, toward the ocean, I see the Parthenon, illuminated, standing resilient like a sentry. This monument has persevered through so much: foreign armies, looters, even everyday weather. I grow hopeful that the current difficulties in Greece will pass. But when this occurs, I also hope the visual chaos of the graffiti stays, to tell the important stories from this brief interlude, and to serve a mission similar to all the other museums and historical sites in Athens.