Athens means luxury…No future…Survival guide. These are the depressing sounding titles of a stack of books weighing down a miserable looking boy contemplating the realities of life. For the city that gave birth to modern democracy – the subject of another volume he sits on – things should worked out differently for the place and its people.
With Greece still reeling from the 2008 economic crisis that almost bankrupted the country, it is a piece of street art that tells a much bigger story. In the inner Athens suburb of Metaxouryio apartment blocks stand half finished and other older buildings have been abandoned. Unemployment remains high, people’s futures have been put on hold.
But another perspective on the crisis is that gentrification – the bane of many other European capitals – has been paused in a district that is in walking distance of the Acropolis and Athens’s other main tourist sights. For the city’s street artists, the walls of the buildings here have provided them with a blank canvas for creating colourful graffiti.
Metaxouryio – which translates as ‘silk factory’ – was an area that was developed in the 1830s when Athens became the capital of Greece. It was initially intended that the Royal palace would be built here and so important families started to make their homes in the district. But when it was instead was sited in its present position in Syndgma Square – the heart of the modern city – Metaxouryio started to decline.
Unless they worked in the small factories in this area, not many Athenians would come here and so the district became forgotten by the outside world. In more recent years as tourism grew in the city, Metaxouryio was not a place that visitors took in during their visits.
Today, little has changed. Some trendy coffee shops and bars have opened, but they are surrounded by the overgrown former grand 19th century buildings that have been left to the elements. But had the economic crisis not hit Greece, things could have been quite different.
Gazi is a neighbourhood that borders Metaxouryio, yet it seems far more developed. Named after the gas (gazi) works that once operated here, it was given a boost when the metro was extended to coincide with Athens hosting the 2004 Olympic Games. Former industrial buildings were cleaned up and turned into a new arts centre.
Property prices increased and many of the working classes found themselves forced out. On a weekend evening the upmarket bars and restaurants are today popular with Athenians and visitors alike. If this was London, it would probably be called Shoreditch – an alternative district that has gone mainstream.
Street artists operate here as well, but many of the pieces of artwork have been commissioned. On the side of Gazi College (not an education institute but actually a bar), there’s a giant mural with hundreds of squares listing many things that people love about Athens. It was commissioned by the brewing giant Heineken.
Back in Metaxouryio and the street artists wouldn’t stand for such overt commercialisation. “Airbnb tourists fuck off. Refugees welcome,” is a slogan spray painted on many of the walls in the neighbourhood. People living and working here aren’t afraid to display their politics.
But if the 2008 crash hadn’t happed the wave of gentrification in Athens may never have stopped. This could now be another Gazi.
I first visited Metaxouryio and Gazi with a fantastic walking tour company called Alternative Athens. The highly-recommended Athens Street Art Tour shows you a differnt side to the ancient city and its Acropolis.