Street Art and Graffiti: Urban Decay or Urban Delight?

By Veerle Bonestroo

 

Visiting an unknown, big city gives me a kind of energetic and magical feeling. The bustle, the sounds, the crowded streets, all the visual incentives. Coming from the country of clean perks, better known as the Netherlands, the city of Athens is really in your face. One thing that draws the attention is the omnipresent graffiti and street art. It is in almost every street and neighborhood, varying from tags and scribbling to gigantic art works. Graffiti is the perfect example of a ‘signal disorder’ (Innes, 2014). Or should it be seen as ‘street art’ and celebrate it as a creative outlet of urban life?

Signal disorder or urban diversity?
A signal disorder, according to Innes (2014) is a breach of prevalent norms and conventions that is disturbing or troubling. Disorders can have a certain impact on social life, because of its visual nature and seeing it repeatedly. This is why graffiti bothers people: they see it every day. The presence of physical disorder is often connected with the state of local social order, which leads to decreased feelings of safety and security. This reminds of the ‘broken windows theory’, which says that a disorderly public space is attracting crime (Wilson & Kelling, 1982).

Abandoned lot with graffiti on the walls, Metaxourgeio neigborhood

There are scholars who disagree with the conservative view on disorder. Richard Florida (2002) described that an urban aesthetic, such as graffiti, may be distressing for some, but is celebrated as diversity by others. Jane Jacobs (1961) critiqued the over-estimated social impact of urban disorders and she points out the informal interactions and spontaneous social ordering that is so characteristic for urban living. The redecoration of the neighborhood by graffiti can be seen as an informal way to deal with disorder by the inhabitants.

Sprayed cars of inhabitants look like ‘graffiti camouflage nets’ in graffiti neighborhoods

Back to the streets
To have a sense of what graffiti means in Athens, I was shown around by Haris, a local who was very eager to show me different neighborhoods with the most beautiful pieces of street art. The two neighborhoods with the most interesting art we visited were Gazi and Metaxourgeio, former industrial and working-class areas, abandoned and deprived for a while and now becoming the creative hotspots of the city. These areas are filled with graffiti and with lots of walls and buildings filled with huge pieces of street art. Around the unpolished streets and the ugly concrete apartment blocks, the street art is a visual delight and not disorderly. It adds some uniqueness, edginess and life to the city streets. On the other hand, there are also many streets and side alleys with litter, rickety houses and messy graffiti tags.

Mural at the Athens School of Fine Arts, artist unknown

Although the graffiti culture in Athens has been present for a few decades, the financial crisis definitely left his marks on the city walls and intensified the graffiti and street art culture. There are two main reasons: the anti-graffiti program became too expensive and difficult for the municipality to sustain, second, the financial crisis became a political and social crisis, where marginal groups of society were silenced by mainstream media. This motivated more civilians and artists to take their paint and spray cans and use it as a medium for expression (Karathanasis, 2014). Tsilimpounidi (2015) found in his ethnographic study, that most street artists were between 25 and 35, coming from a middle-class background and were well read and educated, with daytime jobs. This is contrary to the stereotype of the rebellious or bored youth groups who spray graffiti. When walking through the streets of Athens, I found a lot of street art with a political message can be found. For the artists, it is an act of resistance and a way to express their feelings (Alderman, 2014; Da Silva & Dickson, 2017). An example I came across, is the work ‘Death of Euros’, where a pile of Euro notes is carried like a coffin.

‘Death of Euros’ by Goin, Athens School of Fine Arts

Controlling the disorder
If you look around in the graffiti-filled streets, the impression is that there is no effort made on removing graffiti. Even on the touristy Aeropagus Hill, with a splendid view over the city and the Acropolis, graffiti is found. Plus, if the municipality wants to clean up the city, where to begin? Despite the fact that graffiti is still illegal, the local authorities decided to support local artists and encourage street art. The municipality sponsors street art festivals and projects and hands out permits to artists to paint mural pieces in wretched areas (Alderman, 2014; Da Silva & Dickson, 2017). So, the Athenian commissioned street-art can also be seen as a form of gentrification, as Tsilimpounidi (2015) argued “when political street art becomes commissioned art, it automatically transforms into a colorful façade adding to the grand narratives of the city. It is not a disturbance anymore but a sign of the end of crisis and the beginning of normativity” (p.33). The Gazi and Metaxourgeio neighbourhoods are examples of gentrification: formerly deprived areas, where creativity is embraced instead of repelled, which opened the gate for urban development.

Graffiti on the Aeropagus, the Acropolis is seen in the back

‘Knowledge Speaks – Wisdom Listens’ by WD. Metaxourgeio neighborhood. The favorite work of my guide Haris, was a mural of Athens’ mascot, an owl. This work was also commissioned by the municipality.

Social impact
As mentioned before, because of the visual aspect and the repetition, a physical disorder can have a big impact, the Broken Windows theory’s hypothesis is, that disorder attracts and encourages more severe forms of crimes. Several studies measured the impact of disorder in neighborhoods, such as litter, drug use, abandoned buildings and graffiti. Ross and Mirowsky (1999) conducted an empirical study where they measured the effect of disorders signals, derived from multiple theories. They concluded that “living in a neighborhood characterized by disorder—by crime, vandalism, graffiti, loitering, litter, noise, alcohol, and drugs—may adversely affect individual well-being” (p.426). A study conducted in The Netherlands on the spread of disorder confirmed the Broken Windows theory, they concluded that “signs of inappropriate behavior like graffiti or broken windows lead to other inappropriate behavior” (Keizer, Lindenberg & Steg, 2008, p. 1685).

Anti-facist graffiti in Gazi neighborhood

From this point of view, the graffiti in Athens would have a big, distressing impact, because graffiti is found everywhere. But Innes (2014) also argued that people in urban environments are not able to process and interpret all the available information, because that would be too exhausting. Architect and graffiti writer Orestis Pangalos (2014) argued that graffiti does not stand out anymore in Athens, because the city walls are covered all over. The ‘visual noise’ from graffiti merges into the general visual noise that typifies Athens and it fits with “the tendency of its inhabitant towards indifference and depreciation of public space” (no page).

All in all, is graffiti in Athens vandalism or is it an added value to street life? It is hard to make a comparison with such a tidy country as the Netherlands, where graffiti is removed quickly and is not very visible in the scenery of street life. In contrast with what Pangalos said about Athens, tidiness of public spaces is sometimes seen as the holiest of the holy by the Dutch. For example, ‘schoon, heel en veilig’ (clean, unbroken and safe) is the slogan for the Rotterdam public space policy. In my aesthetical opinion, probably influenced by the broken windows fetishism in the Netherlands, some graffiti, tags or scribbling have a disorderly effect and add to the ‘broken windows’ aspect. On the other hand, the big street art pieces are beautiful and skillful, and they brighten up the whole street. I perceive it as a part of urban life, the life that is exciting and energetic, and sometimes a bit rough. When I was in Athens the graffiti and street art had a positive impact on me because it showed the lively, somewhat edgy, character of the city and its citizens.

Mural by Gordon Hookey, Athens School of Fine Arts.

References
Alderman, L. (2014, April 15). Across Athens, Graffiti Worth a Thousand Words of Malaise. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/16/world/europe/across-athens-graffiti-worth-a-thousand-words-of-malaise.html
Da Silva, C., & Dickson, J. (2017, September 15). Graffiti city: The rise of street art in Athens. The Independent. Retrieved from hhttp://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/photography/athens-greece-graffiti-city-street-art-financial-crisis-a7947506.html#gallery
Florida, R. (2002). The Rise of the Creative Class. New York: Basic Books.
Innes, M. (2014). Signal crimes: Social reactions to crime, disorder, and control. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jacobs, J. (1961). The death and life of great American cities. New York: Random House.
Karathanasis, P. (2014). Re-image-ing and re-imagining the city: Overpainted landscapes of central Athens. In M. Tsilimpounidi & A. Walsh (Eds.), Remapping ‘Crisis’: A Guide to Athens (pp. 177–182). Alresford: Zero Books.
Keizer, K., Lindenberg, S., & Steg, L. (2008). The Spreading of Disorder. Science, 322(5908), 1681–1685.
Pangalos, O. (2014). Testimonies and Appraisals on Athens Graffiti, Before and After the Crisis. In M. Tsilimpounidi & A. Walsh (Eds.), Remapping ‘Crisis’: A Guide to Athens (pp. 154–176). Alresford: Zero Books.
Ross, C. E., & Mirowsky, J. (1999). Disorder and Decay. The Concept and Measurement of Perceived Neighborhood Disorder. URBAN AFFAIRS REVIEW, 34(3), 412–432.
Tsilimpounidi, M. (2015). “If These Walls Could Talk”: Street Art and Urban Belonging in the Athens of Crisis. Laboratorium, 7(2), 18–35.
Wilson, J. Q., & Kelling, G. L. (1982). Broken windows. Atlantic Monthly, 249(3), 29-38.

All the images in this article are made by the author

About the author

Veerle Bonestroo obtained her BSc in Criminology at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, she is now following the master Global Criminology at Utrecht University. She is writing her master’s thesis on the commercial surrogacy market in Ukraine. She has an interest in topics such as markets in bodily goods, other semi-legal markets, crimes of the marginalized and invisible. 

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