Greeks vent election despair through graffiti

The messages are stark - the prime minister is an IMF puppet, life inside the euro is a death sentence, don't vote.

With an election just days away that may decide whether debt-choked Greece stays in the single currency, Greeks are using graffiti to cover Athens' walls - and sometimes its historic buildings - with rage.

"It's due to desperation," said Professor Theodosis Pelegrinis, the Rector of the University of Athens, whose elegant neoclassical facade has been targeted by graffiti.

"If you have no hope for the future you try to destroy everything."

Amid widespread disgust at the two parties that have taken turns ruling Greece since the country's military dictatorship ended in 1974 - the socialist PASOK and the conservative New Democracy party - much of the graffiti reflects a lurch to the extremes of the political fringe.

"Torch the polling booths," screams a line of black graffiti on the wall of the city's numismatic museum, a stately white and yellow mansion. "Burn parliament," exhorts another.

Daubed on trees in the central Syntagma square and scrawled on the leaves of plants beneath the Acropolis, the crudely spray-painted symbol of the anarchist movement, a black 'A' enclosed inside a circle, is omnipresent.

Largely ignored by the police who say they have too many other more serious problems  - such as a rise in crime  - with which to contend, the graffiti is a symptom of a society that is starting to fray at the edges.

In some areas where graffiti sprouts like ivy, packs of stray dogs lounge in the sun and junkies openly shoot up.

Some of the graffiti is sophisticated, but much of it is foul-mouthed and unsightly.

Controversially, and to the chagrin of tourists, the facades of historic edifices have not been spared.

"It's everywhere,"  said David Grove, a tourist from Australia, as he and his wife Marilyn took a photograph of a church on one of the city's main thoroughfares.

"It's unpleasant, hostile and plain vandalism."

A statue of one of Greece's most revered military heroes in central Athens - Theodoros Kolokotronis - has been given a new expletive-laden inscription, while the landmark Academy of Athens, fronted by statues of Plato and Socrates, is coated in angry red and black graffiti.

"During the 1970s and 1980s there was a lot of clever graffiti," said Pelegrinis, the university rector, whose building stands next to the academy. "But nowadays people write on the walls without saying anything. It's a matter of fashion."

Yet some of the graffiti, etched on buildings that were going to be pulled down anyway, is admired by locals and the authorities who believe it entertains and enlivens.

An anonymous Greek who conceals his identity under the moniker "Bleeps.gr" says he tries to get people to think more deeply about the country's dire situation.

"I'm interested in reflecting the crisis and how it affects the life of ordinary people," he said in a phone interview. "I'd like people to interpret more what is going on."    

Among his murals: an image of a bikini-clad peg-legged prostitute captioned "Greece Next Economic Model", a handcuffed female representation of Greece in a tomb entitled "The Bail-out sleep", and a man with a lion's head trapped behind bars called "Rage in the Constitutional Cage."

Police sources said it was pointless tackling graffiti because it returned almost as soon as it was erased.

"It's like the marble on Syntagma square," one police source said. "The protesters rip it up and it gets replaced. But two weeks later it's torn up again. The city is waiting for stability to return, before it cleans up."

Though many Greeks say they dislike the graffiti, they argue it reflects the country's agony.

"The time we live in is aggressive," said Katarina Adam, a hotel receptionist. "Art expresses life so if we follow that definition it is reasonable that graffiti is aggressive."

However, if there is one unifying theme in the graffiti it is despair.   

Outside a city hall building in central Athens, someone has sprayed a symbolic black blindfold upon the eyes of a statue of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom.

And in the touristy district of Plaka someone has scribbled an ironic job ad on a derelict street corner. "Wanted. Dead or Alive. Greek prime minister. No qualifications or brains required."

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