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The great divide between art and vandalism

Paparazzi at work on his pelican mural

By Andria Kades

Within days of April’s earthquake in Nepal which killed 8,000 people, a huge mural of a Nepalese mother with her baby appeared on the side of a nondescript building in Limassol. It was street art at its best: timely, moving, and beautiful.

It was the work of one of Cyprus’ most celebrated street artists – ‘Paparazzi’ – who wanted to pay tribute to the stricken Nepalese. Photographs of the painting spread rapidly on social media, and there can be little doubt it helped charities raise money for the earthquake victims.

Paparazzi's Nepalese mural
Paparazzi’s Nepalese mural

Few of Cyprus’ self-styled street artists are blessed with Paparazzi’s talent or sense of social consciousness. Private properties, public monuments and even churches are being defaced by an epidemic of paint-sprayed scrawls.

As a resident of old Nicosia – a favourite canvas for spray painters – 53-year-old Maria Theodorou has first-hand experience of the epidemic.

One night last summer Theodorou was woken up by a hissing noise coming from the street below. She went to the window and opened the shutters to see two men spray painting the wall of the house opposite.

“I shouted at them, asking what they thought they were doing,” she recalled. “They turned towards me, turned back and just carried on spraying their pointless slogans.”

Theodorou shouted again. The men continued to ignore her.

“They then finished the scrawl and nonchalantly sauntered up the street, leaving me spluttering in anger and disbelief. I felt so sorry for my neighbours who had just moved into their house. And so frustrated that they obviously had no sense that what they had done was just wrong.”

There is art, and there is vandalism, and most people can distinguish quite clearly between the two.

In Nicosia, municipality spokesperson Makis Nicolaides said they have now reached a point where if the slogans are not too abusive or too prominent they just leave the spray paint on the walls. They simply cannot keep up with the cost of constantly painting over angry anthems of supposed political angst or football pledges. In any case, a freshly cleaned wall acts as an invitation for further scrawls.

The cleaning budget – which includes dealing with graffiti amongst a host of other things – has increased in the capital in recent years and most of the graffiti related costs have been taken up by the old town.

This includes walls of buildings all around the area of Phaneromeni church and school which for years has been a favourite haunt of teenagers.

Graffiti in the Phaneromeni area of old Nicosia (Christos Theodorides)
Graffiti in the Phaneromeni area of old Nicosia (Christos Theodorides)

Chairman of the Phaneromeni Church Committee Nicos Lakoufis said several supposed anarchists – along with football supporters, they form the majority of the people who vandalise property – frequently spray obscene words and drawings on the church walls.

“We have had a very serious problem. They even climbed up to the church dome and sprayed up there, I have no idea how they even got up.”

The slogans are most often against the church, the government and although they did not want to deny access to the area around the church it has now been forced to increase its security.

“At 10 o’clock at night, we tell whoever is in the yard to leave and we close our gates. Of course we don’t want to keep anyone away from the church but it’s something that has to be done.”

Archimandrite father Venediktos Ioannou said that “people even spray the walls of the church and this is upsetting as this is a holy place. We love all these children and we understand that they want to express themselves,” he said, but stressed they needed to show some respect.

Nearby Phaneromeni school has even hired a guard for a few hours each day to watch over the grounds.

Even those who argue that witty, clever or attractive graffiti on, for example, an ugly concrete wall of a parking lot can alleviate its ugliness will baulk at similar treatment being meted out to beautiful, traditional sandstone buildings. And yet, there are plenty of old sandstone, renovated buildings that have been defaced.

Graffiti on a sandstone wall is difficult and costly to remove (Christos Theodorides)
Graffiti on a sandstone wall is difficult and costly to remove (Christos Theodorides)

Dealing with graffiti sprayed directly onto sandstone involves much more than simply painting over the slogans and is a much more costly process. Authorities use a specialised high pressure glass spray to clear away the ink.

“We need a lot of funds we don’t have,” Nicolaides said.

In Limassol, the problems are just as bad, the municipality said. Street artists however can, with permission from the authorities, do their work in designated areas during the Street Life festival – a massive event attracting graffiti fans and artists from across the country – which are on display for a year until they are re-painted white for the next festival.

Achilleas Michaelides, the street artist known as Paparazzi has been doing graffiti in Cyprus for over 10 years. ‘Apoel’, ‘G3 for life’, ‘Omonia till I die’ and such slogans are merely the ramblings of a teenager and cannot be viewed as graffiti, he says.

“Graffiti isn’t all about anger, rage and f***k the police. It can be a message to society, a piece of art or something to even stop and make you smile. The problem is that too often, it’s the furious anthems that end up on the walls,” he says.

Vandalism in no way encompasses what graffiti is really about, adds Paparazzi who gets permission from local municipalities or property owners for his murals.

Graffiti is however “the biggest movement in the art scene since the 70s and I believe it will never die,” he adds. Speaking about how the particular art may be destructive, he stresses that this is up to the individual.

“I do murals, big projects so sometimes I’ll find an abandoned building to do work on. I like the story behind the building and although I’m destroying something, I’m creating something new.”

Mona Lisa is missing by Paparazzi
Mona Lisa is missing by Paparazzi

For him, everything starts with an idea. He brainstorms with his girlfriend, they analyse it until it is a solid concept, until the result is “scenes from real life, a realistic picture of the world that people live in”.

Defenders of graffiti argue that the slogans tend to stem from hot blooded passions and deep seated beliefs. Whether they are against the government and police or in support of a football team they represent what people in society are thinking and feeling.

Of course, people like Lakoufis who has seen his church damaged so often do not see it that way. He is insistent that under the serious threat of a fine or even a prison sentence, youths would think twice about going ahead with it.

He is however pleased that incidents of vandalism in his specific area have decreased. He puts this down to the increased number of cafes that have opened in that part of Nicosia’s old city.

“We discussed this when the Nicosia mayor was first elected and we decided that one way to combat the problem is by bringing more people to the area.” So far it seems their plan is working.

As a street artist who sprays with permission, Paparazzi is keen to highlight the positive aspects of graffiti. Only recently, he did a mural, in collaboration with a graffiti artist who goes by the name Opsis, of a pelican they called ‘Free and beautiful’ on a shop renting out sun bends and umbrellas.

The pelican has its own story as it somehow escaped the zoo and ‘hung out’ at the particular spot. Authorities, quite to their embarrassment, have yet to capture the bird, and as a testament to how the bird should be free, the artists did their magic with the sprays.

“This doesn’t do anything bad to anyone. It’s a nice little something that makes people smile and says how the bird should be free. We did everything correctly, asking for permission and they were happy to grant it.”

For now at least, the agreement between authorities and artists is that when there’s permission they are more than welcome to do their art. Both the public and municipalities accept that street art can really add something to a city.

Nicosia resident Theodorou, whose late night graffiti incident still rankles, agrees. “Of course street art has its place, but what I saw bears no resemblance. What those boys did was both pointless and cruel. The lack of respect and understanding for something beautiful is just shocking.”


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