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From ‘graffiti gypsy’ to top Cypriot street artist

From spray-painting walls in Greece to becoming the island’s best known street artist, THEO PANAYIDES meets an impatient, hyperactive muralist who now paints public spaces all over the world

I don’t think I’ve ever done an interview like the one with Paparazzi. Interview subjects usually stay in one place, for a start, but he’s constantly moving about. Initially he sits at an easel, in his small Paparazzi Art Studio in the centre of Larnaca – this, incidentally, is where graffiti workshops will be taking place, every Saturday till July 27 – laying the occasional daub of paint on a half-done commission while answering my questions at the same time. (He starts to put on headphones and listen to music as well, like he always does while painting, till I point out that it might be impractical.) A 14-year-old boy comes in to buy spray cans; passers-by wave, and he waves back. By the end he’s pacing up and down the small studio, his energy coming in waves, while I follow him with the tape recorder like a scientist trying to track some especially wily wild animal.

It’s not just the interview itself, though, it’s the surroundings. Paparazzi ( Achilleas Michaelides) is a bit impatient on the phone, our appointed hour left a little vague – then, when I arrive, he’s not there at all, leaving me plenty of time to admire the big murals on nearby walls (the whole street is very art-centred, with studios and paint shops). There’s a grinning snowman down the road, a ballerina looming over a rubbish skip in a parking lot, a woman with a headscarf and a kind of boat balanced on her head on the wall just outside his studio; all bear his signature, ‘Paparazzi’. The man himself arrives half an hour later – brown-eyed, stubbled, unapologetic – and we’re off to get coffee, and photos, and talk to the neighbours.

“How are you doing?” he calls out to an old man standing on the pavement near the ballerina: ‘Ti kanis?’ in Greek, literally translating as ‘What are you doing?’.

“I’m doing whatever I want to do,” growls the old man wittily. “Maybe I want to have a shag.”

Paparazzi cackles. He’s slightly built and not very tall, a hyperactive imp flitting from place to place. “That little bird doesn’t sing anymore!” he retorts, his accent a hybrid of mainland Greek and Cypriot. He quit smoking two weeks ago, which may explain why he’s jittery – but the more likely reason is that he’s always like this. As we walk, he fields a phone call from his partner Sandra (who’s Lithuanian), starting in Greek then switching to Russian as the conversation gets more intense. Their three-year-old daughter is also trilingual, though Paparazzi’s English isn’t the best. We should do the interview in English, he jokes, then his answers will be short and we can finish more quickly! A certain impatience is part of his makeup.

We arrive at the Roll It Up Ice Cream Roll Bar shop, where he orders two takeaway coffees. The owners are friends, he explains, and he’s painted a few murals here too – a flamingo on the shopfront (Larnaca, innit), then a kind of tropical maiden flanked by palm trees as you walk to the courtyard in back. “Hello, beautiful!” he calls to the waitress, meanwhile telling me of the mural he painted – by invitation – at a cultural village in Qatar, one of many countries where his work has been hosted. Qataris don’t haggle like Cypriots do, he explains with feeling: if you ask for €1,000 they’ll say ‘Here’s €2,000, give us your best work’. Here, on the other hand, they’ll immediately try to bring the price down – not to mention those would-be clients who ask him to paint for nothing, claiming they’re giving him free advertising since his work will appear on their wall. “Would you ask a dentist to fix your teeth for nothing, and ‘I’ll give you free advertising every time I smile’?” he asks rhetorically. “He’d probably punch out the teeth you have now, if you tried that!”

He used to paint for nothing, of course. Indeed he used to paint without being asked, that being the whole point of graffiti – scouring the city (Thessaloniki, in those days) as a restless 14-year-old, looking for walls he could secretly sign with his high-school nickname, ‘Paparazzi’ (taken from the rap song by Xzibit, though he doesn’t really spell out the connection). “We weren’t doing it to be famous, man,” he scoffs, having already mentioned his disdain for the whole ‘street art’ phenomenon. “And we weren’t doing it to make money, either.”

So then why?

“Because – I dunno, I wanted to show that I’m here, man. Make my presence known, maybe leave a mark on a grey environment that – I dunno, got on my nerves, let’s say. You know what I mean? A reaction.”

Was he unhappy in those days?

“No, I think I was – trying to find myself. I was just a kid trying to find himself.”

What was his plan?

“To tell you the truth, I think I’m very lucky that graffiti came into my life,” he replies earnestly. At the time, in his teens (he’s now 37), he was living in a rundown part of town, full of recent immigrants – his family had just come down from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, where he was born – and feeling predictably alienated. This was a neighbourhood where a young boy could easily go “down a strange path,” as he puts it (‘strange’ is his catch-all word for bad situations he’d rather not dwell on), especially if the boy in question were lively and hyperactive. Art was his secret escape from the perils of drugs and gangs, the family being artistic in general (his grandfather back in Georgia was a craftsman and musician; Achilleas’ dad worked as a builder, but was also a fine Sunday painter) – though of course Art took many forms, and nothing compared to graffiti. “Sitting and drawing some ancient statue,” like they did at school, “maybe isn’t so cool, when you’re 14. Whereas doing something on the street is very ‘yo’, let’s say.”

He’s back in the studio now, getting ready to sit at the easel – he still does commissions, though they’re few and far between these days – but then he rushes to the door, drawn by the sight of a man passing by on a bicycle. “You’re a fat man!” he cries, and cackles. “The bike won’t carry you!” The man comes in, grinning happily. It turns out he’s quite a big noise on the Larnaca art scene, which is why Paparazzi’s banter is even more furious than usual. They chat for a while, very amiably; “He’s the best,” the man tells me, indicating our host. “See you, fat boy. On yer bike!” laughs Paparazzi as the man starts to leave. His friend turns and grins, like a card player about to lay down a winning hand. “You’re forgetting something,” he ripostes: “You’re a Pontian!”

There it is – spoken in jest, in the most friendly way imaginable, but still: you’re a Pontian, viz. a Pontian Greek from the shores of the Black Sea. Paparazzi’s been in Cyprus since 2002, has flown the flag at street-art exhibitions abroad, and feels entirely at home here – yet he’s also part of an ethnic group that’s often disparaged. “I won’t let you in because you’re Pontian,” he remembers being told outside a club in Paphos, which is where many of the new arrivals settled in the 90s and early 00s. (Paparazzi’s lived in Nicosia, Limassol, two years in Ayia Napa and now Larnaca, but never Paphos; that place is “strange”.) Even now, he remains an outsider – which may be why he thrives so much on the neighbourhood vibe, crafting his own little corner of Cyprus – though overt racism is now very rare. I suspect it’s just always in the background, the way many expats can live their whole lives here and still be known as ‘the foreigner’.

Everything about Paparazzi marks him out as slightly different: his ethnic background, his lively, caffeinated personality – and of course his reputation as Mr. Graffiti, a throwback to the old days when the scene was wild and (of course) illegal. Things are different now. The mayor of Ayia Napa has created “free spots” where artists are not just allowed but positively encouraged to express themselves. The 14-year-old customer buying spray cans is also a graffiti artist – Paparazzi gives him a comradely fist-bump and says, in English: “We support the graffiti gypsies” – but seems unclear (and unconcerned) about whether he’s actually allowed to spray the walls at his preferred location; “Not many people pass by there,” he shrugs. Like hip-hop, its equivalent in the music world, graffiti has become mainstream, and increasingly corporate. The Ayia Napa mayor only made one request at the street-art festival he recently hosted: “Keep it positive, and not political”. That’s quite a big request, I point out – but Paparazzi isn’t bothered. “Look, mate, on an island where things are a little bit strange – you understand what I mean – you can’t have, let’s say, extreme views being painted on buildings”. Besides, he himself is completely non-political.

Street art, for him, is about the art; not the street, not the politics, not even the defiant gesture it might’ve been when he was 17. “We’re pushing 40, man, come on,” he protests when I raise the issue. “I’m a muralist now.” One of his murals, in old Nicosia, took two months to make and includes nearly 100 portraits of local notables (he also took the opportunity to sneak in portraits of his mum and his sister); these days, he says, inspiration comes from seeing Rembrandts in museums more than photos of spray-painted walls on the internet.

As for graffiti as a form of vandalism – a way for unhappy youngsters to physically impose their existence on society – that doesn’t even seem to be an issue anymore. Paparazzi paints public spaces all over the world, and the locals are invariably delighted. “In France we went to the supermarket and the guy says, ‘I don’t want any money, because what you’re doing is so great’. Or in Russia, a local came and brought me presents: ‘You’re making my city more beautiful’. In Zurich, a girl comes up and says, ‘Can I give you a hug?’. You see, there’s a positive energy. People are sick of seeing adverts and grey walls everywhere”. Isn’t it still an imposition, though? Isn’t he forcing people to look at his art, even if they hate it? What if the old man down the road doesn’t like that giant ballerina? “I don’t mind if he doesn’t like it,” shrugs Paparazzi, misunderstanding the question.

The old man is his friend; they’re all his friends, all these denizens of the Larnaca street which he’s festooned with murals. “We change as we grow – but I keep that. I keep my connection to the street,” he says. And there’s something else, too: like all restless, hyperactive people, he craves stability. He went through a phase in his 20s “when I lived like a rock star, let’s say” – drink, drugs, excess in general – but that’s over now (he doesn’t even smoke, as of two weeks ago). He enjoys the slow rhythms of Cyprus, all the “siga-siga koumbare, we’ll do it tomorrow. I like that, it suits me”. His partner Sandra suits him too, not just Sandra in particular but also the fact of having a partner: “Behind every great man is a woman who’ll tell him every day that ‘You’re not a f**king genius, malaka, you’re the malakas who forgot to take out the garbage!’,” he exclaims, cackling madly. “Keep you grounded, let’s say.”

That’s important too. Paparazzi’s gone from teenage vandal to respected artist and neighbourhood ‘character’, overflowing with restless energy – but the working-class roots are always present, the self-taught immigrant kid who suffered for his (street) art and worked as a builder and delivery-boy while trying to make ends meet. He tells me a story of meeting a young fan (“he seemed quite well-off”) who claimed he was also an artist but started making excuses: “‘I’m a bit down right now and can’t really work, don’t you ever get depressed like that?’. I told him: ‘Mate, I don’t have time to be depressed – because if I get depressed, then my daughter doesn’t eat’. So I have no time, man. Y’know, just keep going, man.” He cackles again – then the old impatience comes back (“OK, are we done?”), and he’s on to the next thing.

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