ATHENS, Greece — A Greek, a Portuguese and a Spaniard ask God when their countries' debts will be paid off. God says, “In 100 years for Portugal and in 150 years for Spain.” Disappointed, they say: “But, we’ll be dead by then.” When the Greek asks, God replies, “I don't know — I'll be dead by then.”
Gallows humor abounds in Greece these days, and Greeks openly say they have little to be optimistic about, now or in the future. With the recession in its third year, humor and art have become mechanisms to cope with high unemployment, poverty and the chaos that is Greek politics. Through cartoons, street art and jokes, Greeks laugh at the grim.
There’s a line in a well-known Greek song: “The streets have their own history, someone wrote it on the wall with paint,” and that's what seems to be happening in Athens these days. On the side of a building two blocks from the main square, a meticulously-painted pair of hands clasped in prayer descend from the sky. Underneath, drug addicts pass out after getting their daily fix.
“Street art is society's diary on public display,” said Bleeps, a Greek activist who has been adding color to walls across the country (www.Bleeps.gr). On one of Athens’ busy streets, Bleeps has painted “Greece's Next Economic Model” — which he proposes as a new symbol for Greece. It shows an alluring young woman wearing a bikini, striding confidently forward despite a wooden leg reminiscent of an old pirate. “It’s a disability that looks chic in history’s rotten catwalk," Bleeps said. "I borrowed the name from the reality show and transformed it into a political manifesto.”
Through his work, Bleeps says he’s trying to remind Greeks that they are not alone, since collectively they can get rid of the existing system. “I believe the average Greek, like the average person anywhere else in the world, is just trying to preserve their values,” Bleeps said. “As one by one the values decline (politics, religion, family), it is a major blow to the broader existential question of human beings.”
Far from the busy streets of Athens, on Santorini, one of the world’s most visited islands, Bleeps has painted another woman. "In Farewell EU, we see the concept of the modern woman viewed from the classic cinematic image of farewell,” Bleeps said.
“Do you remember how a piece of land was cut off in Emir Kusturica’s movie, 'Underground?' Similarly, we’re saying goodbye to the European Union, not because we’re going to be kicked out, but because in order to stay we’ll need to lose a part of ourselves.”
PASOK + New Fear
The walls in central Athens are covered with drawings and cheeky slogans. In a popular one, a little boy pees over the sun, the symbol of PASOK, a major political party in Greece. Another wishes Greeks happy holidays, Greek-style: “Merry Crisis and a Happy New Fear.”
As with most social movements these days, the response to the crisis has included extensive use of social media. In particular, digitally altered photos have garnered buzz on Facebook and Twitter. “New technologies might allow expression to get disseminated more widely but the mechanisms used to generate laughter are the same — political satire and mockery,” said Yannis Skarpelos, associate professor of visual culture and visual communication at Panteion University in Athens.
A series of photos that made the rounds in 2011, showed George Papandreou, the country’s former prime minister, photo-shopped in the same style of Apple founder Steve Jobs' book cover. The caption under the altered photo states, “No Jobs, 2009-2011,” a reference to the country’s 19 percent unemployment rate. Similar images of other Greek political leaders feature captions for what they are known for: no votes, no friends, and no clue.
In 2011, as leaders enacted deeper austerity cuts, Athens saw the biggest protests of the past 40 years, as well as widespread police violence. In October, satirists retaliated: The Barbie Parliament Princess photo became one of the most widely circulated images of the year. The original picture was taken during a rally against the new austerity measures, after protesters threw pink paint on the riot police. "The mockery of the policemen with the pink painted suits took a lot of forms and spread rapidly over the Internet," said Skarpelos. "We clearly have caustic humor here, but as a form of resistance against repression — something Greeks have often dealt with in the past two years."
A photo of the Greek Parliament with a window asks if users want to delete Greece’s 300 members of parliament: Lawmakers are heartily blamed for the country’s situation. "The humor used here is bitter," said Skarpelos. "It’s referring to an annoying reality from which the viewer is readily seeking to distance himself from. It’s not trying to generate laughter but a faint smile."
With Germany playing the role of stern headmaster insisting on tougher austerity measures, Greeks often compare today’s imposed economic discipline to the Nazi era. Here, an altered photo depicts the newly appointed Greek government in Nazi-era uniforms; the other the front-page of Ta Nea newspaper showing Greece as Germany's puppet.
Among many alterations of the EU flag — a motif that all Greek cartoonists love to use is a begging hand amid the 12 stars. The Western European media often call Greece "the beggars of the EU."
“The fall of Mr. IMF," shown below, is a stop-motion video depicting former Prime Minister George Papandreou as Mr. IMF, destroying Greece.
“It was created by our younger class, children between the ages of 11 and 14,” said Tzeni Orneraki, director of the Ornerakis Graphics Design School. “The idea and the script was their own and the professor didn’t help them at all. The director was an 11-year-old boy called Elias.”
A country in crisis like Greece might seem ideal for a comic artist. But the cartoonists in major Greek newspapers say they sometimes have a hard time drawing. "We’re also citizens of this country and our mood gets affected by the situation," said Elias Makris, a cartoonist for Kathimerini, one of Greece's biggest newspapers.
Every Monday, the headlines prepare locals for “the most crucial week for Greece. So, after late 2009, we’ve lived hundreds of critical weeks, in which nothing changes,” said Makris, who has been drawing humor for decades.
Kostas Mitropoulos has been a cartoonist for the past 57 years, and often features the average Greek, wearing the fez, the headgear leftover from Greece’s Ottoman past. In the cartoon here, which Mitropoulos drew for GlobalPost, the Greek everyman is leaping naked from 2011 to 2012. Underneath him are prickly pears — it doesn’t seem the Greek will make it as it teeters on the verge of constant bankruptcy goes the subtext.
“The easiest thing for me as a cartoonist would be to attack the European leaders, Merkel or Sarkozy,” said Mitropoulos, who draws for the leading Ta Nea newspaper. “That would have been far more popular and it would sell. But the difficult thing is drawing reality and explaining to Greeks that we brought this situation on ourselves.”
For cartoonists, hindering creativity during the crisis is the degradation of the political system. “In the past, politicians had earned the respect of the people, and it was easier to create a twist and elicit laughter,” said Andreas Petroulakis, who draws for Kathimerini newspaper. “When something is already deconstructed, how am I supposed to deconstruct it?”