Anyone who has ever walked from Thiseio area to the center of Athens on their way to Acropolis will surely have seen them. It is also very likely for someone to hover in order to take a look at their creations: jewelry, paintings, T-shirts with stamps… But for a few months, street craftsmen are struggling to survive. The Municipality of Athens, in cooperation with the Ephorate of Antiquities, wishes to drive them out of the center of Athens, threatening them with extinction.
For nine years now, Nikos has been setting up his stall, usually in Monastiraki and sometimes in the Thiseio area. His mindset pushed him to start this business, as he wanted to choose a different working life, as he says, but also because, as a student at the School of Fine Arts, it was a good opportunity for him to deal with the practical part of his studies. “It fulfills me emotionally to do something and present it to the people”. Nikos creates jewels and then sells them on the street. From this work, he earns a small amount of money, which for most months is not enough to cover his basic living costs.
Nikos is one of the hundreds of craftsmen and artists who have been setting up their stalls in the center of Athens for over ten years, mainly in the area of Thiseio and on the pedestrian zones of Apostolos Pavlos and Dionysiou Areopagitou streets, creating and selling jewelry, ornaments, small sculptures, t-shirts and other creations of their art and imagination. These spots were given informally in 2007 during the term of mayor Nikitas Kaklamanis. In recent years, despite the fact that they were facing problems, their number has multiplied due to the economic crisis. For many, a street stall is now the ultimate solution to have the necessary income to survive. “I saw an ever increasing number of people going out on the street. Especially during the last 4-5 years, with the crisis, which is constantly aggravating, we are getting bigger in number. You see grandmothers suffering from pension cuts sell handicrafts on the street or just knitting.” For a few months now, he and his colleagues are being persecuted in the historic center of Athens, which will inevitably mean for most that they will have to shut them down. At the same time, due to the new law on outdoor retail trade voted in 2017, the Greek state has presented them with obligations that it is impossible to cope with.
The threat of eviction out of the historic center
In mid-October, the municipality of Athens, based on a document from the Greek Archaeological Service and on arguments for the “protection of the cultural heritage” and for the “fight against Illegal trade”, informed them that they should leave the historic center of Athens and be transferred to other areas such as Victoria, Kerameikos and Avdi Squares. Areas with far less people, which means, combined with the fact that the state is preparing to ask for money for licenses, Single Social Security Entity fees (EFKA) and income taxes, that their small revenues will be significantly reduced. Practically, for most of them, it means they will disappear. Indeed, in October, the municipality sent mixed task forces of the Hellenic Police and the Municipal Police to remove the craftsmen from Apostolou Pavlou Street. This ban lasted about 20 days before the craftsmen defied the pressures and returned to their spots.
“The visual artists, artists and craftsmen of outdoors trade do not have the potential to earn large income, so much as to ensure them a tolerable living; this occupation is a way out of unemployment that is plaguing our country. The overwhelming majority are unemployed citizens. Being thrown out of the street market will lead them to a desperate situation, because they will not be able to make both ends meet”, says the Association of Visual Arts-Artists-Craftsmen “Athina Ergani” in its statement.
The arguments employed by the municipality and the Archaeological Service seem difficult to believe. “There is a lot of pressure coming from the Trade Unions, who see us very competitive, wrongly in my view. It seems funny how the trader is threatened by my box, but it happens. There is also a general effort to overhaul the center of Athens,” says Nikos. He also finds it difficult to understand how his stall “offends” the cultural heritage and he also stresses that there are many other commercial, noisy activities in the historic center, even near the monuments, which are certainly much more offensive, and the Greek Archaeological Service could certainly deal with these. “The overwhelming majority of those who go past our stalls are pleased to see us. They find something different, something original, non-commercialized, or they just enjoy the route. Indeed, I and many colleagues believe that our presence here strengthens the cultural heritage. The Ancient Agora of Athens was a place where people could talk, walk, exchange products. Some people understand this and others do not, but I believe it.”
“The difference between an artist and a trader should be respected”
Last year, the Parliament passed the new law (4497/2017) on outdoor trade, which essentially was the beginning of the problems craftsmen face. This law, which the Municipality of Athens used and began the procedures of “eviction”, equates the craftsmen and the street artists with the traders, and demands exaggerated things from them. In particular, the article (45) in question provides inter alia that:
- Natural persons who create works of art, artworks, handicrafts and other original works of their own artistic creation may market their artworks provided they are granted an administrative license
- This license is strictly personal and is valid within the administrative boundaries of the municipality, which issues the license and grants space upon request of the interested person
- Commencement of professional activity through taxis and tax liabilities
“Not only it does not solve an issue that has been pending for decades, not only it does not help the craftsmen to continue to exist, to create and to contribute to the cultural heritage and tradition of the country, but it pushes them to an impasse and despair, benefiting only those who have a big production potential, that is, those who process or simply resell (pure trade in a few words), and once again art and artists are sacrificed on the altar of money. We, as craftsmen, cannot be equated with canteens, street vendors, traders, nor can we, as natural persons, compete with Social Cooperative Enterprises (SCE),” say “the independent street craftsmen – artists” in a petition that has been uploaded to Avaaz website.
“One should understand and respect the difference between a craftsman-artist who produces original and unique artistic creations and a street vendor who either manufactures or simply resells the commodity they buy inexpensively and in large quantities, spending from a minimum to no time for its creation and therefore has much bigger profit margins. The equation of these two is the definition of unfair competition and leads the craftsmen to a decline,” they add and ask for the abolition of the article.
“The personal license, in a certain spot, will obviously mean that they will also ask us to pay a rent. They will ask us to pay a Single Social Security Entity fee (EFKA), to get a POS, a cashier, and to pay income taxes. That means that what we earn will no longer cover our basic needs either. This law pushes us very hard and does not take into account the specific conditions under which we work. For example, we are very much dependent on the weather. When it is rainy, windy, snowy or too hot, we do not work because we are exposed to the weather. For example, in the last three or four days, I can’t work. There are other peculiarities we face, such as diseases (e.g. tendinitis, Cervical spondylosis) caused by our work and we need to take a few days off to recover. The involvement of all these bodies surpasses us and a solution must be found -as was the case with the small-scale farmers who were excluded- one that respects the peculiarities, the nature of our work and the way of life of a person working on the street. The law, therefore, will prove to be devastating to all craftsmen, and survivors will be forced to make large discounts on the manufacture of their products. Originality will be lost”.
Reactions and mobilizations
The craftsmen, through their various Associations, reacted, with conventions, mobilisations, meetings with the competent bodies, including the Ministry of Finance, informing the society and collecting signatures online. Reactions also took place within the Municipality, with factions such as “Antarsia stis Geitonies” (“Mutiny in the Neighborhoods”) and “Anoichti Poli” (“Open City”) opposing Kaminis’ decisions. The result so far is that the adoption of a final decision is successively postponed. Technically, the new deadline ends on 14 December. It is then unknown how the stalls will be dealt with by the municipal authority. “Either in the daylight or at night,” comments Nikos, joking around with uncertainty.
Craftsmen-artists “adorn the city when they exhibit their artistic quality, education, talent. This model of work has been recognized throughout the world for its particularity. It is the living tradition, the culture, the extrovert expression of the civilization of the cities worldwide. It was time for Athens to shape it, legalize it, and strengthen it “, highlighted the SYRIZA faction in the Municipality of Athens, “Open City”, in its statement in October.
“The campaign to remodel the historic and commercial center of Athens has become leverage for the extermination of the poor of the city, for the few and elect to survive,” says ANTARSIA, through its municipal councilor, Petros Konstantinos, who wonders: “Seriously? The Central Archaeological Council is worried that the cultural heritage is being destroyed by the street sellers of Thiseio, by the craftsmen? Has 90% of this heritage not been buried under the buildings of the Banks, hotels and businesses that crush the city center? Do the feet of the street sellers on the streets disturb them?” he adds and also complains that “proposals to create a “market” scattered with one hundred stalls underestimate common sense.” “On the one hand due to the fact that the authorities argue with each other and on the other hand due the fact that we reacted and applied pressure, so far there is no final decision,” explains Nikos. “For the time being we are trying to inform and mobilize the people in Thiseio and Petralona to support us while we are shaping our own proposals,” he adds. The banners of the craftsmen who participated in the 24-hour strike called by Civil Servants’ Confederation (ADEDY).
“It’s not only about us”
Nikos and many others argue that the eviction of the craftsmen from the center is part of a wider framework, built step by step. “It’s not just about us,” he repeats.
Recently, the debate has begun again on the fencing of the Philopappou and Pnyx hills, a free expanse of 700 acres in the heart of Athens. Similar efforts were made both in 2002 and in 2008, which were prevented by the mobilization of residents. The argument of the defenders of this proposal is delinquency (a murder case a few months ago and many robberies have been denounced), while opponents stress that “the center of Athens will be cut off the ancient cites”, and they add that the real goal has nothing to do with security, but with commercialization (with a ticket, shops, etc.). Similar actions for building a fence have taken place at Strefi Hill, while at Plato Academy there was a project for the erection of a Mall by Artume, a Blackrock subsidiary (which was suspended by the company despite the fact that the government had issued all the required licenses).
“I think the effort to evict us is part of a wider project of remodeling the historic center. For example, they also want to build a fence in Philopappou so that parents cannot stroll around with their children without paying a ticket. This plan does not take into account the social needs of the people living there. Neither our own needs, nor the needs of the people who want to find us, or those who want to walk and not be in a vast commercial space”.
Based on this belief and with a motto concentrating on the question “what center of Athens do we want”, craftsmen-artists want to get in touch with and be supported by “people who see things like us” and they are getting prepared to continue their actions. It is unknown what will happen when the given deadline or a next one is reached.
“Either in the daylight or at night”.