The most famous painter from Lesvos is Theofilos Hatzimihail (1870-1934). Born in Mytilini, as a young man he went to Smyrna (today’s Izmir in Turkey), where he did odd jobs and improved the painting techniques that he’d already learned from his hagiographist grandfather. When in 1897 war was declared between Greece and Turkey, Theofilos went to Athens in order to sign up for the army, but the war was very nearly over. He then lived and worked for some 30 years in Volos (on the mainland near Mount Pelion) before returning to Lesvos for the last seven years of his life. He’s the only artist of the island whose work has made it to the prestigious Louvre in Paris.
Theofilos loved military costumes and Greek heroes. He dressed mostly in a traditional fustanella, the large white pleated skirt, nowadays still worn by the military honour guard, but there are also pictures where he is seen wearing other military uniforms. One of the fine aspects of his work is the richness of detail he depicts for clothing, headgears and hairstyles (see: Θεοφιλος, a short movie in which particularly the details of his works are highlighted).
Theofilos was a man who held freedom as a main goal in life (see the documentary The Odyssey of a Great Greek Painter). In general he worked for whoever would provide him with food and a place to sleep and as a result he produced lots of mural paintings, many of which have disappeared in time due to neglect of the owners. He painted in many locations like cafes, houses and even a bakery, as well as a tavern in Karini, close to Agiasos. On the outside of this tavern you can still find a very nearly disappeared mural painting of by him and there still is the hollow tree, in which it is said that Theofilos lived for some time.
It seems a big step from the folkloric works of Theofilos to modern graffiti art. Although this step was made last summer by the organizers of the Beach Street Festival in Vatera (July 25-28), who wanted to confront international graffiti artists with the paintings of this Lesvorian painter. In a way Theofilos was himself a graffiti artist, even if only because of the bright colours he used and the walls upon which most of his art has been painted.
Graffiti is known to pop up in the most unexpected places, mostly in cities, where artists leave their elaborate signatures on metro trains, empty city walls, buildings and doors. The modern graffiti art is the aerosol art, which became ‘fashion’ at the end of the Sixties in America, but graffiti itself is much older. The hieroglyphs of the Egyptians can be regarded as ancient graffiti as can the Romans’ chalked political slogans on walls and likewise the announcements for gladiatorial games.
Greece too offers it’s part in graffiti, for example in Athens, but what this festival on Lesvos created is unique. Vatera is in the south of Lesvos, just below Polichnitos, one of the larger villages of the island. I presume it has a rich history, because in this region you can find a tower from a castle of the Gateluzzis, the remains of a temple dedicated to Dionysus (at Agia Fokas) and the Well of Achilles (it is said that Achilles stopped at the well when he finished fighting in Troy, to supply drink for his horse). But there is very little to be found on the web about the history of this region. But it is fact that many, many centuries ago prehistoric animals roamed these parts (some of whose remains are exposed in the Natural History Museum of Vrisa, a little town just above Vatera).
Vatera should have been called Skala Vrisa because it is the bathing place for Vrisa, and it consists mainly of holiday houses, hotels and guesthouses. But it has the longest beach of the island, some 8 kilometres, mostly sandy. The southern light makes this bathing place even more attractive and I am wondering why Vatera has not yet been discovered by large groups of international tourists. It is mainly the locals and Greek tourists who enjoy this beach paradise.
Although there must have been at least one person with the same question and he started to build an enormous hotel at the end of the beach, on the road to Stavros. The building developed as far as a solid skeleton and some marble floors and bathtubs in some of the rooms. It is said that somebody took off with all the money for the project and disappeared abroad and so it never got finished. For years now it has been wasting away at the end of the beach, closed in by green hills and now fully part of the landscape of Vatera.
This summer everything changed. The organizers of the Beach Street Festival recognised that the derelict hotel was a Walhalla for art: plenty of huge blank walls. They invited a number of graffiti artists (or they came themselves) to fill these blank canvasses. It must have been a joyful event to see all those people working on the walls: the result is amazing.
This modern ruin has become a kind of open-air museum where you can cruise its empty spaces, enjoy its cool shadows and discover beautiful graffiti works. While outside the Aegean Sea joyfully laps at the beach, the labyrinth of walls, staircases and room interiors offer up the visions of many artists who have been spraying art on the walls. It is incredible to see this huge ugly building, an unrealised dream, now transformed into an alternative museum where you roam the spaces and enjoy a game of colours, lines, ideas and jokes. Theofilos too is part of the main collection; more than once you can see him ‘glued’ to a wall, in his fustanella with a paint roller in his hand, in the background his beloved azure sea. I cannot imagine a better homage to this Lesvorian painter.
Will there be another Beach Street Graffiti Festival in Vatera next year? I do hope so. I hope that one day no piece of bare concrete will be left in this stylish graffiti museum.
(with thanks to Mary Staples)
© 2013 Smitaki