A man walks by an abandoned Athens house covered in street art by WD (Wild Drawing) and Ore. Petros Giannakouris/AP

The Street Art Conservators battle time and the elements in an effort to preserve the Greek capital’s world-class cache of graffiti.

Greece and graffiti go way back: The world’s earliest surviving graffito may in fact be an ancient Greek advertisement for a brothel. More contemporary Greek taggers expressed their political beliefs during World War II and the country’s ensuing civil war and military dictatorship of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In the 1990s, a wave of elaborate public street art—an extension of graffiti that’s often more figurative than (and sometimes in tension with) its progenitor—spread throughout Athens. Today, with much of its surfaces coated in images that often comment on the country’s economic crisis, Athens has been hailed as a “mecca” for street art in Europe.

With such a long and storied history, it’s perhaps no surprise that a group has taken it upon itself to preserve the city’s street art. Four years ago, art and conservation students at the Technological Educational Institute of Athens founded st.a.co.—short for Street Art Conservators—to maintain some of their city’s works of public art. The students had been documenting street art for a class, and were so taken with some of the examples that they decided to help protect them from the elements (and other graffiti artists).

The st.a.co. team has worked on this series of portraits, by artists Achilles, Borondo, Mu, Bocho (B8), Mucha, and Sara, several times. (Courtesy st.a.co.)

The team consists of 17 people, most of whom now have day jobs but still donate hours or even days to the cause. St.a.co. members Calliope Oreianou and Eleftheria Mavromati note that the group usually works in central Athens. With the space filled with ancient sites and structures, the group stressed to Vice’s Creators Project that they “do not encourage and do not curate illegal street art”—that is, any work found on archaeological or otherwise culturally important surfaces.

Once the st.a.co. members choose a piece, they determine—sometimes through a conversation with the artist—what kinds of materials, such as paint and paste, were originally used, and implement conservation accordingly. Though they haven’t counted the number of works preserved (“Our work is about qualitative, not quantitative, results,” they write), Oreianou and Mavromati note that there are certain tableaux that st.a.co. has “adopted,” returning to them again and again as they continuously deteriorate.

One such piece is a series of portraits of an aging woman found on a wall in the city’s Keramikos neighborhood, northwest of the Acropolis. The st.a.co. team admires the series for what they see as its message: life’s passage into death. It has carefully preserved the series several times.  

Before-and-after images of the same portrait show different stages of preservation. (Courtesy st.a.co.)

Oreianou and Mavromati note that st.a.co.’s work can be difficult. “We sometimes have to work in extreme weather conditions, which means we have to work quickly,” they write. Though the group has received some donations, the members generally self-fund their conservation efforts themselves.

Trying to preserve such artistic expressions is a kind of Sisyphean endeavor, but the team is not deterred. “We accept that the results of our work are temporary,” Oreianou and Mavromati write. “We want the public to enjoy the art for longer, whether that’s a few minutes or a few months.”

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