Exploring an artisan neighborhood off the beaten path

A mural of street art in the Athens neighborhood of Psirri.
Photo by Sydne Mass

Story by Asia London Palomba ·

ATHENS, Greece – The Psirri neighborhood, adjacent to the Monastiraki flea market and north of the center of Athens, is its own gallery of sorts for the craftspeople, street artists and eccentric bar and restaurant owners who inhabit this space.

“This area is different from other areas,” said Michael Paschalis, a local artisan who, with strips of colorful leather, creates small pieces of art that people delight to wear home. “It’s less touristy than other districts … It’s a traditional area.”

During the day, bathed in the buttery warmth of the sun, Psirri envelopes those who sit on the brightly colored chairs of the cafes that line its streets. Soaring, plunging street art adorns nearly every building surface around them as visitors drink, eat and smoke, their voices light with delight.  

A sprawling city of 3 million, Athens is all bustle and chaos and cars. Except where it isn’t. Because around any corner, up any tree-lined street, behind the hundreds of churches and department stores and thousands of nondescript buildings that make this city the capital of Greece, are the neighborhoods like Psirri, where locals live and return to – and to where tourists always find their way.

On a recent warm day in Psirri, a man grills squid on one corner, his snowy beard absorbing the smoke. Behind him, a row of tentacles glisten in the sunlight, waiting to be served. On another corner, a man sits in the shade of a tree eating almonds, surrounded by bundles of brightly colored flowers he sells to passersby.

At the heart of this neighborhood are the artists and artisans who make up a cast of characters, all playing a role in Psirri’s daily drama, comedy, romance and mystery. Some have contributed to the art that swirls and smashes across the outside walls and some are responsible for providing the exquisite accessories within them. The stories of  two leather craftsmen, a map maker who returned to his grandfather’s trade, a beloved sandal maker and a street artist, are just a few examples of the artistic souls who make this place what it is. Here are their stories.

The leather men

Backdropped by an old Byzantine church and tucked away into a corner away from the heat on Karaiskaki Street lies the store On and Off. The modest boutique is run by two friends who have been working with handmade leather goods since high school.

The calm of the store contrasts with the circus-themed dessert place called Kook next door that screams with color and the outlandish. People sit outside beneath colorful string pennant flags eating cake, laughing as a symphony of plates jostle and silverware clunks. The chatter is momentarily interrupted when the occasional motorcycle whizzes down the cobblestone street.

Michael Paschalis, a leather artisan, in his shop in Athens.
Photo by Sydne Mass

Inside the shop, alternative instrumental music weaves through the air as one of the owners, Paschalis, 37, sits at his desk adding nails to three pieces of colored suede. Rich purple, a neon pink and an inky black, the pieces are lined up with a kind of yellow tape to denote where the stitching should go on what will eventually be a wallet or a pouch.

Their specialty is leather, in particular leather bracelets of all shapes, sizes and designs. They manage to manipulate the material in impossible ways so that each bracelet is unique. Some are as dark as onyx and ripple with little bumps while others are a mahogany color, smooth as glass.

Paschalis and his business partner, Lefteris Plafountzis, also 37, have been friends for more than 25 years, when they first started making accessories in high school. Both come from a family of artisans specializing in leather. Paschalis’ grandfather was a shoe maker and Plafountzis’ was a belt maker, meaning both grew up in a sea of leftover leather bits, which fed their curiosity and led them to experiment.

While their street buzzes with activity outside their doors, under the lattices of vines twinkling with lights as people sit and drink and eat traditional Greek cuisine, they work their art just steps away, buoyed by their years of handiwork, by their years of friendship and by the years of tradition their fathers set out before them.

“We decided to make bracelets [as teenagers] because we wanted to wear them. We grew up with images of [our grandfathers] working on machines, and this particular smell of glue in their workshop,” Paschalis said with a nostalgic crinkle in his pierced eyebrow. “It was very memorable to see how they made materials into objects.”

A display of some of the bracelets that Paschalis and his partner create in their shop.
Photo by Sydne Mass

A street artist in his studio

A couple of blocks over from On and Off leather goods is Sarri Street, arguably one of the quietest and most graffiti-rich areas in the Psirri neighborhood. Here, the warm afternoon light splashes onto the muraled buildings, enveloping the art.

Walls covered in stencils and pictures of mouths frame the entrance of the underground studio of street artist Yassonas Megoulas, 31, otherwise known by his tag, Cacao. Born in Athens but raised in Corfu, an island roughly 300 miles Northwest of Athens, Megoulas has been painting since he was 12. Today, he works as a solo professional artist, but still does street art when he has the chance and when the weather is good.

His studio, peppered with paint splotches, is filled with paintings and canvases, brushes and shelves of color-coded spray cans, all of which serve as a visual representation of the explosive creativity in Megoulas’ head. To him these tools are sacred, as he considers spray painting a way of life.

Yassonas Megoulas, known by his tag Cacao Rocks, in his studio in Psirri.
Photo by Sydne Mass

“For me it is life, it is living…it’s my way of living,” Megoulas said while smoke from his vape pen streamed out of his nose and curled around him like a dragon.

Megoulas bounces around, passing by tools hanging on walls and the repeated phrase “Cacao Rocks” written in faded blue marker. Sporting artfully dishevelled hair and a slightly unruly beard, Megoulas is freckled with splattered colors.

“You can tell when a Greek does street art. There is a Greek essence,” Megoulas said with an artful wave of his hand. He believes there is an indescribable quality to Greek street art that makes it stand out.

The neighborhood around his studio is a concentration of people who also celebrate art. In fact, the walls outside of his studio are emblazoned with colors and designs, only some of which he has done. Most noticeably is a sea of pictures of his own mouth and a stencil of the Acropolis with the words “Athens” written beneath it..

The inside of Megoulas’ studio that doubles as his apartment.
Photo by Sydne Mass

“It’s an artistic neighborhood, it has a lot of actors, a lot of artists and theatres. It’s cool,” Megoulas said.  

His work is mainly dominated by characters and shapes of extravagant colors that bend the rules of reality. Near his desk is a painting of a gold man balancing on the wing of an airplane underneath a golden orb, backdropped by a sky halved into two different shades of blue. Beneath it sits a vase swirling in patterns and colors.

Megoulas has worked all over the world, in countries including Germany and Italy, and has had galleries exhibiting his work in places such as Zurich and Mykonos.

Like any true patriot, Megoulas also draws inspiration from his country. The things he sees and experiences trickle into his work. For example, a small-scaled painting of the Hilton Hotel in Athens set against a deep purple sky and lined with muted greys and blues, hangs on one of his walls, painted because of his attraction to its architectural form.

“I am inspired by typical Greek styles, by Greek islands, architecture and people. I also like Greek artists from the ‘60s and the ‘70s,” Megoulas said about his work.

There is a sort of universal battle between the law and street artists – but not in Athens. Here, it’s quite the opposite, he said. Street art is not only accepted by locals, it is also celebrated, which helps explain why so many walls around the city and in the neighborhood are used as canvases.

“In Athens you can paint almost everywhere,” said Megoulas, “because people like it.”

A gallery of street art in Psirri by Sydne Mass

 

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The rebirth of an old trade

Within most people is a curiosity about the world and its places, a desire to explore and discover. A globe can help quench that wanderlust but also breed more fascination for the world, a phenomenon that happens daily on Sarri street for Michael Koimtzis, 30. Nestled between two art studios, Koimtzis has reinvigorated the trade of making handmade globes in the quietest pocket of the Psirri neighborhood off of the Monastiraki flea market.

The storefront is so modest it would be easy to miss if not deliberately seeking it out. And the quiet of the area is fitting for the quiet nature of the globe maker. With subdued eyes and a soft voice, Koimtzis is as humble as they come. At the forefront of the store are rows of industrialized globes, objects the company, called Cosmic, actually profit from.

A globe created by Koimtzis.
Photo by Sophie Cannon

Further in, Koimtzis sits at his desk looking at something on his computer with his brow furrowed and his finger resting on his lip. He is backdropped by a large world map, and all around him are clusters of handmade globes, each ranging in size, color and design. Bundled between them are three older papyrus-colored globes that were made in 1951 by Koimtzis’ grandfather, who started the business in 1951 at the age of 28.

For 30 years the company made handmade globes, until the operation stopped in 1981 and he strictly sold industrialized globes. For years the art was lost, until Koimtzis entered the family business three years ago and started making them from scratch again.

“The art of making globes was kind of lost…I had to re-invent it,” Koimtzis said. “I watched my grandfather make globes, and I’ve always liked maps and globes as a kid.”

It takes about 12 hours to make a globe, which is why Koimtzis creates on average only four a month, each selling at around 250 to 300 euros, or $280 to $336. As of now, he has made fewer than 100 handmade globes. He still treasures the three that remain in good shape from his grandfather’s era.

Customers can choose the kind of globe they want online, customize it and then place the order. Koimtzis later retreats to his studio in the back to put it together. The skeleton of the globe is made out of two halves of plastic, fused together with glue. The map is printed into 24 strips and carefully glued onto the globe, with extra attention given to making sure there is no gap or overlap. Later, the globe is covered in two layers of varnish to give it a sheen. A wooden base and aluminum axis are added to complete and balance it.

“When I finish a globe, it feels really good. It feels really good when I put the last pieces together. It relaxes me,” Koimtzis said with a shrug.

Inside Koimtzis’ studio, boxes are stacked high and balance precariously, making them look like mini versions of the leaning Tower of Pisa. They overflow with glues, nails, spray paint bottles, globes and other tools.

In the middle of the room is an elongated desk where containers of paint brushes, pencils, map strips and other various tools are strewn about, waiting to be used. The only source of light comes from a small lamp on the desk and a small window to the right that illuminates particles of dust as they dance in the air.

Koimtzis sits at the desk, cutting 24 strips of paper with scissors for his newest globe. The light from his lamp bathes his face in a soft orange glow. He is at home with his globes. The only sound in the studio is the repeated crisp contact that the scissors make with paper.

“Michael was born between globes, his entire life was around globes,” said Anna Koimtzis, 52, Koimtzis’ mother, as her son works nearby. She means it quite literally. “His first steps,” she said, “were on a map.”