Montasteraki is a magnet for tourists in Athens. Overlooked both the Acropolis and the Parthenon, and surrounded by museums and monuments documenting the rich history of Greece visitors to the city flock there en masse. At the base of the Acropolis, along narrow pedestrianised roads, a street market of vendors selling hand made arts and crafts has sprung up. Busy, lively and colourful, the diverse range of goods is a testimony to the continuing creativity of the area which built the phenomenal architecture and filled the museums which surround it.
The merchandise is diverse – small sculptures and wood carvings, puppets and childrens toys; crocheted garments and hand-knitted baby clothes; clocks, purses and feltwork; water-colours, oil paintings and pottery with an abundance of jewellery, ranging from intricate metal work, through complex arrangements of semi-precious stones to skilled enamel work. If you would like your picture painted in watercolour; a henna tattoo or a metal necklace showing your name fashioned in Greek letters, this is the place to come.
Anyone can nab a pitch and set up a stall here to showcase their skills, obtain commissions and sell their work. Almost all the stalls sell hand-crafted goods: pride in their work and a commitment to showcasing the best of small scale art has led to a level of self-policing where anyone who joins the market re-selling commercial products is discouraged while the established craftswo/men give them advice and teach them skills to make their own. Some well established vendors run this professionally as their main income, many as a means of making enough money to survive in a system which has abandoned them, others to supplement their household income or to see them through their studies, turning their hobbies into a small scale trade.
Officially, street vendors should have a licence to trade, however in Greece, the bureaucracy required to do things by the book is so extensive that few even attempt to apply for a licence, an expensive and onerous task with no guarantee of success and a risk of drawing attention to your activities, and besides some of the traders do not have the legal papers which would allow them to apply for a licence. But the entire market now under threat from the municipality of Athens who have decreed that it is now an illegal trading area, contributing to the lawlessness of the area and must be shut down. In April, the vendors were given a month to pack their bags and clear out.
Negotiations with the municipality bough some borrowed time, but the latest agreement is that the council will give permits to approximately third of the stall-holders; leaving the other two-thirds high and dry. The cost of these permits is onerous as the city seeks to milk as much as it can from its citizens, in a small scale replica of the national government strategy. A policy which has been rejected by the stall-holders, recognising that they seek to ultimately drive away the artisans.
There is an attempt by the government at divide and rule – turning the indigenous stall-holders against immigrant stall holders, in the full knowledge that the idea of immigrants making a living is an anathema to the Greek government; the higher skilled craftsfolk who might hope to gain one of the coveted permits against the less skilled, and the small shop owners against the artisans, who see the competition as threatening.
No-one here is making a fortune, but like everyone else in Greece in these times of crisis, trying to get by as best as they can, eeking out a living from the skills that they have and surviving under difficult circumstances. The small tourist shops which surround the area, trading in the usual tourist tat, see the market as a rival and resent the high taxes that they pay compared to the relative freedom of the stallholders, but once the stall holders are gone, there is no guarantee that business will be transferred to them. Once the craft-market is gone, they are next in the front line for the “clear-up” of the area as the municipality seeks to transform the area into a clean homogenous corporate tourist zone of stale historical artifacts.
As with the squats who provided a level of social solidarity in the face of austerity, the craft market is a testimony to the adaptiveness and resilience of people under financial pressure. And as such – just like the squats – it is a threat to the government. The authoritarianism of the governance of Greece at all levels sees a desire to control and direct ordinary people’s lives. The existence of a self-organised market from which they derive a little revenue without contributing to the great government machine is threatening to that desire. The fact that it feeds and sustains a number of its citizens is irrelevant to the agenda of control and domination.
The market not only provides the stall holders with an income, but it also enhances the area; linking the extensive historical art of the area, with contemporary creativity. Moreover it gives people who are struggling in the difficult circumstances they have been thrown into with a sense of purpose, as well as finding a community and social life among other craftsfolk. With the rise of mental health difficulties in Greece coupled with the withdrawal of services to treat them, both consequences of the crisis, keeping busy, occupied and productive is critical to maintaining hope and optimism that one day this will end, and things will get better.