By STEPHEN HEYMAN JULY 6, 2016
A detail from “Elegy of May,” 2016, a mural painting commission at Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Credit Stelios Faitakis and The Breeder, Athens, photo by Aurelien Mole
What do you get when you cross the brash irreverence of street art with the sacred iconography of the Eastern Orthodox Church? Something like the paintings of Stelios Faitakis, 40, who is among the best-known artists now at work in Athens.
Mr. Faitakis’s complex compositions evoke Weimar painters like Otto Dix as well as the murals of Diego Rivera, but his dystopian themes — covering social unrest and inequality — seem all too contemporary. This month, the Palais de Tokyo in Paris unveils a major mural painted by Mr. Faitakis depicting the French student uprisings of May 1968. In the following edited interview, Mr. Faitakis, who began his career as a graffitist, talks about how his work has taken on more formal dimensions as life in Greece has become ever more chaotic.
Q. Why is Orthodox iconography a powerful metaphor for commenting on the present situation in Greece?
A. We grow up seeing this form of art in churches and everybody knows it. But it took me many years to fully appreciate it, to understand the depth and strength of this tradition.
Now, no matter how many times I have visited the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens or the collection of Agia Aikaterini of Sinai in Crete, I’m always astonished. I like the idea that I am speaking an artistic language that has deep roots; the local people understand it and viewers abroad find it equally interesting. And at the end of the day, it is still a religious art form, and I am using it exactly for this: No matter what the theme is, whether it’s simple or even shallow, the golden background always reminds the viewer that there is another, higher level of existence despite the distance we may have from it because of our daily battle for survival. This is one of the elements that form the very core of my work.
You came to prominence first as a street artist. Why have you shifted to more studio-based work?
A. It takes time to produce these large-scale pieces, not just a day or two. I soon discovered that working in the studio was equally interesting and joyful to me as the work out in the streets. But I owe a lot to the techniques and materials of street artists and I still like to present my work in public spaces, although I do not consider my art as ephemeral as I did in the past. Not that I cannot stand to see a work being destroyed — I just prefer to do it on my own terms and not let anyone feel free to destroy in a couple of days a work that took months to create, in the street or anywhere else.
Despite the economic difficulties, do you think this is an exciting time to be an artist in Greece?
A. The crisis offers a lot of themes on different levels — one has to just open his eyes, carefully observe what is happening around him, and start exploring. Of course I don’t enjoy what’s happening in Greece, but I personally prefer to include all the things I see around me, especially the ones I consider negative, in my work.
Many Greek artists have left the country because of a lack of opportunity. Would you ever consider taking a similar step?
A. At this point, not a chance! “Career” for me means nothing if I cannot enjoy my life. This is where all my interests and loved ones are. And Greece offers me great inspiration that I am not sure I can maintain somewhere abroad. I feel like Greece is the only place I can continue and develop my research and painting discipline. I once heard the great lyra player Psarantonis saying that a tree needs to have strong, healthy roots in order to be able to produce leaves and fruit. I could not agree more. Stephen Heyman
A version of this article appears in print on July 7, 2016, in The International New York Times. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe