Social Waste: A history of the punk scene in Athens

Recently, the book “Social Waste”(Aprovleptes Ekdoseis - roughly translated as “Unpredictable Publications”) by Giannis Kolovos, was released. The history of the Athens punk scene, 1979-2015, is an exceptional addition to the -probably small - bibliography on young people's subcultures, but also more generally on the social history of the Metapolitefsi, the period after the fall of the dectatorship. The author, who has also been a part of the punk scene in the past (between 1986-1995, he had been published the fanzine B-23 and was the drummer in the band Social Waste as well), does not confine himself to documenting the history of the scene but, using the methods of sociology and social anthropology, he presents a comprehensive study of the punk subculture, its value system and of the punk identity as lived experience. On the occasion of the book’s release, we spoke to the author.
Giannis Kolovos interviewed by Giannis Hatzidimitrakis
Translated by Despina Biri

The punk scene in Greece begins to take shape during a time in which the intense politicisation immediately following the Metapolitefsi begins to wane, in part due to broadening social consensus and improved standards of living. How did this sociopolitical context influence the formation of the punk scene?
In 1979-1980, when the first punks appeared in Athens, average citizen’s perceptions were very different to our verdict today. Back then, people saw movies like “Thanasi tighten the belt some more” (“Θανάση σφίξε κι άλλο το ζωνάρι”), I. Koumis and St. Kanellopoulou were killed by police on 16.11.1980, we were still in the aftermath of the occupations of university buildings. The Metapolitefsi was still territory under negotiation or, more accurately, a developing turn either to the right or to the left for the people of the time. Fifteen year old punks had not consciously lived through the junta and, with the audacity of youth, they saw the gradual maturation of the 3rd Hellenic Republic, even after the electoral victory of PASOK (in 1981), as a “bastardocracy”, a false democracy, screaming “what freedom are we talking about?”. Of course, their positions and their stance was not a result of a thorough study of society and history. After all, how could this be done by school pupils? What they knew was what they lived through every day: the cop taking weird looking young kids to the police station “for ID authentication” (in the meantime “giving them a good-hiding”), the maths teacher flipping through the class list to decide who he will examine in class, the poor old Greek-language teacher, the wooden language of the communist youth which they did not understand, the politicians who were all too old, their dads’ slippers and their mums’ dressing gowns, the Greek family movie on tv, the fact that the admission fee for the Rock in Athens Festival, where The Clash were playing, and which they couldn't afford, was to them but a detail which they could overcome by breaking in - all of these made up the “sociopolitical context” which influenced the formation of the punk identity!

You split the history of the punk scene into four periods. What are the criteria for this distinction, what are the characteristics of each period, and what do they have in common?

Between 1979 and 1985, the main impulse of the ever growing group of punks was to declare they exist, to become socially visible. The outrageous attire and aggressive behaviour at gigs are but weapons in the “semiotic guerrilla warfare” in which the young girls and boys of this subculture took part. Through their settlement in Exarchia, the punk scene is born, a home, that is, made up of structures as well as gestures, a sense of belonging, codes for communication and “gang type” protection against police brutality or against being called names by popular music fans who follow a conventional lifestyle and who believe in “traditional mores”. For the second generation of punks, a central role is played by fanzines (i.e., the photocopied publications which they publish), the gigs which they organise in the university halls, the bars in which they gather, the records that are brought out and the record shops or the impromptu “labels” through which their artefacts are circulated. Now, the “proper punk” is one who is involved in all this, and not the one whose appearance is more extreme. The peak of this phase was during the occupation of Villa Amalias, the creation, that is, of a permanent self-directed space for gigs. The third phase begins around 1993-95 when, in order to resist the generalised commercialisation of punk (with bands such as Green Day and The Offspring going platinum in the US), and the rise of the “alternative lifestyle” (which is Greece is represented by magazines such as 01), the hard core of Villa Amalias excludes from gigs those bands playing bars or clubs or those which are recording even on independent labels. All of those, in other words, which have even a distant relationship with the music industry. It is what the interviewees in my research refer to as a “schism”, which led to a five year period during which the punk scene was entirely introverted and partially “bleeding”, yet a period during which a subcultures “authenticity” remained intact. Finally, gradually from 2000 onwards, the scene is regenerated, following its total insulation from the music industry, which helped it survive the “crisis in the record industry”, and which continues to perform its rituals (gigs) and to create artefacts (records, publications), to this day.
The settling of wanderers in Exarchia during the mid 1980s signals the politicisation of the scene, influenced by the antiauthoritarians/ autonomy movement in the area. What is the relationship between the two?

At the level of individuals as well as at the level of the scene, there was always a negotiation between subcultural and political identity. Punk and antiauthoritarian. Depending on the context (at both the individual level as well as the level of collective experience), the balance rests on the one or the other side. The punk subculture always tried to maintain its autonomy, despite pressures from the so called antiauthoritarian movement, for the people and the structures of the scene to become completely integrated into “its” political activities. Yet most of the time these two facets coexisted without the individuals or the community being in intense internal conflict.

One of the main elements of the punk philosophy is the “DIY dogma”, the production, that is, of its social products (clothing, gigs, records, fanzines) by the members of the scene, outside of commercial networks and through the rejection of economic profit. What is the role that this played in the way the scene functioned?

“DIY” was completely internalised, and in fact, from some point on, in a “dogmatic” way, by punk scenes. All the other genres of rock relied to a large extent on existing music industry structures, or the music industry integrated structures (e.g. record labels), artists and innovations which had resulted “from below” (e.g. recording techniques, publication designs, clothing and accessories). For punk scenes, the following held true: the new scene learned from the mistakes of the old one, thereby insulating itself once more against the music industry. On the whole, a “DIY ethic” had been adopted, according to which personal success was decried as “selling out”, whether it concerned a band or a fanzine or a visual artist.

The punk scene is mostly a male affair. In spite of this, as you mention in the book, “the visibility of girls and their existence within the scene, based on their own desires, was a matter that was constantly being claimed and negotiated”. What are the reasons leading to a girl getting into the punk scene? Are they different from the reasons why boys get into it? What means do they use within the scene in order to claim this visibility?
The original reason for becoming a part of the scene are not exactly gendered. As one of my (female) interviewees mentioned, one becomes a punk as a result of “unfairness and oppression” in society. Beyond that, women in the punk scene becomes a matter of importance. Punk evolved into a male culture and punk bands are essentially “companies of boys”. Punk girls, therefore, claim their own space within the scene. At the same time, being in the scene acts for many women as an alternative path towards femininity: by wearing combat boots, leather jackets and having (what looks like) messy hair, they reject the prevailing norms of female elegance. Heavy makeup, “street” gesturing and aggressive language constitute a behaviour in opposition to the image of female sensitivity. Overcoming, finally, the “tomboy” phase, results, for many women, in a personal version of femininity which still does not coincide with the prevailing aesthetic norms but which does not resort to ready made versions of looks from “alternative” marketing. And, of course, all have taken on a mentality of claiming, since their survival in a tough subculture has armed them with an extensive Arsenal of techniques for declaring their (gendered) presence.
How were the participants in your research influenced in their adult lives by the fact that they were a part of the punk scene (work, family, participation in other social networks)? 
Narratively, the participants’ selves are structured around the creativity factor. At the level of work, there are many who make a living out of skills they developed in the punk scene. Some run tattoo studios, others became graphic designers, taking advantage of the fact that they had experience in designing posters and record covers. Others yet became translators and publishing editors, having worked on fanzines and scene publications. Those that followed a professional path leading to more “conventional” occupations (lawyers, drivers, salaried employees) balance the absence of creativity in their workplaces (as they themselves perceive it), by taking part in bands or by writing in fanzines. As regards creating a family, the first to have children came up against the most problems, the reason for this is that the punk representation has been structured around the notion of adolescence and commitment to the scene. The first punk parents simply could not go to gigs or talk about diapers, pregnancies, vaccines and kindergartens with their friends who, to their minds, had bands, guitars and records. Thus, the majority of parents went through a period of abstinence from the happenings in the punk scene. Others yet abandoned it completely.
Yet in recent years some try to impose their presence as punks and parents at the same time. In some gigs and festivals taking place in open air spaces, more and more children can be seen playing. I'm not at all sure whether they actually like the music that their parents like! As regards, finally, participation in other social networks, definitely 40-somethings and some (former or active) punks place themselves at the neighbourhood level, parents’ association at the children's school and the wider family network with maximal functionality - having abandoned many of the aggressive strategies of their adolescent and post adolescent lives. At any rate, the hard core of their sociability is built around people from the scene. “We are strange people”, as one interviewee put it to me... What's interesting, regarding the crisis which we are now going through, is that many take part in several collectivities and mutual help networks, offering their experience in self organised gigs, publications and posters, and more generally the artefacts produced in the punk scene during all these years. After all free gigs (the number of which has increased dramatically in recent years), self organised gig spaces and the social network in the scene are proof that these people have developed a know how for the management of leisure, without necessarily submitting to consumerism - an ability lost by wider society.


Last question, one which you pose towards the end of the book: “What, in the end, does it mean to have been a punk?”.

Based on the themes emerging from the narratives of my interviewees: someone who has been a punk is someone who is now happy with the course of their lives, which they always tried to keep within the sphere of creativity? It is, of course, an image of the sense created in retrospect, which is, however, very powerful…

Dr. Giannis N. Kolovos carried out his doctoral research in the Department of History, Archaeology and Social Anthropology at the Univeristy of Thessaly. He now works as a secondary school teacher.

  • Published in CULTURE
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