001 | Irish Tom
When Irish Tom takes aim, he rarely misses.
A former professional soldier, he now uses words instead of bullets. In a city where the truth is often written on its walls, his sharp-shooting has made him the master of political graffiti.
On the wooden barriers put up to fence off an abandoned lot in the heart of Plaka, the ancient historical neighbourhood of Athens, Tom paints away, using his wit and incredible knowledge of current affairs and history to fire off shots at everything from US foreign policy to the IMF and EU’s handling of the crisis in Greece.
His work has made him famous, not just among Athenians, but globally, with the likes of the BBC, the New York Times and The Guardian reporting on his peculiar brand of political activism.
Yet despite his status and television appearances, Tom lives a very Spartan lifestyle, occupying an abandoned Neoclassical mansion in Plaka, which he shares with some stray cats and his dog.
He sells tiny sculptures he produces to get by and relies on the goodwill of those around him, many of whom will often drop by with food.
What is extremely fascinating about Tom is that although he lives so frugally, with just the absolute bare necessities and no connection to the internet, he is incredibly well informed.
His slogans are always relevant and timely. A few weeks ago, when we visited him, he had already painted a piece about the Volkswagen scandal, just a day after it hit the news.
“I am very well informed,” he jokes when I ask him where he sources his news from.
“I have a television and a lot of spies that keep me well informed.”
There is no denying that Tom is extremely popular. He has become a tourist attraction.
Locals and visitors will often stop and speak to him as he sits outside the place he calls home, doing his thing at his own pace as the hyperkinetic city around him hurries on with its business.
He says most of those that do stop to talk him comment positively on his work, which is not surprising given Irish Tom shows his love for Greece while being critical of the big powers and standing up for the little guy.
“Of course there are exceptions, I once had German girl that didn’t like something I wrote about Merkel and she complained and asked me to take it down.
”He has also had more than a few run ins with the Greek police, and was once confronted about something he had written by the security team of an ambassador posted to Athens, which resulted in an altercation which Tom says he won with the help of his German shepherd.
Irish Tom takes it all in his stride, refusing to let people bring him down. His ever-present toothless smile is testament to a man that has been through hell and is still standing.
Tom left his native Belfast when his wife and three-month old daughter were killed by a car bomb meant for him in 1981. He left the city the same day and has never been back.
Unable to deal with the pain, he fled to various troubled spots around the world, South Africa during apartheid, Angola during its bloody civil war, and Palestine.
“I came for one day. I went straight from the airport to Plaka thinking I would see as much as I can in one day. That was fifteen years ago, I haven’t left Athens since.”
“Myself and others in my unit had to disappear. We had no choice. Many of us went to South Africa, some went to Angola and some seeking peace went to Australia.”
“I went to South Africa for three years, I wanted somebody to kill me, to shoot me and put an end to my life. But it never happened. So I went to Angola and then Israel, hoping it would happen there, but again no one killed me.”
Deciding that was a sign that he should live his life, Tom left Israel with no destination in mind but had always wanted to visit Greece.
“I came for one day. I went straight from the airport to Plaka thinking I would see as much as I can in one day. That was fifteen years ago, I haven’t left Athens since. I just fell in love with Plaka, there is peace in my life here.”
Tom says the beauty of Plaka, the Greek lifestyle, the warmth and spirit of the Greek people combined with the unique climate of the Attika basin make Athens a fantastic city to live in.
However, he is also quick to point out that the city’s residents are changing, not just in terms of demographics.
“The Greek mindset is changing. Years of economic hardship, all this crisis talk, it’s starting to take its toll. In the 15 years or so I have been here I have noticed a shift in people’s attitudes. They are trying to change the way Greeks think and live, and it’s working. That world famous hospitality is slowly evaporating as more and more people become self absorbed, focusing on their own problems, which are increasing daily.”