The smell of fish glue melting over fire produces a suffocating atmosphere inside the painter’s low-ceilinged workshop, but for Vassilis Dimitriou it is the oxygen that gives him life. He has never met a single Hollywood star, but, since his early teens, he has painted almost all of them.
In today’s age of pixels and glossy posters, the hand-painted movie billboards that once decorated cinemas across the continent are little more than a distant memory for middle-aged cinephiles. But “Vassilis the Painter,” as he introduced himself to me, continues to keep the tradition alive for the historic Athinaion cinema in central Athens where, every week, famous actors are depicted in a retro style, looking as if they have been taken from the pages of a comic book.
“Are you really the last in Europe?” I ask. “My only colleagues are probably in India,” he says laughing.
In the small storage shed in his yard that has been converted into a studio, the wood stove has been lit, the brushes are ready and the pots for mixing paints – some old cans of tomato puree – are lined up on the movable iron bench. On the wall, Brigitte Nielsen and Michelle Pfeiffer, immortalized in their youthful beauty, rub shoulders with icons of the Virgin Mary. “And my girl,” he says, showing me a poster of Penelope Cruz.
“Do you know how many good painters have passed through here? They couldn’t do it. It is a strange job. The difficulty is in changing the scale when you take a small photograph and make it this big,” he says, pointing at the wall behind him that he uses as an easel
“Many times I’ve had to make a 2.5×1.80 meters head from a 10x15cm photograph. I climb the stepladder and make it. I’m old though and I fall sometimes. And I have my hand that trembles, the damn thing…”
But the precision in his works does not betray, in the slightest, the fact that for the past few years he has been suffering from Parkinson’s.
“Today, the hand-painted movie billboards that once decorated cinemas across the continent are little more than a distant memory for middle-aged cinephiles.”
A great artist from a tough childhood
He was born in the central Athenian neighborhood of Kypseli. His father was a resistance fighter in WWII and was away from home.
“We had a hard life. My mother tried to make ends meet.”
The first person to recognize his talent was one of his elementary school teachers.
“I was naughty and during recesses she wouldn’t let me go outside. One day she came in and saw my drawing on the board: a fox looking at a grape. She said, ‘Vassili, who made this?’ I said, ‘me,’ and she slapped me. ‘Do it again,’ she said. With my hand shaking I drew it again. She hugged me and kissed me and said, ‘My child you are an artist.‘ And from then on she took me under her protection, every now and then she would buy me colored pencils and paper.”
Schooling ended early for the ‘Zorro of Kypseli,’ as he was known in the neighborhood, because of his mischievous ways. At the age of 13 he began working in the workshop of a movie billboard painter and caught the bug.
“When I was alone in the workshop I would take a piece of paper and start drawing actors. I really liked Ava Gardner.”
In 1962 he opened his own workshop. “There were many good billboard painters then. I never said, ‘it is me and no one else.’ I soon began painting for 10 cinemas in Athens. Now they all have digitally produced posters. Only one remains for my brushes, the Athinaion. For thirty years now I feel like they are my family.”
However painting was not his only talent as he was also a Greek boxing champion and won numerous dancing competition awards.
“I learnt to dance by watching Gene Kelly movies.” But his ‘fixation’ he says, “was always painting.”
The stars are always different, but the dimensions of each poster remain the same: 2.5m in height and a width of 5.5m. The materials also never change: “Fish glue and paints for religious icons,” he tells me and shows me the pot on the stove. “I take these granules which are like chickpeas and I heat them in a bain marie. When the fish glue melts I put it in the color and work it.” Once it would take just five hours to make a poster. “Now it takes me two days.”
“Do you know how many good painters have passed through here? They couldn’t do it. It is a strange job. The difficulty is in changing the scale when you take a small photograph and make it this big,” Vassilis Dimitriou says
Growing old with Harrison Ford
It was one of the dozens of times that he was painting Leonardo Di Caprio when a journalist from the New York Times visited him and wrote an article dedicated to his life and art.
“I had done a good portrait of him for the Wolf of Wall Street. After the article things went mad, the telephone rang off the hook. An invitation followed to the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. He was unable to attend but painted a billboard which he sent by plane.
“’You must come,’ they insisted, ‘you are our honored guest’. But I can’t do a 20- hour trip. I am unwell and, besides, my wife does not get into airplanes. I have been married for 55 years with Kiki. We can’t be apart, for me to be in America and for her to stay here, even for ten days.”
“Kiki is my toughest critic,” he continues. “She appears behind that window when I am painting and shouts ‘bravo you star,’ or ‘his eye is a little smaller.’ One day she saw me getting very annoyed. I had painted Alain Delon and could not understand why it did not look like him. I kept looking and looking. Until Kiki saw it and immediately said, ‘but you’ve done him with brown eyes!’”
He has created thousands of portraits and has painted several Hollywood stars dozens of times, but none more than Harrison Ford.
“When I see him I say, ‘bravo son, we have gotten old together you and I.’ The hardest portraits are the ones of actors that I don’t like.”
“12 years ago Clint Eastwood learnt about me and sent someone to congratulate me. I sent him a portrait head of his. But I have never been good at public relations.”
So what happens to all the old posters?
“They are not kept. Look behind you. The rolls reach the ceiling. They need space and order. I don’t have space. I am a poor artist with a pension of 258 euros. And the paper gets ruined by the humidity and heat. Who would take it and what would they do with it?”
“He has created thousands of portraits and has painted several Hollywood stars dozens of times, but none more than Harrison Ford.”
When he receives a new photograph to turn into a billboard poster he loses sleep over it. “I can be thinking about it all night. I dream about it, I turn it in my mind into a poster, I imagine how it will be. The hardest is when they give you a photograph loaded with many elements and you need to distinguish the important ones. I go to bed and my mind is working.”
He is a father, a grandfather and great grandfather.
“When I tell them I am here and I am painting no one comes. It is a lonely process. I have never torn up a poster, to start again from the beginning. I have loved all of them.”
Wednesday night at 11, at the intersection of Vasilissis Sofias and Alexandras avenues just as the audience of the late showing are entering the cinema, his latest poster is put up on the cinema’s billboard. “And as soon as it goes up I turn around and see about 10 people applauding, ‘Bravo, congratulations,’ they shout. Do you know how much that moves me?”