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The Last Man Painting Cinema Signs In Europe

Or so he says.
March 17, 2011, 11:31am

We have no way of checking whether this is true or not, but Vasilis Dimitriou claims to be the last man in Europe to make his living hand-painting cinema posters. He's 75 now, and every Wednesday for the last 61 years he's been heading down into the centre of Athens at 11pm to swap the poster pinned to the front of the Athinaion movie theatre.

Like we said, we have no way of being sure if Vasilis really is the last man standing, but either way it seems likely that it'll be going the way of Ceefax and MySpace pretty soon. We called him up while he sat in his low-ceilinged studio, surrounded by posters from the past, and had a chat.

VICE: Hi, Mr Vasilis.
Vasilis Dimitriou: Hey, I've been waiting all morning for you to call. Give me a minute, I have to kiss my grandkids goodbye.
Grandkids: Bye-bye Grandpa!

Is this a good time? I don't want to steal you away from your loved ones. I could call back tomorrow?
No way! Tomorrow I start working again.

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So you haven't quit yet?
I'll stop when I die.

So, do you want to start from the beginning? How come you started doing film posters in the first place?
This is a story I've told too many times. I was fourteen when this man discovered I had a knack for drawing. Now, I'm 75. The man was somebody from within the movie business. He told me: "I'll take you to the workshop of a guy that does movie posters, and you'll learn the job there with him."

What, this guy was just in the street? Weren't your parents a bit freaked out?
When I told my mother I wanted to go make posters she did not want to hear it.

You'd already left school though, right?
Yes, I'd left a little early because I needed to. And I started school late, because of the war. So that guy might have "discovered" me, but choosing to actually work as a poster painter was not an easy decision to make back then. There were many hardships to contend with. And the Germans.

Ah, the Germans.
I never liked them. I've been kicked in the butt by their kind quite a few times.

Did anyone teach you how to draw?
No, no one!

You learnt alone?
No one does anything alone. When you want to learn something and you don't have the money to go to some fancy school, you have to look for anything that has to do with painting – you open books, you look at what other people are doing… And that's studying. My teachers were the masters of the workshops where I worked. I watched and learned.

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Do you ever wish you'd studied in a more formal way?
I don't know if going to an arts school would have triggered something else inside me. But learning that mixing blue and yellow will give you green is something any painter should be able to figure out alone.

Growing up in Athens, I remember seeing painted posters everywhere. I haven't seen as many abroad. It it mainly a Greek thing?
There was also Spain, France…. Right now, I'm on my own. There's nobody else doing what I'm doing in the whole of Europe.

What do you work with?
Hagiography powders, oils, Indian ink and aquarelles.

Are you a film buff?
I was, but not any more. I grew old and I got tired. Films move faster now. I can't follow them.

So watching the film before you do the poster isn't a necessary thing? Don't you have to get the "vibe" of the movie before you try to paint it?
No. It makes it easier, but a lot of the time the production company doesn't invite me to a private view beforehand.

Does liking the film have any effect on the outcome of the poster?
Sure it does. I like musicals. I like the dancing parts. And I'm a great dancer!

What do you like dancing to?
Everything. But jazz is my favourite kind of music.

Who's your favourite actor?
Clint Eastwood. He's a good actor, and an upfront guy.

Do you know him?
Once, about ten years ago, an American newspaper ran an interview with me. He must have seen it, so in 2004, during the Olympic Games, he came down with a translator to meet me. I was moved. He came to my workshop, we talked movies, I showed him a few posters I like.

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Which of your posters do you like the best?
I like all of them best.

Are there any actors you don't like?
Let's not discuss that.

OK. Are there many laughs to be had in the poster business?
I was making a poster for a cinema on Stadiou Street – it doesn't exist any more. Its name was Astor, did you ever go there?

Nah. I don't remember it.
How old are you?

24.
Ah, you're a baby. Even my grandkids are older than you. Anyway, it was around 1965 and the poster of this film they were playing had a girl on it wearing a bikini. The day after I'd finished it and set it up, I get a call from the cinema owner who tells me: "Vasilis, you've ruined me!" "What happened?" I said. "You drew this girl in the bikini and now we have a throng of old Christian ladies gathered outside, screaming about how my cinema is an embarrassment. They're demanding the photo be taken down. You have to run back here and make it right!"

Shit, what did you do?
I took my toolbox, and when I arrived started drawing a pair of longer shorts on the girl's legs and a shirt on top of her bra. The cinema owner and the old ladies were happy, but the younger guys that passed by while I was doing that were saying: "Dude, whatever has the bikini done to you? Leave it alone!"

Those dirty dogs. How did going to the cinema back then compare to how it is now?
Back then, there was the break where people would get out, have a drink and a smoke, discuss the film. You'd get a chance to share your opinions. You don't have that chance now, they just want you to buy your expensive food and get you in and out as quickly as possible. Also, when I was young, 20 or 25 years old, we would dress up to go to the movies. We'd shave and wear a tie. We'd take our dates to the movies. "I'll be outside the cinema," we'd say to the girls.

Anything else you want to tell me before we hang up?
You are the one that makes the story. Oh wait! You know, the first yoghurt that was thrown on the street by a Teddy Boy… that was me!

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What?
I threw it at some passerby. For fun! We were four or five guys, and we bought a cup and were fighting about who would throw it. In the end I threw it. The guy chased me and took me to my father.

And he smacked you.
Of course he did! Dads were different back then. So that's all! Be well, Elektra!

Thanks Mr. Vasilis. I'll throw a cup of yoghurt at a German in your honour some day.

Photos: Theo Prodromidis