“In Greece, when we say let’s meet for coffee, we don’t just mean to drink a coffee and go. We mean to sit around, discuss, talk for hours. And have a coffee as well”. This cultural insight, from a friend Irini, articulates the role of coffee and cafe culture in Greece, and its central position in social life. Best witnessed in the summertime, coffee culture thrives in the sun and the warmth, when cafes spill out onto pavements and customers sip slowly on cold coffee such as frappe and iced espresso. Neighbourhood style cafes, usually found on the fringe of city centres, channel the energy of the Kafenio; the traditional Greek coffee shop, that originally served as the central neighbourhood meeting place, for socialising and discussing topics ranging from politics, to philosophy and local gossip. Similar to the Kafenio, such coffee shops exhibit a simplicity in their menu; only offering beverages, which are often accompanied by small complimentary treats; nuts, biscuits, chips or popcorn. Customers tend to know each other, if not by name, at least by sight; and a table of one of two customers can quickly escalate into a gathering of people.
In Kos, this community atmosphere is evident in Lab Art Cafe. While sitting outside with the cafe’s extremely humble co-founder Michael, many people passed by our table to say hello and chat. Born in Gothenburg to a Swedish mother and Greek father, Michael’s family moved to Kos when he was 12. Long before the cafe opened in 2014, Michael worked as a butcher for his father’s business. Michael is also a practising director, actor and marionette maker – an art form he taught himself five years ago. Taking inspiration from his past workplace at the butchery, Michael co-founded a theatre; Σφαγείο Θέατρο πολυχώρος (Slaughterhouse Theatre) in the same, no-longer functioning, slaughterhouse where he worked with his father. With co-founder Dionysia, Michael turned the abandoned building into a fully functioning theatre “by hand”.
The Lab Art Cafe was born out of the realisation that the island was lacking a space where like-minded people could meet, drink coffee and discuss, while also showcasing theatre performances, live music and art exhibitions. Michael and his business partner Anastasia (a singer); “Felt such a place was missing in Kos. We didn’t have a place to hang out, to share ideas and debate”. The cafe has a small theatre space upstairs, complete with a stage and decorated with marionettes handmade by Michael. Since opening, the cafe has hosted a variety of live music performances from both local and visiting Greek musicians, as well as sculpture and visual art exhibitions. The cafe has a strong patron base of creative people; attracting musicians, writers, poets, activists. Michael pointed out the current customers to me: “He is a writer, he is a pianist… they are also musicians. Special people come here, and when you talk to them you realise they are some kind of artist. It attracts them”. In parallel to celebrating and fostering local creativity, Lab Art Cafe focuses on local produce, most notably; locally made lemonade and wine, as well as juices from Rhodes.
Acting as a multipurpose space, the cafe supports the needs of aid organisations and community groups. During my chat with Michael, the Red Cross were holding a meeting in the theatre, and the night before, a gathering of Kos Solidarity; an independent movement supporting refugees, took place. Beyond his benevolent offering of space, Michael and another artist have performed clown shows for refugee children on the island. Additionally, Lab Art Cafe is a drop off point for donations, such as dry food, diapers and clothing for refugees.
Looking to the future, in addition to continuing to support local artists and community networks in Kos, Michael hopes that Lab Art Cafe will continue to attract well known artists from Greece and abroad, whilst simultaneously demonstrating the talent of the local community and what the island can offer; “I chose to live here. We have a crazy summer and a quiet winter. It’s a nice circle of life”.