Before I started travelling, I didn’t know much about street art. In fact, I generally dismissed it. I had been taught that graffiti was illegal vandalism often done by troubled teens as a relatively harmless act of rebellion. I ignored wall tags and usually only noticed street art if it was a large-scale commissioned piece. When there was too much graffiti around me, I would get nervous, thinking I had somehow stumbled into the sort of “bad neighbourhood” I had always been encouraged to avoid. However, soon after I first dipped my toe into the sea of backpacking, I started to hear about the street art in Berlin. Other travellers would rave about the pieces they had seen, affectionately describing grimy alleys and artist squats. Before long, I was imagining Berlin as a sort of German Moulin Rouge! where all creative types had gathered already, just waiting for me to join the party.
This impression isn’t completely inaccurate. Although Berlin’s artistic past in former West Berlin arguably reached its zenith in the 1970s, it wasn’t until the 1990s – after the fall of the Berlin Wall – that former East Berlin was able to experience its own creative revival. Dozens of artists living in the former West started to slowly move East, fleeing skyrocketing rent prices and hunting for new places to live and work. At the same time, those men and women who had been trapped in the former East for the 28 years the Berlin Wall stood were anxious to escape the city and explore the world. Because they had been living in a communist nation, however, all of their property was state-owned, meaning that they couldn’t actually sell their homes when they decided to leave. This proved particularly opportune for the former West Berliners who began to occupy these abandoned spaces, sometimes individually but often as collectives. During the 1990s the art and music scene exploded in the former East – graffiti adorned most walls while live rock and jazz floated out from bars. Individual enterprises also flourished – new clubs and beer gardens popped up everywhere, while artists worked, lived and exhibited with their peers in shared spaces.
Of course, the society wasn’t Utopian. Much like underclass Paris during the Bohemian Revolution, sanitation was low and drug use was rampant. The economy was unstable as the government worked to turn a former communist and former capitalist nation into one entity. There were dangerous areas too, where petty crime thrived. And yet, people kept coming from all over the world to share, create and be inspired. The limits of art and the agency of the individual seemed boundless.
In the 2000s things changed. The government stabilized and started to invest in the former East, allowing both regional and international developers to purchase sites that were officially abandoned but in which people had been living rent-free for over a decade. A renewed interest in tourism led to the reconstruction and repair of dozens of historical buildings, often in the former East. Mitte, the district that had once been the epicentre of the alternative, was rapidly transformed – cleaned up and polished into what is now one of the most expensive and touristic neighbourhoods in the city. While some were able to hold onto the last bastions of Mitte’s creative past (those in Haus Schwarzenberg, for instance, a former artist squat turned legal living and work space) many were forced to move again.
Despite these fairly recent changes, Berlin is still considered to be a sort of haven for creative types, with a large and healthy art community that continues to attract artists and art lovers worldwide. Germany even has a freelance visa earmaked specifically for artists, musicians and writers.
Yet for those who came to Berlin in the ’90s, the scene is quite different, and not everyone is happy about the changes. Take the street artist SP38 for instance, who came to Mitte from France in the 1990s and witnessed firsthand the rapid gentrification of the city. His public pieces vocalize his disappointment with Berlin’s progress, suggesting that the city has lost its way and its values. The potential failings of opportunistic capitalism is in fact a source of tension among street artists themselves. Ingenious Portuguese street artist Vhils faced heavy criticism from the Berlin community when he lent his talents to an ad campaign for Levi’s Jeans back in 2011. While it is fantastic when a street artist receives a commission to support and promote his or her art, the response is quite different when street artists are perceived to be “selling out” not to showcase their own skills but to advertise for multi-billion dollar corporations. The below photo shows a piece by Vhils produced for Levi’s “Go Forth” campaign and the response of the street artist community on the wall directly beside it, threatening to blow his work away if he repeats the same mistake.
Communism is also unable to escape the wrath of the artist. El Bocho, a well-known Berlin-based street artist, for instance, composed a series of paste-ups around the character of Little Lucy. The original Little Lucy was the title figure in a 1970s Czechoslovakian TV show where she would go on adventures with her faithful cat. El Bocho decided to use this figure in part to illustrate his own feelings toward the Communist Soviet Union, to which 1970s Czechoslovakia belonged. For El Bocho, Communism was an idea that sounded good at the outset but in reality ended up hurting many of its followers, which is why he pasted images of the adorable Little Lucy around Berlin killing her cat in various ways.
Even America isn’t safe from the street artist…
The more I have learned about street art throughout my time in Berlin, the more I have come to realize just how misguided my initial perceptions were. While there are definitely those who tag for fame, the thrill of the illegal, in the name of anarchy or just to stick it to “The Man,” many street artists use the walls of the city as a platform to convey their often highly intelligent political, social and cultural views. By putting their message in the heart of the city rather than locked away in a gallery, these artists are able to touch everyone who happens to glance at their piece, regardless of age, race, gender, social status, even artistic interest. Although many just pass by with their heads buried in their phones, or look at the art without registering its social importance, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of others can engage in a dialogue with active artists every day simply by noticing their work and letting curiosity take care of the rest. The pieces featured here are only the smallest sampling of the art on offer in Berlin. As long as you keep your eyes open, there’s no limit to the stories you can find on the ever-changing face of this city.
** To those in Berlin who would like to see these pieces in person, the ones featured here can be found at the time of this posting in Haus Schwarzenberg, the East Side Gallery, on the front doors of Tacheles, above YAAM by Ostbahnhof station and usually underneath S-Bahn train tracks around the city.