When you first arrive in Berlin, you might be struck by its ordinariness – at least, I was. One might expect more from a first glance at a capital city that is one of the largest and most diverse cities in Europe. Berlin isn’t one of those cities that has you smitten from the first time you lay eyes on it—it’s the kind of place that grows on you, the kind you need to gradually explore in order to unravel all its juxtapositions and history.
Berlin is a place of creativity and culture. There are stories and artwork, tucked away in unassuming neighbourhoods and nondescript corners of the city, waiting to be discovered or re-imagined by the creative community. Berlin’s love for street art, tagging and graffiti is hard to miss, but it takes a keen eye and a well-informed source to really help you experience the art form’s culture and implications.
Exploring Street Art
A great way to experience Berlin’s street art culture is to sign up for one of the tours conducted by Alternative Berlin Tours. With a range of imaginative tour options (including one that follows a pay-what-you-like model with no minimum), Alternative Berlin Tours claims to have created the concept of exploring Berlin with a focus on the local, alternative, underground creative culture of the city. Emphasizing respect and open-mindedness, these tours are perfect for anyone interested in learning more about the city’s subcultures and creative context. A closer look at some of the artwork and tagging reveals a great deal about the people of Berlin, along with a few interesting insights into what makes the city’s culture so vibrant and open.
Look up at old, grimy walls under railway bridges, and you might see images of dancing women, surrounded by fading confetti. These images are credited to French artist SOBR, and are often accompanied by the slogan, “It’s time to dance”. More recently, the body of work has expanded to also include images of dancing men. Unlike most street art (which involves paint), SOBR pastes the images, which incidentally are derived from photographs of real people he has seen having a great time at many of the city’s clubs and parties.
Street art in Berlin finds expression in different mediums, including sculpture, as in the case of the work of Danish artist, TEJN. Having created the concept of ‘Lock On’ street art, TEJN’s installations incorporate the use of scrap metal and sometimes carry a political message.
Another interesting street art project is ‘Face Time’ by artist duo Various & Gould. In this project, people are asked to describe their least favourite facial characteristics, and the artists pieces together images of these, creating whole new faces, filled with character.
An iconic piece of Berlin street art is the Astronaut or Cosmonaut by Victor Ash. Located in the vibrant neighbourhood of Kreuzberg, the Cosmonaut was created in 2007 by Ash as a symbol of what he felt for Berlin – a reminder of the Cold War and the space race between the USSR and USA, however with an emphasis on the idea that this was a race leading us all into a different dimension. He believed the cosmonaut represented humanity, in a sense. It’s still a breathtaking reminder of how you don’t need to visit expensive galleries to see meaningful and exquisite art.
A relatively recent series of works comprises chiselled concrete images of human faces on the sides of large buildings, including one that is visible from the banks of the Spree. When the images first appeared, local artists were befuddled by the work, considering the novelty of the style. The work quickly grew in popularity, and became controversial when it was revealed that the murals had been commissioned by a highly valued corporate brand. Local artists were angry, and while in most cases, would have painted over the work (a sign of great disapproval among street artists), they chose instead to add to the mural by painting images of people hurling objects at the original work—a strange truce so as to say they disapproved of the intention, but deeply appreciated the quality of the work itself.
Another interesting site to soak up street art and its culture is Haus Schwarzenberg, or the Schwarzenberger house—one of the last few authentic street alleys in the post-war reformed Hackescher Markt area. Tucked away in a rather run-down alleyway, Haus Schwarzenberg is the result of an association of artists committed to preserve and promote Berliner culture since 1995. They provide studio spaces and regularly host performances and exhibitions featuring local artists. The space actually highlights an interesting struggle in the city of Berlin—a constant scuffle between the new and old, the wealthy and the less privileged, the homogenous and the creative.
The East Side Gallery
The East Side Gallery is a 1316 metre long stretch of the Berlin wall that now stands as an open gallery and reminder of international peace. The gallery features the work of about 102 artists from across the world and is one of the largest, most interactive instances of street art, internationally. It’s easy to spend an afternoon walking past the artworks, interspersed by glimpses of the Spree in the background.
Berlin’s street art is dynamic and diverse—a lot like the culture of the city itself. It also represents the struggles facing the creative community, touching on issues such as the legal and creative conformity of art and its accompanying messages. There are people who believe that every action we take is political, even if we choose not to describe it that way. If this is true, Berlin’s street art—and the way it is treated—is not something that can be taken lightly, for it embodies the views of a group of individuals who are clearly passionate about the city they call home.