Graffiti and Other Forms of Street Art in Berlin
During our alternative tour of Berlin today, a lot of time was devoted to discussing graffiti culture within Germany. Many of us came into the tour with generally negative feelings towards graffiti in public spaces, especially when it seems sloppy or inconsiderate. However, upon closer inspection, a lot of this street art is created with a message or goal in mind. When you start to look at it more like art and less like vandalism, graffiti can serve as a great window into the minds of the artists who create it.
We started our tour on Dircksenstraße, a street near the famous Alexanderplatz square that leads towards Hackesher Market. To be located between so many upscale areas, Dircksenstraße is littered with street art in all forms. Our guide first showed us several pieces by popular artist El Bocho. His signature piece involves reimagining an old Czech cartoon called “Little Lucy”. In this show, a young girl named Lucy embarks on adventures with her cat; however, El Bocho chooses to twist their friendship in his artwork by depicting Lucy murdering her cat in a multitude of ways. Our tour guide suggested that this may be a way to show the levels of morality that exist in every one of us. No one is entirely good, like the original Lucy, just as no one is entirely evil, like his version of Lucy.
Like El Bocho, graffiti artists try to find ways to leave their mark on the city they inhabit. The most common way they accomplish this is by leaving their tag, or their groups’ tag, in the most dangerous places possible. Different areas are dangerous for different reasons. For example, tagging a wall in a populated part of town is dangerous because of the high risk of being caught. On the other hand, tagging a sound barrier next to train tracks, or the top of a building’s wall, is dangerous due to the risk of dying. In fact, the very top of the exterior wall of any tall building is called the “heaven spot” for its desirability among artists.
Apart from graffiti, we also saw a lot of paste-ups throughout the alternative tour of Berlin. Paste-ups are a form of street are that involve printing, drawing, or painting on relatively cheap paper, and then pasting it a wall with special glue. This type of street art seemed to be more common in some of the areas we visited, likely because it is punishable by a fine of 25€, while graffiti can result in thousands in fines. Along Dircksenstraße, we mostly saw paste-ups done by SOBR, an international artist currently working in Berlin. His series titled “It’s Time to Dance” features photos of real people dancing in bars and clubs. He chooses to paint the people in black and white, and then covers them with colorful confetti after pasting them on the wall. This contrast draws attention to his artwork, which is common throughout Berlin.
In addition to these more visible forms of street art, we also discussed some strategies that groups use for temporary awareness. For example, the popular group called 1UP sometimes engages in “train bombing”, an activity which involves rushing into a train yard and covering a train wagon in graffiti in a matter of seconds. Germany, especially in its big cities, is very quick when it comes to cleaning their trains and train stations. However, train bombing will allow graffiti to travel for at least a day before it is removed, showing everyone the groups’ daring stunt.
Although all of these forms of illegal street art are common in Berlin, there is also a fair amount of commissioned, legal artwork to admire. Victor Ash’s “Cosmonaut” is one such piece. It stands at 72 feet tall and is painted in the style of a stenciled painting, although it was done freehand. At one point, the shadow of a nearby flag would land in the cosmonauts’ hand at night, however, the flag has since been removed. Ash has said that the mural was meant to represent the Cold War era space race between East and West, an important issue for Berlin since it was caught in the middle of this power struggle.
After our alternative tour, many students, myself included, came away with new ideas on graffiti and street art. Although it can certainly be disturbing and ruin certain areas, such as well-known monuments, it can also offer deep insights into current issues and even be aesthetically pleasing. In certain cities, like Berlin, street art has become a part of the culture and is likely here to stay.