Musings for December 2019

Berlin Street Art

Berlin has to be one of the most interesting cities in Europe.  It is a magnet for people interested in history and culture or who simply want to visit a superb modern city offering shopping, eating out, concerts or sports events.  Sadly, it is also a city with a very dark history.  It is also highly political – consider that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are claimed as Berliners.

 

The city is very cosmopolitan.  The university offers free places to anyone who can meet its entry standards so the city is full of people taking second degrees and considering what to do next.  This mix has produced a huge array of street art images, many of which make political or historical statements.  It has attracted many experimental, highly innovative artists and rivals New York, London or Paris.


Currently German law, says that graffiti is only punishable if it can be proven that the spraying itself or the removal of the graffiti results in damage to the surface under it.  On the other hand, many of the art works have been commissioned or are in places where street art is encouraged.


The Berlin Wall (Berliner Mauer) is still attracting artists.  Most famously there is the open air East Side Gallery.  This is a ‘collection’ of 105 murals painted onto a 1,316m  long remnant of the Berlin Wall,on Mühlenstraße in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg.  The artists involved are from all over the world.


When the Berlin Wall was ‘in use’ the border between East and West Berlin was the river Spree, which runs behind the wall.

 

The gallery has official status as a Denkmal, or heritage-protected landmark. According to the Künstlerinitiative East Side Gallery, an association of the artists involved in the project, "The East Side Gallery is understood as a monument to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the peaceful negotiation of borders and conventions between societies and people".  It has more than three million visitors per year.


Near to the East Side gallery is the RAW Compound (RAW Gelände) which is one of the few remaining alternative/subculture compounds in Berlin, just off of Revaler Str. and Warschauer Str.  The area is a former train repair yard ('Reichsbahn-Ausbesserungs-Werk', - RAW) dating from 1867 to 1994 whose many warehouses and structures have been taken over since 1999, when Germany was reunified.  Many of the buildings are from the Soviet period and they have been converted into artist work-spaces, clubs, bars, cafés & beer-gardens.  Here you can find a variety of street-food, flea-markets and events.  The beer garden even has a climbing wall; a converted WW2 air raid shelter.  The whole area is decorated with an explosion of murals and graffiti.


At the centre of the compound is the RAW Temple one of Berlin’s famous nightclubs.

(If you are thinking of visiting this area find out more and take care.  It has a reputation for drug dealing and pick-pocketing at night.)

 

Another of the places to find street art in Berlin is on the north side of Hackescher Markt, in Berlin’s central Mitte district.  First, look for the Hackescher Höfe, a series of interconnected art nouveau courtyards.  These offer shopping, eating out and entertainment.   At 44 Rosenthaler Strasse there is the entrance to an alley which opens onto a small courtyard which is a hotspot for Berlin street art: Haus Schwarzenberg.   This is another piece of alternative Berlin.  This part of the former East Berlin is under considerable real estate pressure from developers and gentrification.  The site was preserved by the Haus Schwarzenberg association, which occupies one of the buildings at the end of the alley.

The art ‘displayed’ here changes all the time but the churn has featured artists like El Bocho, Miss Van, Stinkfish and Otto Schade.  However, two works remain untouched: one is this famous painting of Anne Frank by Jimmy C.  (Anne Frank was born in Germany but lost her citizenship in 1941.)

This site includes artists' studios, a cinema, the Kino Central and bars.  It also includes the Museum of Otto Weidt's Workshop for the Blind (Museum Blindenwerkstatt Otto Weidt) where the story of Otto Weidt is told.  Weidt had deteriorating eyesight and set up a workshop for blind and disabled Jews to protect them from the Nazi regime.   He did this by bribing Gestapo officials which was very high risk method.  This is the other untouched wall painting. 

It is by the artist Lake and is at the entrance to the Weidt Museum.

 

Berlin’s street art usually has significant social or political meaning.  This mural, painted by the Italian artist Blu in 2007, is called the Pink Man (or sometimes Leviathan or Backjump.) and illustrates this theme.

The mural is one of the best known in Berlin and is just off the Oberbaumbrücke, in Kreuzberg.  This is significant because the bridge links Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, boroughs that were divided by the Berlin Wall.  The bridge is an important symbol of Berlin’s unity.


The mural is an image of a pink figure made up of many writhing and interlocking bodies.  It is holding one white figure which the creature may be about to eat after it has examined it.  There are two main interpretations.  Firstly, the image is a reflection of the Nazi system because the creature is bigger than any one person, everyone wants to be part of it but ultimately it destroys the people that make it up.  Alternatively, it is a comment on the massive amount of gentrification taking placed in Berlin.  Again, people clamor to be part of it but this is what makes it destructive.


Sometimes Berlin street art simply remembers famous Berliners.  Here is Marlene Dietrichat beside the famous Konnopke's Imbiss at Schönhauser Allee 44B – where currywurst was invented.

Another use of visual art in Berlin is to decorate or change the appearance of buildings.  Here is an example on a modern block of flats, again in Prenzlauer Berg.

 

Or this one in Oberbaumstrasse, Kreuzberg.  (Notice the number of political emblems or signs as well as the decorations.)

Finally, Berlin street art is never far from politics.  Look at this picture taken at Alexanderplatz, in Mitte, the former city centre of East Berlin.  If you magnify the picture to look at the building at the rear you will see one of the most famous slogans in Berlin “Capitalism Kills”.  Very Berlin.

 

The 10 Best Works of Street Art in Berlin

The Berlin Walls: Where to Find Street Art in Berlin

The Heritage of Berlin Street Art and Graffiti Scene - Smashing Magazine

Where to Discover The Best Street Art in Berlin

Robert Scott

December 2019

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