Going to Berlin I had a number of expectations, the most prevalent of these being large areas of the city being dedicated to memorialisation, and that of a haunted city (Ladd, 1997). Whilst in many instances this was the case, there was another aspect to Berlin that was somewhat unexpected, and admittedly took me by surprise.
Figure 1: The now derelict former Haus der Statistik on Karl-Marx-Allee coming from Alexanderplatz (Kiely, 2018).
An example such as the old Haus der Statistik is only one of many I could give to convey the level of street art that is present in Berlin. Before travelling to Berlin, I had little knowledge of the city beyond its geopolitics, past and present. However, and perhaps naïvely, I expected it to be relatively similar to London with a touch of that good old mainland European culture. What I was instead faced with was buildings and murals that looked like Banksy himself had been let loose on the city. These installations however, raised questions for me: in a city so shrouded by it’s traumatic past, what sort of impact could this street art truly have?
The history of these typically anti-war and anti-fascist art works can perhaps be traced back to the erection of the Berlin Wall, when street artists in the 1980s made it their canvas (Schacter, 2013). Ever since, the Wall has consistently been used as a platform for political art, and this is nowhere more evident than on the East Side Gallery. Walking alongside it, I can admit to mixed feelings. Here was a memorial to a physical structure that not only divided a city, but in many ways a country; and yet, it was unapologetically a celebration of freedom of speech and the promotion of peace. It appeared that, “[P]aradoxically, the adornment of the wall that cemented a separation of a people expressed the idea of a ‘window to the free world,’” (Schacter, 2013: 202).
Figure 2: an installation along the East Side Gallery (Kiely, 2018)
Many of the slogans I came across (particularly along the East Side Gallery) were in some shape or form graffiti. If not, it was clear they had not been part of the original design (see Figure 2). Graffiti-esque markings can generally be attributed to tourists, but perhaps more poignantly, Eastern Berliners who used it as a way to express their newfound political freedom after the collapse of the Wall (White & Gutting, 1998). Yet, they did not seem out of place, or like they were encroaching on the cleanliness of Berlin. Coming from in and around London, graffiti is not particularly unusual, but I would not expect to see graffiti on such a scale, especially with the added pressure of police clampdowns (Jones, 2012). Therefore, to be displayed with such a level of freedom in Berlin was to me a degree strange, but in another sense also liberating. In fact, the presence of such visual slogans became so commonplace during the trip that it almost felt bizarre when visiting locations that bore no such art, such as Breitscheidplatz, which was noticeably devoid of street-art of graffiti of any kind. My visit to Breitscheidplatz came later on in the fieldtrip, so by this point I had become accustomed to the plethora of anti-war slogans and ideology city-wide, so to say the aesthetic of a ‘graffiti-less’ Berlin was jarring is to understate the fact.
So it would seem that street-art is having more of an influence than one may initially think. The aforementioned Haus der Statistik is part of a new initiative along with the Centre for Art and Urbanism to transform it into a new centre for the homeless, refugees, and artists alike (HausderStatistik.org, 2018). On top of this, the East Side Gallery is a major tourist attraction, so perhaps political and anti-fascist art work is the remedy this complicated city needed to its somewhat tricky past. If I took one thing away from this trip it was that Berlin was not a city that fulfilled any kind of conventional expectation. I expected memorialisation, and Berlin did not fail to deliver. However, what I did not expect was memorialisation of such an abstract kind. In addition to this, it opened my eyes to a side of Berlin I could not have envisioned; a side that remembered the past, whilst not forgetting to look to the importance of the future.
Figure 3: Shepard Fairey’s “Make Love – Not War” mural in Kreuzberg, Berlin (Source: streetartbln.com, 2014).
References and further reading
Gutting, D. & White, P. (1998). ‘Berlin: Social Convergences and Contrasts in the Reunited City’, Geography. 83(3), pp. 214-226.
HausderStatistik.org. (2018). Initiative House of Statistics, [online]. Available at: https://hausderstatistik.org/. [Accessed: 01/05/2018]
Jones, J. (2012). ‘London 2012: the graffiti clampdown is like Versailles versus the sans-culottes’, The Guardian [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/jul/20/london-2012-olympics-graffiti-clampdown. [Accessed: 01/05/2018].
Ladd, B. (1997). The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. pp. 1-164.
Ladd, B. (2000). ‘Centre and Periphery in the New Berlin: Architecture, Public Art, and the Search for Identity’, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art. 22(2), pp. 7-21.
Schacter, R. (2013). The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. pp. 202.
streetartbln.com. (2014). STREET ART BERLIN: Shepard Fairey (Obey) Paints a Mural and Hits Berlins Streetart Scene, [online]. Available at: https://www.streetartbln.com/shepard-fairey-obey-berlin/. [Accessed: 01/05/2018].
Till, K. E. (2005). The New Berlin: Memory, politics, place. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
top10berlin.de. (2018). East Side Gallery, [online]. Available at: https://www.top10berlin.de/en/cat/leisure-258/must-see-sights-and-attractions-1420/east-side-gallery-844#1. [Accessed: 01/05/2018].