Berlin as a canvas
The Artist’s Tears. (Katie Hammel)
The streets of Berlin – and the art that adorns them – have long had a story to tell. From murals that depict the trials of German reunification to paste-ups that comment on current events, the city's graffiti is a record of its history and its people. And many of Berlin’s finest international artists use streets, buildings and public spaces – not canvases – to host their masterpieces. But if you don't know where to look – or don't know what it is you're looking at – it's easy to miss the narratives being told.
When the city was divided between East and West Germany, early street artists like French artist Thierry Noir used the western side of the wall as a place to share political messages and commentary on Berlin and the world at large. Noir is known as one of the first and most prolific of the wall’s artists; he began painting graffiti on the wall in 1984 and now his work is now featured prominently in the East Side Gallery, a 1.3km section of the wall that displays more than 100 murals by artists from 21 countries. The paintings were done in 1990, a year after the city was reunited.
Today, however, the gallery is under threat of demolition to make way for luxury housing and a 14-storey hotel. A 6m stretch was temporarily removed during construction, and the hotel’s developer has asked for 20m of the wall to be removed permanently to accommodate a driveway. For now, however, the wall remains one of Berlin’s most evocative examples of artistic expression.
- The East Side Gallery. (Katie Hammel)
After the fall of the wall, artists from West Germany moved to neighbourhoods like Friedrichshain in the former East Berlin, lured by cheaper rents and an abundance of untouched canvases. They covered buildings in political statements and popularised tagging – the art of signing one’s name and expressing one’s identity – after years of being forced to blend in as part of the Communist machine.
Today, street art in Berlin ranges from tiny tags to massive murals, and two of the city’s most famous pieces sit side by side on four-storey buildings along the river in Kreuzberg.
Both pieces were done by the Italian-born artist Blu. The first (pictured here), painted in 2007, has been called both Wall and Brothers. It shows two masked figures; one is upside down and forms an E with his fingers, the other is right side up and forming a W with his. The two men, making the signs for East and West, are trying to rip one another’s masks off. It’s a powerful symbol of the challenges faced by the people of the formerly divided city as they reunited after living side-by-side as strangers for more than 30 years.
- Blu's social commentary. (Katie Hammel)
The other piece (also pictured), painted a year later, shows a headless man in a crisp shirt, straightening his tie. On his wrists, gold watches form the chains that shackle him. Painted in 2008, Blu’s commentary on a professional’s enslavement to time, money and materialism speaks to the conditions in Berlin today. Residents worry about rapid gentrification, as housing costs rose more than 30% from 2007 to 2013. Berlin is also fast becoming a major hub for innovation: by the beginning of 2014, there were more than 2,500 start-ups in the city, including the popular music-sharing platform, SoundCloud.
Another mural by Blu, painted in 2007, encourages similar reflection. Located on the western side of the Oberbaumbrücke Bridge in Kreuzberg (recognisable from the 1998 movie Run, Lola, Run) a pink monster threatens to eat a tiny white figure (pictured here). The pink monster, with its white lifeless eyes, is actually made up of hundreds of tiny pink humans, perhaps illustrating that conformity creates an individuality-killing monster. In a city where residents were once forced to bend to the will of the majority, it’s a sobering reminder that individuality, for so long stifled, is now a freedom to be prized.
- The pink monster. (Katie Hammel)
Though street art remains illegal in Berlin, many building owners have chosen not to fight the inevitable. Rather than wait for their buildings to be tagged, owners sometimes pay artists 300 euros or more to create murals for their properties. Tagging over another artist’s work is considered a great insult, so commissioning a piece is a smart if counterintuitive way for owners to be sure that the art on their building will at least be art that they like.