With temperatures in Berlin at about negative nine degrees Celsius and the first couple hours of the walking tour behind us, Daniel was convinced that his toes had already fallen off. Luckily, the bright paint dancing across city walls distracted us a bit from the cold. We did capitalize on the lunch break to make a beeline toward the nearest sock store, and combined with some hot soup, we were able to rally. Despite the frigid January weather, the tour was absolutely worth it.
Jake was our guide for the Alternative Berlin Tour (which I found on Vayable.com). Besides being generally likable and great at storytelling as we trekked around Berlin, he helped us scratch a little past the surface of this fascinating city. For $20 or 12€ plus a one-day U Bahn ticket, the tour was a great value and I would definitely recommend it!
“What’s the strangest thing some one has ever asked you on a tour?” “Once someone asked me where he could find a good value whore.”
During the tour, Berlin’s street art kept me constantly reaching for my camera. Andrea Tzortzis of the NY Times reports that “the roots of graffiti culture can be traced back to West Berlin in the early 1980s, when the American-occupied sector was the reluctant melting pot of anarchist punks, Turkish immigrants and West German draft resisters.” After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the walls of East Berlin became a welcoming blank canvas for Berliners to make their own, and artists and youths flooded the east, prompting a cultural explosion. The result? A living gallery on every corner and constantly changing scenery on the city streets.
One of the artists that Jake pointed out was El Bocho, originally from Spain, who has been filling Berlin with street art since 1997. This piece features Little Lucy, a character based on a TV series from Czechoslavakia in the 70’s. El Bocho, deciding to add some dark humor to the otherwise “boring” character, depicts Little Lucy murdering her cat in all sorts of creative and inhumane ways. Here, although partially obscured by another wall of graffiti, Lucy is DJing on a washing machine – where her cat spins inside. Here, she controls the puppet strings of her cat as it stabs itself. You might notice that the artwork looks a little like a poster – not paint. El Bocho uses a technique called paste-ups, where the art is completed on paper before being pasted to the walls. Why? For one, graffiti isn’t technically legal. Finishing artwork in advance gives the artist more time to create complex pieces without the rush to leave before the cops show up. And if the artist were to be caught, pasting paper to a wall, instead of spraying paint directly on it, falls into a legal gray area.
Besides little girls killing cats, El Bocho also creates pieces that feature people from the city. These portraits are sometimes described as romantic, but I found the ones we saw to be a bit more pensive and lonely.
El Bocho has a couple of other themes, but since I only saw these, I’ll send you over here to read more about his work if you’re interested.
Photo by Lucky Cat and reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.
According to Bimer (according to our guide), a graffiti artist is like a polar bear: arrogant, brave, and lonely. This recognizable character is based on a very real and very famous polar bear that was born in the Berlin Zoo in 2006 and whose popularity brought the zoo millions of euros until his sudden death in 2011. Knutz the polar bear inspired international “Knutzmania,” and during the craze, fans enjoyed everything from Knutz-themed gummy bears to songs. After the bear’s unexpected death due to drowning after a seizure, several memorials were erected in its honor. Our guide speculated that Bimer’s bear criticizes the public’s love affair with the polar bear, questioning if, in a city that holds many memorials dedicated the serious topics such as the world wars, the Holocaust, and the Berlin Wall, a polar bear really deserved that much attention.
Victor Ash’s Astronaut
Some of Berlin’s street art is commissioned, as is the case with Victor Ash’s famous cosmonaut. In an interview by Alex Wells, Ash comments about the piece: “I made the astronaut in relation to the space race between America and the USSR, to the idea of fighting for something that isn’t with soldiers, that isn’t here on Earth—it’s in another dimension. That’s the kind of idea that inspires me: it’s more global, more human.”
Tagging Artists and Train Bombing
Other artists focus more on tagging, or writing the crew’s name on the most prominent places possible. Some tag the “heaven spot” – the very top of a building’s wall – named so for the location’s desirability and proximity to the sky as well as for the possibility that the artists, while hanging off the roof on ropes, may fall to their deaths and find themselves in heaven.
One of the most coveted pieces of city canvas is the trains. And while city’s underfunded anti-graffiti task force is hard pressed to stop the roughly 5,000* graffiti artists that hit the streets each night, they remain vigilant about the trains. Consequently, painting the trains poses the perfect challenge for crews like the well known One United Power, or 1UP, that executes “train bombings” by pulling the trains emergency brake and covering the side of a train in spray paint in a matter of minutes.
A conversation with the masses
Jake emphasized the way that street art opens a conversation between the artists and the citizens – bypassing art institutions, critics, and galleries and engaging directly with the people. Artists tell their stories, criticize politicians, and giving a voice to the emotions of the city. Even visitors can feel that they, too, are participants of this vibrant art scene.
Still curious about Berlin street art? Besides the links embedded in this post, here are some other sources I found useful while writing!
The Heritage of Berlin Street Art and Graffiti Scene (This article has a good section on the story of Linda’s ex, a case that demonstrates public engagement with street artists very well.)
*Source: our guide. I wasn’t able to verify this statistic, but I did find an estimate of 6,000 here.