Graffiti art may have its origins in New York City, but it has dominated the city of Berlin, Germany. While it remains to be seen whether this is a good or bad thing, you can count on the fact that you’ll see street art covering the storefronts and sides of buildings everywhere you go.
While graffiti is illegal in Berlin, it hasn’t stopped artists from flocking to the city from around the world to show off their talents. Berlin has become a Mecca for graffiti art and when a big name is in town, it’s big news on the streets. We didn’t know much about street art culture, so when we visited Berlin, we wanted to explore this underground movement.
It was during the Cold War at the time of the Berlin Wall that graffiti started to flourish here. In West Berlin, just three feet beyond the wall was considered “no mans land.” Young adults hung close to the wall and were free to do as they please without authorities being able to touch them. So people began painting political protests on the Berlin Wall. Property around the wall was cheap, attracting a bohemian crowd who squatted in the abandoned buildings, creating a thriving artistic community.
While the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the street art culture has continued to grow. Artists take great risks for their craft, dangling from rooftops, dodging subways, and evading authorities to have their work seen. Most of us wouldn’t even notice the risk and work that goes into each design, but when a professional opens your eyes, you come to respect the process.
Viewfinder Tip: Berlin is spread out. Buy a day pass for the u-Bahn (Berlin’s subway system) for €6.10 or if you are there for longer, buy a week pass for €26.29.
Graffiti, Vandalism, or Art?
Graffiti is vandalism; there’s no doubt about it. People tag buildings with their signatures and it can really make a city look rough. I’m not a fan of graffiti and don’t understand why people ruin beautiful buildings that are works of art in their own right. However, in Berlin, it is a way of life, and street art has become such a problem that when a business cleans graffiti off their walls, the vandals come right back the next day to re-do their work.
However, businesses have found a way to adapt and have started commissioning respected artists to paint their buildings with grand murals so that other graffiti crews will leave them alone. There is a mutual respect in the community with well known artists having their work last longer. Companies, such as Levi’s, have murals all over the city, where artists have been legally commissioned to paint entire walls of buildings. Graffiti artists have started to become legit.
We started to understand the street culture by listening to our guide, who was a former graffiti artist from the U.S. He now leads graffiti tours in Berlin and runs his own studio to teach people the culture and how to design their own art. Street art isn’t only about spray-painting walls; you can use stencils, stickers, and even yarn. Anything that decorates the streets is considered art. We saw embroidery over public bike locks and one-of-a-kind stickers on fire hydrants. He tells us that street art is temporary. Each day in Berlin is different, where art from one day will be painted over with something new the next.
One of the best places in Berlin to view street art is at the Raw Temple. This abandoned warehouse district near the train tracks is a popular club scene in Berlin. It is also a 100,000-square-foot community that embraces and encourages street art. Each year they host a festival attracting graffiti artists from around the world. Some designs manage to last all year long while others are tagged and sprayed over within days. But that is the way of street art – there one day and gone the next.
We ended our tour making graffiti art at our guide’s shop. We cut out and created our own stencils and designs. It ended up being a difficult task and by the end of the day, we had a new found respect for graffiti artists, developing a better understanding for the culture. While we still disagree with tagging and vandalizing private property, we do find places like the Raw Temple and the businesses who commission work for their storefronts to be innovative and creative. Street art can be beautiful when done right and it can add color and flare to a city like Berlin that has earned the distinction of being a UNESCO City of Design. There is no doubt that street art played a huge role in this distinction and we have a feeling that it won’t be going away anytime soon.
What have been some of your favorite cities for street art?