The Rich Underground Graffiti Culture Of Berlin

Berlin now exists as the center of a new form of creative, colorful expression.

Berlin graffiti
PHOTO LOUIS ALCORN

Since 1900, Berlin, Germany arguably has seen more war, political strife, destruction and rebuilding than any other modern first world city. The utter poverty imposed on Germany through the Treaty of Versailles, which forced Germany to pay for the reparations of World War I, eventually led to the democratic election of Hitler in 1933 slowly paving the way to fascist Nazi control. During World War II, Berlin remained a main target of the allied bombings providing for a city in ruins come 1945. Up until 1989, Germany remained occupied by the four victorious powers and served center of the Cold War between the USSR and the remaining three allied powers: France, USA, and the UK. The fall of the wall in 1989 marked a new era of global politics and initiated a redefining movement in Berlin’s history. In 2005 UNESCO characterized Berlin as the “City of Design” and today the city is labeled as the global street art capital.

Graffiti comes in many shapes and forms, which cover nearly everything in Berlin from apartment buildings, to trains, to department stores. A tag references a quick signature or scribble that can be completed in a matter of seconds. For example, in Berlin one artist simply goes around tattooing the number 6 on anything and everything. In fact, the “6 guy” as he’s referred to in the graffiti culture is trying to be placed in the Guinness Book of World Records for having completed the most artistic artworks, as he’s painted over 250,000 6’s throughout the city. A vom refers to a larger piece of block letters containing an outline and a filled in interior. Artists typically define vom’s with spray-paint whilst making use of a variety of stylistic fonts. A throw-up takes up more space, but contains the same stylistic elements of a vom. Finally, street art defines a broad classification of graffiti artwork that goes beyond mere letters, usually defining some figure or structure in order to connote some type of political or social message.

Berlin graffiti
PHOTO LOUIS ALCORN

Historically, American gangs have utilized graffiti tags, vom’s, and throw ups to denote their particular territory. Young members patrol the blocks on foot, some hanging out on street corners selling their gangs product (a euphemism for drugs), while more mature members ride around in cars, occasionally breaching into rival territories in which bloody violence typically ensues. In Berlin, violent gangs are less prevalent as street artists remain more focused on the artwork than the possession of certain blocks of the city. Rather than gangs like the Bloods and Crips of Los Angeles, graffiti artists in Germany typically belong to some type of co-op, the largest of which is called “1UP”.  Although, co-ops do mark up the city with their three-character name, it’s more to denote their presence rather than to claim a certain territory.

Every type of graffiti artwork covers Berlin head to toe, but perhaps the most useful and creative form of expression remains actual street art, which tends to make some meaningful commentary regarding society. An artist called XOOOOX stencils semi-life-size depictions of models all over the city to symbolize our patronization of consumerism. Another artist paints security cameras conversing verbally with cartoon-like thought bubbles making reference to the proliferation of security cameras across Europe and how you can rarely avoid being watched by an upper eye.

Berlin graffiti
PHOTO LOUIS ALCORN

Now, is graffiti in public places legal in Berlin? No, of course not, but this is where Klaus Wowereit comes into the equation. The city is buried in debt, meaning that police focus on patrolling for more serious crimes that endanger others (typically not including graffiti) and to a certain extent they turn a blind eye. Hence the mayor’s quote: “Berlin is poor, but sexy”. Of course, a certain amount of enforcement exists which provides for part of the thrill and adrenaline involved in the creation of these pieces. Occasionally, graffiti exists in orifices that seem impossible to reach by normal human means. The difficulty involved in getting to certain places also provides part of the adrenaline rush and tends to prove the artist as more daring and skilled. On occasion artists wait for the day when construction scaffolding goes up on the side of a building in order to allow artists access to some of these seemingly physically impossible places to reach. Street art is however patronized by a variety of private entities in Berlin. Stores often pay artists to decorate the exterior of their shops and private street art galleries populate the city.

One interesting installment in the city is Tacheles, a previous German department store abandoned during the war, now inhabited by artist’s studios and lots and lots of graffiti. The building owners, Zed Bank, want to sell the land to a real estate firm, but the artists basically refuse to leave and since the encampment is supported by Governor Wowereit, nothing has happened to date, but the future of Tacheles remains to be seen.

Perhaps the crowning jewel of street artwork in Berlin is the East Side Gallery. The city commissioned over 100 artists to decorate this existing segment of the Berlin Wall in order to commemorate it’s falling and connote themes of world peace and coexistence. The wall contains pieces allude to everything from the streams of people flooding through the wall to the struggles that occurred well before its collapse. One piece entitled La Berlinica mimics the stylistic cubism of Picasso’s Guernica, a masterpiece displaying the suffering of the common people due to the Fascist actions in the Spanish Civil War.

In recent years, Berlin has created a new global identity for itself. Rather than a world symbol of evil Nazi Fascism or the center of the conflicts of the Cold War, Berlin now exists as the center of a new form of creative, colorful expression.

Louis Alcorn

As a San Diego native, Louis lives by his ultimate travel tip: take a minute in each place you visit to collect your thoughts and write them down. They tend to be invaluable when you look back in the future.

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