By Blaise Yafcak
On Friday afternoon, we met Rob, the tour guide, at the Brandenburg Gate and embarked on an “Alternative City” tour of Berlin. Rob started us off with a brief history of Berlin. He told us that the Berlin Wall went up around West Berlin and that the mayor wanted people to move to West Berlin because the city was poor. So, the mayor enacted a law eliminating national service if you lived in West Berlin, which attracted “the punks and artists.” After the wall came down, many people moved from the West to the East because it was cheaper to live in the latter.
After this introduction, we got on the U-Bahn and began our tour of street art and gentrification. We began in the neighborhood of Mitte, a “punky” neighborhood, according to our tour guide. The first building we looked at was one that had been a Nazi air raid shelter during World War II. The bunker then became a make-shift prison during the time of de-Nazification, and then ended up in the East when the wall went up. The building was then used as a storage facility for dried and exotic fruit, primarily bananas. The building changed hands many times, and eventually, many years later, it was rented out for techno parties—patrons of the club said that the building still smelled of bananas. About ten years ago, a man named Christian Boros purchased the bunker, built his house on the roof, and used the bunker to house his personal art collection. Visitors can now come and view Boros’ art collection in the old bunker.On the outside walls of the bunker, we got our first introduction to Berlin street art. According to Rob, Berlin was a breeding ground for street art since the city boasted the longest wall in the world (actually, the Great Wall of China measured over 5,000 miles in length, while the Berlin Wall was only about 70 miles). Nonetheless, Berlin does have quite the collection of street art or “guerrilla” art, as Rob called it. One prominent artist, Mr. Six, has taken it upon himself to paint yellow sixes on the corners of as many buildings as he can. There were many theories as to why he painted the number six: six means failing in the German school system, so he may paint the number on broken down buildings that are failing; six also sounds a bit like sex (haha!). However, Mr. Six finally provided an explanation as to why he has chosen the number six—he wants to make the internet faster. As of now, Mr. Six has painted over three quarters of a million sixes on buildings, and has been arrested over seven hundred times.
Rob then showed us what gentrification looks like in Berlin in the form of a small courtyard in the center of a building filled with cafes and shops and a small park. He took this chance to briefly explain some of Berlin’s laws: in Berlin, if you occupy a building for more than three months, you own said building; prostitution legal here; and when it’s hot, Berliners head to parks in East Berlin and take all their clothes off. It was unclear whether this was truly legal or not, much like smoking in public spaces. Apparently, there is a ban on smoking in outdoor restaurants and similar spaces; however, such places still provide ashtrays at tables, and it’s hard to sit outside and not get a face full of smoke from the Berliner sitting at the next table over. Street art is also illegal in Berlin. There is a maximum penalty of three years in prison for creating street art, but more likely, the artists are simply fined and ordered to remove the art. There is an anti-street art team comprised of 21 individuals who go around the city and paint over street art. However, they paint over the art in random colors that do not match the original color of the building, making a convenient frame for the next batch of street art.
Rob then introduced us to the “stumbling stones.” These are small bronze colored stones set in the cobblestones in front of buildings. The stones were created in the 1990s by an artist named Gunter Demnig as a way to commemorate those killed during the Holocaust. Demnig believes that a person is only forgotten once their name is forgotten, so these stones are ways of keeping the names alive. The stones are placed in the ground outside of houses where victims of the Holocaust resided, and state their name and brief information about when the person lived in the building.
We then moved on to the neighborhood of Kreuzberg, where we saw more street art, including a large painted astronaut and BLU’s mural of a baby made of babies eating a baby. Apparently, the latter is meant to represent the world coming together, but it looks more sinister than that.
The tour finished at the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining portion of the Berlin Wall, located just over the river on the East side of Berlin. This portion of the wall is heavily decorated, as artists were invited to come decorate the wall and are still doing so. The art changes every few months, and is currently quite colorful. We, then, got some ice cream after our 3.5 hour tour, and then headed home to rest.