by Alexis Cornachio
The arts and Berlin. Somehow it had been ingrained in me to immediately associate each one with the other. I think it was my limited knowledge of the city of Berlin that had informed some romanticized imaginations of an exploding and dynamic queer arts scene. On the car ride from the airport to the apartment we would be living in for the next three weeks on Pohlstraße in Schöneberg, my imaginations were confirmed as I looked out the window onto passing buildings, cafes, shops, and street signs that had all seemed to be covered with splatted illustrations, unfamiliar symbols, and words—art was everywhere, and it was explosive.
Ignorantly, I had thought little about how my vivid preconceptions of the city had been contributing to a narrative of the exceptionalism of Berlin, a narrative that works to render marginalized groups invisible by relying on the prominence of street art culture and what this culture symbolizes.
Street and graffiti art are inextricably bound to opposition. They possess resistive qualities not only because they are technically illegal in Berlin, but also because they represent a form of self-expression and can work as modes of making political statements and commentary on society. With the qualities of street art and graffiti being inherently resistive and the city explicitly welcoming artists to participate in this form of artistic expression, an exceptionalizing narrative has been carefully constructed and continues to be reproduced as street art culture is commodified for tourism.
I am obviously not an expert on Berlin. I certainly do not think I am qualified nor knowledgeable enough to argue that the dynamic and accepting image of the arts culture of Berlin society is a façade. However, I do find value in critiquing the function of this narrative. I think it is important to examine which groups are being affected most by the perpetuation of an exceptionalizing narrative and by the impact of commodifying street art culture. Is a society that seems to be bursting with art, queerness, liberalism, and inclusivity on the surface, in actuality, invisibilizing voices of marginalized people, such as immigrants, people of color, and the transgender community?
I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the importance of community and culture among street artists during a walking tour our tour guide whose name is Cole. I came in with some loose knowledge of the so-called “rules” of street art. I knew that everyone has their own “tag,” artists rarely ever cover other artists’ work, and that there is a solidarity in anonymity. Cole further explained the importance of adhering to these rules and how the culture of respect strengthens the graffiti and street art community. Street art in Berlin has a genuine uniqueness to it, which values artists regardless of background. The community respects each other’s art, and there is a unified value in self-expression and ultimately in humanity, which I found to be very inspiring.
When it comes to the ways city authorities like police react to street art and graffiti, I question whether it comes from a place of respect and genuine value in humanity. Cole claimed that in Berlin, the police often turn a blind eye to street art and graffiti. For example, he told us about two artists who were creating on the side of a building when a cop slowed to a stop next to them, gave them a thumbs-up, and left. For Berlin, street art is a significant part of the economy. Hence, the Urban Spree area we had the opportunity to visit is in the midst of gentrification. It is being sold off to a corporation that will build “luxury” apartments and clubs. Moreover, only two squats exist when in the years following the Cold War, the city was one of the main hubs for squatters. Most of the spaces for squatting have been sold off by the city and replaced with “luxury.”
Gentrification was a consistent theme throughout our tour. Cole described a sort of fetishization of Berlin’s “cool, crazy alternative scene” that manifests in the arts, specifically street art. One story that explained with how many street artists are reacting to the gentrification of their community was about the iconic artist Blu. Blu found out luxury apartments were being built in the space near one of his massive paintings that covered the whole wall of a building. Instead of the corporation destroying his art, they were advertising that their luxury apartments would face Blu’s painting for all the people living there to see. In outrage about a squat being destructed to make room for “luxury” apartments, a fire broke out in the exact area the corporation was using. The city was quick to blame the houseless for starting the fire; although, it is largely suspected that this was the doing of local street artists. One night soon after the fire, Blu and some friends decided to paint the entire wall of the building black, covering his painting. The painting depicted two hands reaching out, so Blu painted over all the fingers except the middle finger of one of the hands, leaving a poetic message for passersby. Stories like this make me think about the anger and frustration of street artists and question in what ways the culture of the arts will evolve and|or dissolve in Berlin.
A couple hours after our tour, we visited the Urban Nation Museum for Contemporary Art, which features various artists and multimedia works, including street art. Within the museum are “chapters,” different exhibits that focus on particular themes. When I walked in, I was met with the exhibit entitled “We Need to Talk,” which is focused on putting different works of art “in conversation with each other.” The curators placed artworks about different social issues such as race, femininity, war, and consumerism across from one another so that they look like they are “having conversations.” At the end of this exhibit, there is a sketchbook and a pen lying on a podium. I thought this was a cool interactive element of the exhibit, because if someone thought there should have been more representation of a particular issue or conversation, they could write that in. Also, if someone just had something on their mind, they were given the freedom and opportunity to share and have others read their thoughts.
Upstairs was, in my opinion, one of the most intriguing exhibits, because it featured artists who made their creative processes visible. One work by Ida Lawrence, “A Village and Surrounds VI (Mirrors and Moulds),” was breathtaking. Lawrence works and lives in Berlin, and uses a combination of imagery and text to illustrate memory and historical narrative. For this work, she used a large canvas filled with handwritten journal-like entries, differently sized and scaled images, and vibrant colors. My eyes moved around the canvas, and in every corner, there was something new to fixate on. It showed me how one artist can go through a diverse range of styles and thought processes, all culminating in one creative piece.
The art in Urban Nation exhibited an expression and reconciling of the self. According to the curators, the project of the museum is to create a space that will be used to educate and foster community among street artists of Berlin. In “The Heritage Of Berlin Street Art And Graffiti Scene,” Simon Arms describes postwar Berlin street art and graffiti as an expression of “what it meant to be free” (3). I think an important way my perspective complicates the idea of art as an expression of freedom is rooted transnational feminist discussions about how definitions of “freedom” differ. The past couple of days, I have been walking past an open studio space on Pohlstraße a couple of doors down from our apartment where two German students are building a wall that will soon exhibit a woman’s art starting early July. The students and I became friendly, and one day I mentioned this blog I was writing about urban street art in Berlin, and we started talking about Urban Nation Museum. One of the students had strong opinions regarding the ethics of the museum and how he thought it was counterproductive to uplifting street art culture. He was critical of how the museum categorized street art and graffiti and about how the artwork in the museum was not what street art in Berlin is about. I think their perspectives on museum politics and gentrification are important to consider when thinking about how freedom is defined and expressed in art and why it is damaging to conflate the art in the museum with street art on the streets of Berlin. Is the art in the Urban Nation Museum a representation of inclusivity in the art world? Is it taking something away from street art culture as Berliners and local artists know it? Is the art being exploited as a tourist attraction and perpetuating a narrative of the exceptionalism of Berlin?
In reflecting on my positionality as an American tourist and college student, I think I have been able to gain some insight into the ways various art in Berlin has been specifically catered to tourists. The ingrained image I hold of the lively, queer, and accepting arts culture has fed into my preconceptions of ideas about Berlin, even though I had limited prior knowledge. This exceptionalizing narrative draws in people and money that will continue to benefit the city’s economy, and street art and graffiti become commodified tourist attractions. Obviously, though, the arts community in Berlin is a community I think anyone can learn something from. From what I’ve experienced, it is expressive and fearless, and the culture among street artists themselves is representative of what it means to value one another’s humanity through valuing another’s art and expressions of the self.
Alexis Cornachio is a Sociology major and rising junior at Colorado College. She grew up in New York, and has been enjoying the urban setting of Berlin. She loves music and enjoys playing guitar and singing. She is passionate about what she has learned so far about Berlin society and is excited and grateful to travel and learn more in her life.