Graffiti and Street Art Walking Tour with Alternative Berlin by Noor Issa and Cecelia Russell

Noor and Katharin

Passing graffiti might inspire one to scoff, admire it, or ignoring it completely. Graffiti has become associated with urban culture, but what are the purposes for engaging in this expression in the most heavily “bombed” city in Europe, according to Simon Arms? As FemGeniuses, we had the opportunity to experience a tour of one site of heavy graffiti. During our walk, Rob, our guide and an artist himself, helped us get a better picture of the inception, legality, and social implications of the scene. In Berlin, reunification (after the “fall” of the Berlin Wall) left the region in debt; policing measures are pricey, and, if graffiti brings in tourism and other sources of revenue, then what’s the use in stopping it? Some may view this as illegal defacement, but starting in 1965 with Philly teen “Cornbread,” graffiti was a means of getting a girl’s attention. In America, graffiti started as a form of expression in historically Black and Chicano neighborhoods. People who wanted to show their presence could get spray paint, spray, and run. The canvas is provided—free expression is that accessible. Now, there are legally-sanctioned pieces, which Rob tells us are most often high and large. Slide 5, for example, is a piece where the artist comments on the Saudi censorship and mystery death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who opposed the Crown Prince. To me, this expression of free speech on a subject of censorship was poignant. Lastly, as Rob wisely put, some view graffiti as artists’ way of saying, “I was here,” but really, it is a way of saying, “I AM here” for those who are silenced, erased, and actively discredited.

Noor Issa is a Libyan Muslim born in Northern Colorado. She loves food, her family, and exploring cultures, both her own and others. Her first language is Arabic, and she’s the eldest of four. She’s pursuing a Psychology degree, as well as a double major in Race, Ethnicity and Migration studies at Colorado College. In her free time, Noor enjoys art, music, and weightlifting. In the future, she hopes to travel and learn more about Arabic, Pan-Africanism, and Islamic Studies. #FemGeniusesinBerlin

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Cecelia Russell

On Thursday, we had a walking tour with our guide, Rob, who showed examples of both street art and graffiti—two distinctly different art forms. We started by looking at several pieces of legal street art: some commissioned, some not. This led to conversations about the illegal art all over the city, including graffiti, which is what I will focus on. With its roots stemming from poor communities of color, graffiti is a writing-based art that is widely understood as a form of self-expression that often focuses on names (or tags). For people living in these communities, having the ability to put their name in visible public spaces offers a sense of control over their environment and a boost of self-confidence by giving them a voice. This notion has since caught on to the mainstream and has brought the art form under the spotlight. We know that our harsh judicial system in America values property over people, as Rob noted, meaning “vandalism” is a serious matter. However, ever since the economic turmoil caused by war and building the city back up, Berlin has accumulated a significant amount of debt. Tourists come to Berlin for its historical significance, as well as the arts and culture: music, dance, clubs, and yes—street art. Because the “vandalism” is an attraction that brings money into the city, eradicating it is not a high priority for the state. Using a transnational lens to learn about the art is fundamental in understanding the development and impacts of street art and graffiti. From the origins of graffiti in Philadelphia then to New York with the emergence of Hip Hop to Paris and other cities all over the world, such as Berlin, each iteration of the art influences the next to bring us to today.

Cecelia Russell is a rising senior from the north shore of Massachusetts, and her passions have in part been shaped by her upbringing on a fruit farm. Much of her time is spent organizing with other young people for environmental legislation, food security, and climate justice—with a recent focus on the college’s divestment campaign. Academically, she has so many interests that she has yet to declare a major, but she has spent most of her time studying environmental science.

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