by Judinelly Gonzalez
Berlin is notorious for its graffiti and street art scene. You can see it just about anywhere when walking around the city—street corners, subways, and even the inside of a bathroom, for example. Any empty space is fair game, as long as you do not get caught by the police (yet, most police officers turn a blind eye). So, after the in-depth street art tour earlier in the week, I wondered what it would be like to be a graffiti artist.
The FemGeniuses all got the opportunity to experience this on the last day of the course through a street art workshop with Berlin Massive. Jenny, our instructor for the day, introduced herself in the same alleyway our class had been in the first week while waiting for the Museum Blindenwerkstatt Otto Weidt tour. She started off by sharing some of the history of the alleyway before leading us to our private workstation.
I was thrilled to finally learn about why those walls had a lot of graffiti with languages other than German and English, because it was something I noticed the previous time I had been there, specifically a large piece with various Latino names and Spanish phrases. I had questioned why a piece like that was in Berlin, because I was not expecting to see Spanish words and phrases on the walls of a predominantly white city where everyone either speaks German or English. Basically, I wanted to know how a Brown artist ended up there and Jenny answered it by saying that a lot of the art around us was done by international, female artists.
Once the quick history lesson ended and we were seated in our private workstation, it was finally time to begin our graffiti art process. There were three main steps. The first was to brainstorm individually and then share with our table group, the second was to share the table group consensus with the larger group in order to decide on the final group concept, and the third was to spray paint the final group concept onto the canvas, in other words, our “wall.” Jenny kept encouraging us to write, doodle and sketch. It was apparent that the brainstorming step is the most crucial step for the street art scene because how else can a street artist quickly paint a wall? Personally, whenever I do not brainstorm enough for a painting or drawing, it makes it extremely frustrating for me, because it means I am still unsatisfied with what I wish to create—that I do not have a set visual for the final product. Therefore, it makes it even longer for me to finish an art piece. Nevertheless, the FemGeniuses all agreed with an idea we wished to see on the larger canvas, completing step two.
When we finally got to the third step, we geared up with a plastic poncho, painter’s mask, and singular glove on one’s dominant drawing hand. We were then given five minutes to practice using a spray can on a large wooden board before moving onto the dominating white canvas all of us had seen as we walked into the area. It was at that moment I realized spray painting would not be as easy as it seemed, especially when I wanted to make thin lines. That is why I did not attempt any of the fine lines in the final piece (Jenny heavily assisted with those), but it was fun to watch everyone else give it a go. One of the most memorable parts from the workshop were the black marker additions right at the end. I will admit that our concept may have been too ambitious for us novice graffiti artists to complete in less than an hour.
I was aware that the workshop would be more of a hands-on activity rather than a discussion. And while I was not able to ask many questions after the workshop because of the quick clean up, I was still able to learn a little bit about Jenny’s work. I loved that the positive and humorous attitude she maintained throughout the entire workshop was reflected in the answers to my questions. She was straightforward in saying that she’s a graffiti artist that does both political and “just for fun” pieces. She then mentioned she typically uses stencils and stickers because they are “really fast to copy and print everywhere,” especially since graffiti on a subway or train is big in Germany. This subway or train graffiti comment had me immediately asking if she had ever tagged a subway and all she did was laugh and say it was up to my imagination.
The workshop let me experience the challenge it is to be a graffiti artist. They have to spend a lot of time figuring out how and what they want to paint on a wall that many people will most likely notice. They have to be precise with their line strokes because they cannot afford to waste any time cleaning them up. They know they risk of getting caught by the police.
However, I question that risk level. If a passerby walked by and saw a graffiti artist’s skin color, hair type, or any other visible phenotype, would they continue to pass by or immediately call the police? And yes, in Berlin, the local authorities typically turn a blind eye because, as Simon Arms describes in “The Heritage of Berlin Street Art and Graffiti Scene,” “street art in Berlin is a big industry” and “attracts tourists” (1). But what if it is not based in Berlin? What if I, a Latina woman, were to ever graffiti a wall in the United States. Do you think I would easily be let go? Probably not. A Brown or Black person spray painting a wall in the United States is immediately associated with vandalism. What I am trying to say is yes, both white people and people of color face the risk of getting caught, but white people will always have less of a risk. The consequences of being caught will be different depending on your race, ethnicity, and nationality.
These reflections remind me how different things can be for someone that is a part of the minority. We learned that one of the minorities in Germany is the immigrant community. One typical assumption about them mentioned in Jin Haritaworn’s “Queer Injuries: The Racial Politics of ‘Homophobic Hate Crime’ in Germany,” the “homophobic migrant,” which associates people of color that migrated to Germany with hate crimes (80). I find this upsetting because it puts whole communities in a negative light. It puts a target on who to blame whenever there is trouble. It is why whenever I saw street art with connections to race, street art I could tell was done by an artist from a racial minority, I found myself not quickly pulling away. One of those pieces that caught my attention was mentioned earlier in this blog. It featured various Latino names and Spanish phrases and primarily used a warm color palette. For someone that only knows English, the one English phrase, “YOU TOOK THEM ALIVE, WE WANT THEM BACK ALIVE,” gives enough context to a viewer that the Latino people painted on the wall were missing. But for someone that knows both English and Spanish, it is so much more. My eyes focused on “¡VIVO SE LO LLEVARON! ¡CON VIDA LA QUEREMOS!” which translates to “THEY TOOK HIM ALIVE! WE WANT HER ALIVE!” and “¿DONDE ESTÁN?” which translates to “WHERE ARE THEY?” because I could imagine my mother crying these out if I suddenly disappeared.
That is why after this graffiti workshop, I have gained a further appreciation for street art—street art that connects with people on a deeper level and art done by someone from a marginalized group. It takes a lot of creativity, skill, and courage for these artists to express themselves, even if they are often doing it anonymously. There must be a lot of pressure to include the right words (if the artist decides to use words) or to find the right composition. I mean, it usually takes me a significant amount of time to figure out what I want to do with a black piece of paper. Can you imagine how long my graffiti process would take if I wanted to put something I was proud of on a street wall corner? Graffiti artists like Jenny and whoever painted that piece centered around missing Latino people deserve a lot of respect and acknowledgement for the work they do. They are drawing attention to voices typically overshadowed by white males. I know street art will not magically solve racism, sexism, ableism, and any other form of discrimination we are still facing, but it at least addresses social issues people have to notice on their way to school, work, and|or social events. So, if I were to ever hear about someone simply passing through this alleyway, located at Rosenthaler Straße 39, 10178 Berlin, Germany, I would be shocked, because just like the Berlin Wall, there is “layer upon layer of zest, life, and color” to stop and acknowledge for more than a few seconds (Arms 2).
Judinelly (Judy) Gonzalez is a rising sophomore at Colorado College from San Rafael, California. One of her favorite things she’s read so far in the classes she’s taken has been the counternarrative, because it is something she can connect with on a variety of different levels. She is still figuring out what she wants to major in and hopes to double minor in Studio Art and Race, Ethnicity, and Migration Studies. When she is not studying, you can find her in the ceramic studio, listening to music, or hanging out with friends. This is her first time in Berlin, and she has loved exploring different parts of the city.