Graffiti & Street Art Walking Tour + the Urban Nation Museum

by Alexis Cornachio

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

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.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

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.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

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.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

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.”

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

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.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

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.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

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.

The 2022 #FemGeniusesinBerlin

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

Click here to view a slideshow of pictures, and follow @FemGeniuses and|or @AudresFootsteps on InstagramTwitter, and Facebook to see more pictures and videos.

Multimedia Podcast Index:

The RomaniPhen Feminist Archive + the Romanja Power Walking Tour with Estera Iordan” by Christiana García-Soberanez
A Conversation with Jasmin Eding” by Eliza Strong
Jewish History & Culture Walking Tour + Museum Blindenwerkstatt Otto Weidt with Adam Schonfeld” by Bridget Hanley
BlackEurope: The Beginnings of Black Self-Organization in Europe” by Erin Huggins
German Colonialism Walking Tour w/ Josephine Apraku + the Neues Museum” by Amalia Lopez
A Conversation with Sharon Dodua Otoo” by Latra Demaçi
The Wall Museum + the Berliner Unterwelten Tour” by Margalit Goldberg
Blackness in America and Europe: Where the Grey Space Exists” by Monica Carpenter
A Conversation with Dana Maria Asbury, Mona El Omari, and Iris Rajanayagam” by Vicente Blas-Taijeron
Graffiti & Street Art Walking Tour + the Urban Nation Museum” by Alexis Cornachio
“A Conversation with Judy Lynne Fisher” by River Clarke
“Queer Berlin Walking Tour w/ Mal Pool + the Schwules*Museum” by Riley Hester
“A Street Art Workshop with Berlin Massive” by Judy Gonzalez

To read and|or listen to the finales and view the indices and slideshows for previous #FemGeniusesinBerlin, click here

Some Final Thoughts on the 2018 #FemGeniusesinBerlin

IMG_8271It’s been a while since I contributed to “Some Final Thoughts.” So, bear with me, please, as I shake some of the rust off.

Despite earning tenure and promotion to Associate Professor this spring, this year had its rough spots—some worse than others, especially the death of one of my closest aunts. Because of that, a few people—some who I thought were close to me and others who I knew weren’t—recommended that I cancel this course. In some strange way, I’m glad they did, because it reminded me of two very important things:

  1. A lot of people who compliment me on this course have no idea what it is, what it does, and/or what it means—not just to me but to my students and my friends and comrades in Berlin.
  2. This course means a lot to me and my students and my friends and comrades in Berlin.

My faith in the course was rewarded by a great group of students. They were thoughtful, kind, patient, interested, curious, and outright hilarious. I had so much fun with them, and I miss them already even though it’s only been one week since the course concluded. I could fill this page with memories:

  1. Charles declaring, “Those two left at the same time.”
  2. Me and Charles, singing, “If you liked it, you shoulda put a ring on it.”
  3. Laila’s hilarious faces and hand gestures—I wish I could type the sound she made to complement her monster face and hands.
  4. Dana’s and my “cheese fight.”
  5. Our first long-distance trip in the course.
  6. Izzy’s visit.
  7. The constant references to John’s future run for Senate.
  8. Sarah’s broad-shouldered dinner jacket.
  9. The search for mom jeans and the finding of a pair “in pristine condition.”
  10. Dereka’s new nose ring.

And as always, we had such a great time with and learned so much from everyone in Berlin who gave their time and energy to the course. Best of all, I think everyone knew just how much we appreciated them, because these students made every effort to ensure that from start to finish. If you haven’t yet, please check out the student podcasts (index below) and share them with anyone you know who may be interested in what we study here.

2018 FemGeniuses in Berlin Podcast Index:
Click here to view a slideshow, and follow us on Instagram and Twitter to see more pictures and videos!

Jewish History & Culture Walking Tour and the Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand” by Noah Shuster
ReachOut Berlin” by Madi Doerre
Examining German Colonialism” by John B. Capers, Jr.
Joliba Interkulturelles Netzwerk” by Laila Marshall
Romanja Power and Cultural Preservation at the RomaniPhen Feminist Archive” by Anna Wermuth
Talking Feminisms on Reboot.FM” by Sarah Leve
1968 and The Berlin Wall” by Abby Williams
Initiative in Memory of Oury Jalloh” by Charles Meyer
The Queer Berlin Walking Tour and Visit to the Schwules* Museum” by Dereka Thomas
LesMigraS” by Diana Muñoz
Street Art & Graffiti Walking Tour and the Urban Nation Museum” by Zoë Frolik

To read and/or listen to the finales and view the indices and slideshows for previous FemGeniuses in Berlin, click here

Street Art Workshop & Tour

Wynter (Judy)

Photo Credit: Judy Fisher

This podcast—led and produced by Wynter Haley Scott—examines our “Street Art Workshop & Tour” with Declan (tour guide) and Rob (workshop guide) of Alternative Berlin Tours. According to the tour company, “On this two-part tour, we take the back streets and discover some of the latest, greatest and oldest examples of street art, graffiti, and mural art in this famous capital of urban art. The street art tour component is a detailed look at local and international artists who have left their amazing art on the streets of Berlin.” Further, they note that all of their guides are “street artists/graffiti writers and experts on the scene and will show you some of the best stencil art, throw ups, mural art, hall of fame pieces, paste ups, tagging, ad busting, heaven spots, burners and installations, while teaching you who is behind the art and what their motivations are.” Finally, the tour concludes “in a former abandoned margarine factory in the district of Lichtenberg where you will get the opportunity to paint and receive instructions on various street art and graffiti techniques from both local and international artists. You’ll then get to make your very own canvas piece to take home with you as a memento of this truly Berlin experience!”

Photo I

Photo Credit: Wynter Haley Scott

Wynter Haley Scott is a senior at Colorado College, where she studies Political Science and Sociology. Wynter Haley is originally from Memphis, Tennessee, but came to the Colorado College because of its unique block plan. During her spare time, Wynter Haley enjoys reading books, watching Netflix movies, and playing with her puppy, Meela. This was only Wynter Haley’s second trip outside of the country, but she chose this class because she has always been interested in Germany’s rich and complex history.

Photo III

Photo Credit: Wynter Haley Scott

Joining Wynter Haley in her discussion are Anabel Simotas—a New York City native and sophomore at Colorado College majoring in History, Political Science, and Classics, and Maya Littlejohn—a Brooklyn native and junior at Colorado College majoring in Race, Ethnicity, & Migration Studies.

NOTE: The photo credit for the featured image also belongs to Wynter Haley Scott.

 

Some Final Thoughts on the 2017 #FemGeniusesInBerlin

 

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp (Zlevor)

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp [Photo Credit: Annie Zlevor]

By Annie Zlevor

Throughout this trip, I encountered many difficult questions that I have been struggling to answer. After three weeks of exploring Berlin, meeting with local activists, visiting museums, and attending walking tours, I find myself only a little closer to understanding their answers. More often than not, my experiences have left me with new questions, wishing I could spend more time in Berlin. On my final day in the city, I would like to consider these questions and reflect on how my recent experiences have allowed me to more critically examine them. I hope to apply what I have learned in the course and continue furthering my understanding of identities, forms of oppression, and memorials.

First, I want to consider our navigation of identities and subjectivities. How do we see ourselves and acknowledge how others see us? This question has helped me reflect more deeply on my own positionality and how society chooses to perceive it. In the spaces I have been welcomed into during this trip, it was important for me to understand how my own experiences exist in relation to the experiences of others. Having a greater awareness of this has better enabled me to listen critically and appreciate the narratives people share. Therefore, I discovered that my primary role ought to be that of a curious listener. This blog serves as an extension of this curiosity and as an ongoing attempt to understand the marginalized communities of Berlin and my role in it.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Zlevor)

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe [Photo Credit: Annie Zlevor]

After speaking with local activists, I began to question how and when people decide to confront forms of oppression and when they choose to affirm or challenge stereotypes. These questions reminded me of our “Rethinking Masculinities” panel and our discussion with Post-War Generation Black German Women. Spending time with Black and Turkish activists in Berlin has allowed me to better understand how individuals chose to deal with racism and sexism. While each experience is unique to the individual, it was clear that in their navigation of public space, they are never divorced from activism. As Musa Okwonga plainly stated, “You’re Black all the time in Berlin.” And although it is the Afro-German’s right not be discriminated against and exhibit self-determination, they must to spend their life in opposition to racism. They are not getting paid to spend their time confronting oppression, yet the burden so greatly lies on them.

How people choose to confront different forms of oppression also reminded me of our discussion with Salma about their work with Gladt and SAWA. I felt that Salma consciously and efficiently navigated what needed to be achieved in their own fight against racism and sexism. Although it is exhausting work, it seems as if they effectively prioritize their goals when trying to combat oppression in a community. As someone who works day and night to support queer communities in Berlin, Salma has to carefully decided how to spend their time. They described the sacrifices they had to make in order to achieve their short-term initiatives. For example, instead of spending their time arguing with the local government at the risk of receiving cuts to Gladt’s government funding, Salma decided to temporarily halt a particular kind of political activism. For the sake of Gladt, Salma now chooses to spend that time helping queer people secure a permanent place to live. While this achievement might not seem monumental to some, it is life-changing for those people who now have a place to sleep at night.

Memorial in Schöneberg (Mills)

Memorial in Schöneberg [Photo Credit: Nikki Mills]

Additionally, after visiting many museums and memorials, I hope to gain a greater understanding of how certain histories have been told. I personally need to take more time to consider who writes these stories. More specifically, I want to understand the implications for those who speak for themselves and those who are being spoken for. Also, it was important for me to learn more about what groups of people were involved in the creation of Jewish memorials. I was curious if Jewish-Germans often gave input on their construction and who decided what to include in it. As Sabine Offe writes in “Sites of Remembrance? Jewish Museums in Contemporary Germany,” “We do not know whether individuals, confronted with the obligation to remember, do indeed remember what they are supposed to” (79). However, while some forms of remembrance can be more accurate than others, figuring out a way to accurately commemorate an event such as the Holocaust is beyond complicated and nearly impossible to accomplish. As a result, I am reminded of the importance of looking at historical sites more critically. This causes me to further question how we decide to honor a community that is not monolithic. For instance, I hope to better understand how a memorial can erase the individual experiences of a population. As R. Ruth Linden describes in “Troubling Categories I Can’t Think Without: Reflections on Women in the Holocaust,” a generalized representation of a group of people “fails to be accountable to lives that are actually lived: situated in bodies with limited means of making sense of…world-historic events in which they participate as…cultural subjects” (27). As a result, this adds another layer to the complexities of memorials and how people choose to represent communities. I hope that we more often attempt to honor the experiences of individuals since it can be easy to erase these differences when trying to honor an entire group.

Unlike most of the Jewish memorials, there were two important instances during our trip where I noticed groups of people deliberately telling their own story: the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg (FHXB) Museum and the Roma and Sinti Historical Walking Tour. The FHXB Museum exhibit was a collaborative piece that the local community came together to create. They directly told the history of the district where generations of their own families grew up. I felt this participatory exhibit was representative of strong community relationships and also much more effective in the telling the histories they chose to portray. Additionally, the Roma and Sinti walking tour did much of the same work. The Roma high school students who led the tour self-organized and researched all the material presented. Further, when I asked the students what their parents thought about the tours they were giving, they responded, smiling: “Our families are very proud.” The energy and passion the students exhibited on the tour I feel could have been easily lost if non-Roma and Sinti people led it.

Roma and Sinti Memorial (Zlevor)

Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism [Photo Credit: Annie Zlevor]

Lastly, after three weeks of listening to and engaging with marginalized people in Berlin, I am left wondering how I can take what I have learned out into the world. Firstly, I hope to do this by recognizing the importance of going beyond academic work. While reading and discussing articles and books are beneficial in developing a basic understand of the material, the practical application of Feminist and Gender Studies outside the classroom is a hard-fought war. By spending time both inside and outside the classroom, I feel as if I can most effectively support marginalized communities and become more consciously aware of their situation. As Sidonia Blättler and Irene M. Marti describe in “Rosa Luxemburg and Hannah Arendt: Against the Destruction of Political Spheres of Freedom,” if people understand the complexities of human relationships, this subsequently “drives them toward solidarity with outcasts and emboldens them to a collective struggle against the oppressors” (89). I feel my future goal must be to join this collective struggle. By knowing my place and understanding my own identity in relation to others, I feel as if I can do this and support marginalized groups in their fight against forms of oppression.

Cheers

Photo Credit: Heidi R. Lewis

2017 FemGeniuses in Berlin Blog Index:
Click here to view a slideshow, and follow us on Instagram and Twitter to see even more pictures and videos!

#FemGeniusesInBerlin 2017: Our First Two Days” by Hailey Corkery
Taking Down The Wall of Religious Intolerance: Jewish History in Berlin” by Olivia Calvi
Gladt and SAWA with Salma: Representation in Political Social Work” by Nora Holmes
The Anne Frank Museum and It’s Place in Contemporary Germany” by Liza Bering
The Told and Untold Stories of Berlin: A Walk-Through History” by Talia Silverstein
Navigating White Spaces: An Intersectional Analysis of Activist Work by Men of Color” by Ryan Garcia
Africa in Wedding: Germany’s Colonial Past” by Jannet Gutierrez
A Young Jew’s First Week in Berlin” by Nikki Mills
A Permanent Home for Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg’s History: The FHXB Museum” by Annie Zlevor
The Porajmos: The Hidden Narratives of the Roma and Sinti” by Hailey Corkery
Writing Ourselves into the Discourse: The Legacies of Audre Lorde and May Ayim” by Nikki Mills
A Day in Amsterdam: Seeking the Voices at the Margins” by Olivia Calvi
‘Nobody Flees Without a Reason’: A Walk Through Berlin’s Queer History” by Ryan Garcia
Memorialization: The Past in the Present and Why it is Important Today” by Liza Bering
ADNB des TBB: Intersectionality and Empowerment in Anti-Discrimination Support Work” by Nora Holmes
Mauerpark: Graffiti as Art” by Jannet Gutierrez

To read and/or listen to the finales and view the indices and slideshows for previous FemGeniuses in Berlin, click here


Annie Zlevor Blog PhotoAnnie Zlevor is a rising junior from the shores of Lake Michigan in Racine, Wisconsin. She is an Organismal Biology & Ecology major and a Feminist & Gender Studies minor. Annie is also a pre-medicine student, and hopes to attend medical school. In her free time, Annie enjoys eating Lebanese food, going fishing with her family, and taking lots of naps. Currently, you can find her spending some time outside the lab learning about Berlin’s hidden histories. She is excited to be exploring Germany for the first time and hopes you enjoy reading about her experiences.