Some Final Thoughts on the 2016 #FemGeniusesInBerlin

By Claudia Harrison

IMG_0094Our last Friday morning was especially colorful. The FemGenuises met in a familiar setting, Mauerpark, for a Graffiti workshop with Berlin Massive. Our instructor, Pekor Gonzles, gave us a little history lesson before we began. Mauerpark translates to “Wall Park,” so called because the site was formerly part of the Berlin Wall, specifically its Death Strip. “Right here was where you got shot,” Gonzales recounted about the once heavily-guarded area. Today, the Mauerpark is one of the city’s green spaces, very popular with young people. We had experienced this for ourselves the Sunday before, lying in the field next to the Mauerpark Flea Market, where we saw lots of people our age laughing, playing basketball, and picnicking in the grass. Often, performers take advantage of the laid-back setting, and the amphitheater’s karaoke draws large crowds every Sunday afternoon.

Graffiti is now legal on this remaining strip of wall, which is covered in bright, beautiful designs that change from day to day. Still, while Berlin has come to be known for its graffiti, Gonzales explained that it is still considered a young movement. The oldest people he knows who participate are around forty-five. This is because modern graffiti, popularized in the subways of New York City in the 1960s, did not really appear in Berlin until the late 1970s. He also tells us that graffiti culture has always been competitive, with artists writing over each other striving to create the largest, boldest tags. But it has also been inclusive. Anyone with talent can have their works recognized. For example, as Simon Arms writes in “The Heritage of Berlin Street Art and Graffiti Scene,” the first graffiti artists in Germany “weren’t ‘real’ Berliners, but outsiders: draft resisters, anarchist punks and Turkish migrants. They either opened businesses or formed squats and, with no resistance from the West German government, began turning walls into monuments to their own thoughts and beliefs.”

IMG_0124Because graffiti is largely anonymous, it can be used as a sort of secret code between the artist and her community. Thierry Noir is thought to be one of the first to do this, using the Berlin Wall as a canvas for his cartoonish creations. Influenced by classic painters such as Pablo Picasso, as well as pop-culture icons like Lou Reed and David Bowie, Noir left colorful, blocky images that represented the resistance to the dark shadows cast by the Cold War. Noir and Christophe-Emmanuel Bouchet began painting in April 1984 and continued without pause until “the fall” in November 1989. In “Thierry Noir: The First Graffiti Artist Fired Up by the Berlin Wall,” Jonathan Jones writes, “The end of the Wall in 1989 was a sunny day for humanity. But in its monstrous strangeness, this scar running through a city had provided artists, novelists, musicians and film-makers with a dark subject matter and surreal inspiration so often lacking in the safe, consumerist world of the postwar democracies.” Traces of his work are still visible at the East Side Gallery of the Wall.

Graffiti has historically reflected the fringes of a community, voicing their concerns and forcing the minorities in control to listen to the majority. The goal of this re-purposed stretch of the Berlin Wall was to “make something against racism and for equality,” Gonzales told us. He added, “We are trying to create something accessible to everybody to improve the city.” Since street art originated in the inner city, it has a long multi-cultural background and has often contained anti-racist messages, used to transform spaces from oppressive to liberating for the people within. Its non-traditional form gives it more room for innovation than other art forms as well as inviting deep contemplation. Along these lines, according to Arms, modern street artist Mein Lieber Prost, “positions his characters to look like they are taking in their surroundings, laughing aloud at something happening right at that moment. It is natural, then, on seeing Prost’s characters pointing at them, for people to wonder what the joke is, asking themselves: is it me? Each character forces passersby to question their surroundings and (hopefully, if they don’t want to leave paranoid) to find a satisfactory answer.”

IMG_0173After hearing the history of street art in Berlin, it was thrilling to try it for ourselves. Gonzales gave us a brief tutorial on how to hold the cans of spray paint, and cloaked in protective ponchos, masks, and gloves, we went straight to work. Although I do think I improved by the end of the session, graffiti is much harder than it looks. Getting a clear, straight line requires a swift, steady hand that always knows exactly where to go next. Gonzales’ talent and style after years of experience was fascinating to watch. When showing us how to make a letter he drew a magnificent “S,” shrugged and said, “This is just the classic kind of flourish an artist would add to a letter, but I’m sure you can get more creative than that.” Afterwards, he outlined the entire background in thirty seconds. Each of us had our own letter to design and lots of background to fill in. Without trying, our piece came together as a rainbow of color.

For our design, the FemGeniuses semi-ironically decided to paint the phrase “Stay Woke” adorned with a hash tag and two large exclamation points to give each student their own letter or symbol to paint. Behind the rainbow letters are purple clouds and rain, a tribute to Prince, who died this past April. His legacy as a musician, defying traditional conventions of race, gender, and sexuality, is one we were all excited to honor.  Underneath the clouds are pieces of a broken island with the ground underneath revealed to be multi-colored. We never discussed the exact symbolism of the piece, but it lends itself to the interpretation of the passer-by. On either side are the designs of Chase and AJ Lewis, two emerging artists with very different styles. The design turned out beautifully, in large part thanks to Pekor’s finishing touches, and we were all in awe of the result. To think, the FemGeniuses of 2016 have our own section of the Berlin Wall! By next year, the message will be entirely painted over but the layers of paint remain a part of the wall itself along with so many others.

IMG_0192 (2)In the evening we gathered at the docks for our final farewell cruise. Dressing up, for the first time since our group dinner on the first Monday of class, gave the whole trip the kind of circular feel that I relish, and everyone seemed relaxed and happy once again. On the boat, we talked, laughed, and reminisced in between a few facts delivered intermittently by the automated tour’s loudspeaker. Over fruity summer cocktails, we watched the sun go down and cool breeze set in, and I relished the bittersweet feeling of knowing I’d never be in Berlin for the same reason or with the same people ever again. I thought back to some of my favorite moments:

Having met so many brave, intelligent, passionate people in the last few weeks, I am inspired to try to be more heroic in my own life. On this trip I’ve learned that fighting oppression requires determination and the ability to think critically about one’s society but most of all it requires heart. Building communities out of compassion and empathy is essential for the well-being of humanity and ourselves. I leave Berlin knowing that my experiences here and the people I’ve made connections with will fuel a lifetime of activism.

2016 FemGeniuses in Berlin Blog Index:
Also, click here to view a slideshow of the course.

Introducing the 2016 #FemGeniusesInBerlin” by Heidi R. Lewis
The Ghost of the Third Reich: Educating Ourselves about Berlin” by Ivy Wappler
The Wall” by Nitika Reddy
Difference is Key: Audre Lorde and Afro-Germans” by Amy Valencia
Jewish History Walking Tour” by Amanda Cahn
Katharina Oguntoye and the Joliba Intercultural Network” by Grace Montesano
Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years” by Cheanna Gavin
Marketing Narratives and Misplacing Others: Queer Berlin Tour” by Amelia Eskenazi
Generation ADEFRA 2.0: How Creativity & Collectivity Intersect” by Alejandra Hernandez
Queer Spaces and Clubbing Culture in Berlin” by Claudia Harrison
Activism: To the Blogosphere and Beyond!” by Lila Schmitz
Little Istanbul: Our Walking Tour through Kreuzberg” by Amy Valencia
Witnessing Powerful Art: A Conversation with the Editors of Winter Shorts” by Ivy Wappler
Superqueeroes at the Schwules* Museum” by Grace Montesano
Hidden and Recovered Narratives: Women in the Center of Berlin Tour” by Amelia Eskenazi
Our Second Weekend in Berlin” by Amanda Cahn
Beware of the Street Signs: The Hidden Realities of Colonialism in Berlin” by Baheya Malaty
Reaching Out in the Fight against Violence” by Alejandra Hernandez
Building a Community of Voices from Silence” by Lila Schmitz
Empowerment, or Help as Needed” by Nitika Reddy
Challenging the Discourse of ‘Ally’” by Cheanna Gavin
The Power of Our Own Spaces: A Conversation on Colonialism and Belonging with Iris Rajanayagam, Melody Ledwon, and Mona El Omari” by Baheya Malaty

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


HarrisonClaudia Harrison is a senior ClassicsHistoryPolitics major from Washington, D.C. Her second day of college, she decided to spend the next four years trying to understand all of human history and thought. While she’s still actively failing at this task, she believes taking her first Feminist and Gender Studies class this summer may be a step in the right direction. In her free time, she can be found reading obsessively, over-analyzing TV shows, and boring her friends with useless facts about everything.

Resistance through Art: The FemGenuises Do Graffiti with Berlin Massive

By DeAira Cooper

IMG_1361Today, our class was up bright and early, as we were excited for our activities today. Some of us were lucky to make the bus this morning, as we chased it down the street knowing that another would not be coming for a while and that we could not be late. After getting on the bus panting and out of breath, we were on our way to our first destination: a graffiti workshop with Berlin Massive in Mauerpark. Once we arrived, we met up with Heidi, the rest of our group, and our graffiti instructors/educators Pekor and Marco. Before we could get started, Pekor spoke briefly about the history of graffiti in Berlin, as well as how the Berlin Massive came about.

IMG_1359Many argue that the contemporary graffiti movement in Berlin was inspired, in large part, by Thierry Noir, whose art consisted of these block-like, colorful characters. According to Jonathan Jones in “Thierry Noir: The First Graffiti Artist Fired up by the Berlin Wall,” “Part of the Berlin Wall is recreated in his gallery show to try to bring to life that moment in the 80s when cracks were appearing in the edifice of the Soviet Union and its satellite states, and artists, led by Thierry Noir, were comically transforming the ugly symbol of the Cold War that ran through Berlin with a carnival of bright colours and visual gags” (22). This is important, because at that time, Noir didn’t know he was about to start what can be seen today as a social movement. There always has to be someone to take the first step, and Noir did just that.

IMG_9340Many artists followed in Noir’s footsteps with graffiti being their form of creativity and expression. Some of these artists include Linda’s Ex, XOOOOX, Tower, Alias, and Mien Lieber Prost whose work can be found all over the city. Regarding the relationship between graffiti and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Simon Arms writes, in “The Heritage of Berlin Street Art and Graffiti Scene,” After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the graffiti artists marched straight into East Germany…all of the areas that the military had occupied became a new playground for the Western artists and became a new world for the Eastern artists who joined them…It wasn’t that they were better artists, but they could express—with authority—the one concept close to the hearts of all people now living in the city: what it meant to be free” (2-3). Graffiti, then, became more than just a hobby; rather, it became a necessity for these artists to voice their freedom and speak against various forms of oppression, such as racism and capitalism.

IMG_1370Another movement that exploded during this time was hip-hop. Many people of color were excluded from particular facets of German culture, and American hip-hop became a vehicle through which people of color could voice their frustrations, lifestyles, and desires. As Heinz Ickstadt writes in “Appropriating Difference: Turkish German Rap,” hip-hop especially “lent itself to becoming a vehicle of ethnic minority and allied youth protest against…discrimination anywhere. British Black and Asian, Franco-Maghrebi, German Turkish, and other bi-cultural (or rather, in view of their appropriation of trappings of American culture, tricultural) rappers in Europe are seen and heard as ‘voices from the ethnic ghetto,’ speaking out on behalf of new generations of post-migrant ‘communities’” (574). It’s important, then, that artists are able to express themselves and speak out against the oppressions they face.

IMG_9341In keeping with this tradition, Berlin Massive was founded 11 years ago by people who wanted to express themselves and fight oppression in creative ways. They offer programs and workshops for youth and adult aspiring artists to learn graffiti, breakdance, beatbox, rap, and many more forms of hip-hop expression. They also participate in an exchange program with Italy, China, India, Russia, and other countries. Our class was fortunate to participate in today’s graffiti workshop.

Berlin MassivePekor is a very skilled artist, and he taught us the basics of forming graffiti letters on a blank canvas. We learned how to draw the letters, fill them in, add effects, and touch them up. Once we finished, we created a brilliant masterpiece showcasing the hashtag for this course: #FemGeniusesInBerlin. We were very proud of ourselves and this accomplishment, considering most of us don’t come from artistic backgrounds. It felt great to be able to leave our mark on the Berlin Wall, especially at the end of what has been an amazing and educational experience.

 


DeAiraDeAira Cooper is a Chicago girl living in Colorado. She is an Anthropology major and double minor in Theatre and Race & Ethnic Studies. She enjoys acting and doing comedy, and performs all types of comedy, including short and long-term improvisation, short skits, and sketches. She also writes a lot of her comedic sketches and monologues, and enjoys singing. You can often find her harmonizing with her friends or just creating new music. She’s just a down-to-earth lady always looking for the positives in a world full of negatives. She tries to stay optimistic at all times, and because of this, you’ll probably find her with a group of people making them laugh.