Mauerpark: Graffiti as Art

Berlin Massive (Gutierrez)

Photo Credit: Jannet Gutierrez

By Jannet Gutierrez

On the tram ride to Mauerpark, our second to last “official” group activity, I noticed that a pretty substantial percentage of the Berlin Wall was still up. This area seemed to serve as a tourist attraction; I saw several tour groups being led from one area of the wall to another. It was interesting to see that in the places where the wall wasn’t present, there were poles that had served as foundation for the wall. This really seemed to reinforce Berlin as a physical symbol for World War II. Mauerpark, German for “wall park,” was a former part of the Berlin wall. The majority of the park, now covered in trees and grass, actually used to be inside the “death zone” of the border. Now its serves as the venue for picnics, concerts, and a weekly flea market.

In order to get to the section of the wall we were going to be painting, we had to walk through the park and up a small incline. As we reached the top, a strong smell of spray paint greeted us. This part of the wall in Mauerpark, right behind a soccer stadium, serves as a place where all kinds of people can express themselves creatively. Our instructor Pekor talked to us before we began. He is the Vice President of Berlin Massive, a non-profit organization that focuses on providing Berlin youth with cultural and political education. He talked a little bit about the criminal stigma surrounding graffiti. Personally, he doesn’t see it as a criminal action. Instead, he described graffiti as a way to reclaim the city. However, graffiti in the whole of Berlin is illegal, and we were surprised to learn that it sometimes carries a maximum sentence of 2 years in jail! This itself is pretty difficult to believe, considering how rich Berlin is in its graffiti culture. Our conversation with Pekor ended with his statement that Berlin was “getting a little boring” regarding graffiti art, which he attributed to gentrification, a large concern we’ve been exploring in this class. I can definitely see how gentrification can have such a large impact on graffiti culture. The need to have “picture perfect” buildings, free of any markings that might signal “trouble,” causes more strict enforcement of graffiti regulations. However, considering the push back from the community that gentrification has been getting, I think that Berlin will long continue to be a large influence on street art culture.

Ponchos

Photo Credit: Heidi R. Lewis

To begin our workshop, we first had a small rundown of what we were going to write (Dirty Work!) and how we should handle the spray paint. We put on our protective gear—ponchos, masks, and gloves—and we each picked a letter to do. After a demonstration and a quick practice run, we each drew a quick outline of our letter. It was really great to see how different each of us drew our letters. Some were simple and understated, while others were done with a flourish. After that, Pekor came around and outlined our letters with black. We were then able to add details to our letters and color them in. We finished our masterpiece by having Pekor add finishing touches that really made it look professional.

According to Jonathan Jones in “Thierry Noir: The First Graffiti Artist Fired Up by the Berlin Wall,” the Berlin wall froze time. He claims it was “the most visible and symbolic anguish of the Cold War.” I could definitely feel this when passing by the parts of the wall with no graffiti on our way to Mauerpark. The bareness and austerity of the wall really gives a sense of anxiousness and isolation synonymous with the Cold War. As Pekor noted, graffiti—especially on the Berlin Wall—is a strong and poignant way to reclaim a space and avoid feelings of impotence that could have been felt because of the Wall. To go along with this, nothing in this particular part of the Berlin Wall is permanent—all the art will get painted over. The actual wall has become more paint than wall. In fact, on parts of it, one can see the layers and layers of paint underneath. Although this is melancholy in the fact some of the art will never be seen again, there is also something optimistic about this. Because nothing is permanent, the possibility for change is always present. The fact that thought-provoking art will never be seen again is also beautiful in its own way. The non-permanence and ever-changing characteristic of this area is also reminiscent of Berlin graffiti artist Linda’s Ex. He appeared on the Berlin graffiti scene and, according to Simon Arms in “The Heritage of Berlin Street Art and Graffiti Scene,” had “success because he communicated with and responded to his audience almost every day.” Similarly, Mauerpark converses with societal issues and events. Because it is a space reclaimed by the people of the community, they have the ability to express their own views on a society that is always changing. This is why starting dialogue using an easily accessible medium—in this case street art—is so important.

Berlin Massive II (Gutierrez)

Photo Credit: Jannet Gutierrez

Mauerpark reminds me of the East Side Gallery, where artists took back the Berlin Wall and the freedom that was lost in its building. Many artists were commissioned to paint something on a section of the wall that wasn’t destroyed. This is an interesting fact because, according to Arms, more traditional artists “argue that street art derives its power from being on the margins of society; only from the outside can they address problems within it.” By commissioning many artists to participate in something like this, graffiti no longer resides on the margins of society. In fact, the tours about the graffiti of the city truly illustrate how Berlin has built a culture around street art and graffiti. While other cities choose to be strict about graffiti, I feel like Berlin has definitely embraced this alternative culture.

However, if we agree with the traditionalists view of street art as getting its power from being on the edge of society, we can extend this to more than graffiti. For example, this idea of being an outsider as a positive thing that can be powerful and create change is echoed in Jürgen Lemke’s “Gay and Lesbian Life in East German Society Before and After 1989.” Here, he writes, “Being gay is an opportunity, under certain provisions of a dictator- ship it can be the door to resistance” (34). A major theme of this whole class has been just that—empowering marginalized groups so that they can embrace agency and create change for themselves. We clearly saw this when we spoke with Salma Arzouni about her work with Gladt and SAWA during the first week. We also saw this when we met with Celine Barry who works for the ADNB des TBB. Instead of being told what to do, marginalized people who work with these organizations are empowered to choose how they want to deal with a situation.

I would like to conclude by acknowledging what a unique and incredible experience it was to be able to make our mark, as transient as it was, on Berlin for the short time we were here. Self-expression is such a powerful tool that some people take for granted. It is incredible to have been here in Berlin, where people didn’t have even have the luxury of such kinds of self-expression just 30 years ago. It truly illustrates the need to take advantage of situations like this in order to be able to hear and appreciate as many voices as possible.

Berlin Massive III (Gutierrez)

Photo Credit: Jannet Gutierrez


Gutierrez

Jannet Gutierrez, class of 2019, is a Neuroscience major at Colorado College. She is also planning on minoring in German, having studied German all throughout high school. After going to Germany for the first time in 2014, she became interested in German culture, especially the diversity of large cities such as Berlin. At CC, she works for the Theater Department and plays the violin in the orchestra.

Superqueeroes at the Schwules* Museum

By Grace Montesano

IMG_0500The Museum

Our guide, Hannes, was one of the exhibit curators and began the tour with some background information on the museum. The Schwules Museum* was founded 30 years ago by three white German gay men who were working at the Berlin Museum and wanted to establish a permanent museum devoted to gay history. “Schwule” means gay in German, and Hannes noted that, similarly to “gay” in English, this word had been (and continues to be) used in a derogatory many, but that many in the LGBTQIA community, including the museum, were reclaiming it.

Hannes also told us why there is an asterisk following the museum name. In 2008, the Board of Directors decided that they wanted to open up the museum for the rest of the LGBTQIA community, considering that it had focused primarily on the history of white, cisgender, gay men up to that point. Borrowed from something the trans community was doing in the U.S., the asterisk denotes that even though the name of the museum is specific to gay men, the museum itself is inclusive of many queer identities.

IMG_0477This strategy can be problematized through an examination of liberal politics. Many organizations that are marginalized sometimes feel they must expand the scope of their organization either to give the appearance of progress or out of a genuine desire to include other marginalized people. These both stem from liberal understandings of “inclusivity” and “diversity.” Black feminists have been critical of this notion for years, especially concerning white feminism. First, because other marginalized groups often have their own thing going on (Hannes mentioned that German lesbians have a more extensive archive that predates the Schwules Museum* by ten years), and second, because assimilation is not a tactic that helps the most marginalized, but rather a tactic that helps those complicit in existing power structures to maintain power. Additionally, “trans*” has been changed in the U.S., because it implies that anyone who is not binary/passing/post-op is conditionally trans.

In many ways, however, this is working quite well. For example, all the signs in the Superqueeroes exhibit use the “gender gap,” which resists how certain German words are gendered by replacing part of the word with an underscore. In addition, the exhibit featured several trans artists and the rest seemed to be almost equally about lesbians and gay men. Another exhibit that we stopped in briefly at the end was art entirely done by trans artists. While not perfect, this is in many ways a step above similar attempts in the U.S.

IMG_0484Although most of the comics in the exhibition are actually American, there were some interesting historical parallels that seemed relevant to Germany and other parts of Europe. Hannes told us about the comic burnings between 1945 and 1955 in the U.S., during which people would publicly burn piles of comic books. Much of this stemmed from author Frederic Wertham, who wrote Seduction of the Innocent in order to argue that comic books were turning the children into criminals. While Hannes didn’t mention this explicitly, his discussion made me think about the Nazi book burnings happening around the same time. As Erik Jensen writes in “The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness: Gays, Lesbians, and the Memory of Nazi Persecution,” “While the American gay community often employed the Jewish Holocaust as a template for understanding the persecution of homosexuals, the German gay community generally avoided this comparison” (342). The collective memory of American gays concerning the treatment of homosexuals during the Holocaust is very different from the German understanding. Perhaps that is why this parallel seemed so obvious to me.

By Queers, For Queers

Throughout the exhibition, there were two main categories of comics that were shown: comics that were written by queers for queers, in which a significant part of the story line has to do with queer identity, and mainstream comics that incorporate queer characters as a side note to a larger plot line. These categories are both significant, especially given the influence of the Comics Code Authority (CCA). Between 1955 and 2011, the CCA (a private board that governed all the mainstream publishing houses) dictated what types of content could be in comics. The list of banned subjects included any type of explicit sexuality, drugs, violence, the words “horror” and “terror,” undead characters, and critiques of military/police/judges. Further, homosexual content was not allowed by the CCA until 1989. In response, the 1960s brought about an explosion of underground comics that used “comix” instead of “comics” to denote the change.

IMG_0482Within this underground movement, there was yet another split as queers and women grew tired of the sexism, racism, and heterosexuality that dominated the underground scene. Comix publishers, such as “Wimmens Comix” and “Tits & Clits” were founded to counter this phenomenon. An important note is that in 1972, a woman named Trina Robbins created the first gay comic “Sandy Comes Out.” As our friends at the ADEFRA meeting pointed out, lesbians are always at the beginning of a movement, despite dominant groups trying to push them from the front lines.

In the newer era of web comics, one person making a name for herself is Scout Tran-Caffee (Dax). She is a non-binary, trans woman of color who has created comics that transcend the page and are only possible in the virtual parallel universe. This unapologetic love for the trans experience is amazing, especially when compared to the stale decades old statements that Marvel is trying to make about sexuality.

Mainstream Comics

IMG_0485There is an absolutely striking difference between the levels of political thought and storytelling in the mainstream comics and comix. The former use a quite different parallel universe in which gay sexual encounters exist between superheroes as a way to simultaneously draw in queer readers while retaining their (presumably) heterosexual audience (a tactic used in almost every form of media, commonly referred to as “queer-baiting”). Sadly, the most progressive comic we looked at featured Wonder Woman officiating a lesbian wedding and then explaining her actions by saying, “Where I come from it’s not gay marriage, it’s just marriage.” This sort of assimilationist, liberal language illustrates the significance of many queer artists saying that they are queer and actively queering the way comics are written and produced.

These comics also incorporate the problematic notion of “coming out.” Hannes repeatedly referred to the “coming out page” of a comic. As noted by many scholars, the conceptualization of “outness” is a Western construct that is often used as a litmus test for progressivism. Within the Western context, coming out is often problematized for perpetuating compulsory heterosexuality. As Jürgen Lemke writes about the coming out process in East Berlin before the Wall fell, “The coming-out generally catapults her or him…into the cold, hard world. Very often a banishment from the family unit will be the harsh result” (33). The “coming out pages” for these superheroes are only necessary because until that page is created, they are heterosexual by default. This marks another stark difference regarding comics being written by queers, for queers, because operating with a knowledge base of other sexualities changes the way you write about and conceptualize those sexualities in media you are producing.

Conclusion

IMG_0498Hannes informed us that this was the first exhibition about queer comics in all of Europe. It is quite obviously a highly interesting field and many books could be (and probably have been) written about it. The key lessons I took away from the experience are that independent artists have more political freedom, which almost always means they produce more interesting art. The other thing I took away is that critical consumption of media is important and should be a constant process, but that sometimes it is just pretty cool to see Wonder Woman as a lesbian.


MontesanoGrace Montesano is a rising senior majoring in Feminist and Gender Studies as well as Political Science at Colorado College. They love discussing politics, and are known for making obscure references to various media that no one else has heard of. Grace is skeptical of the 9/11 story we have all been told, and believes the jury is definitely still out about the existence of mermaids.

“Hier ist’s richtig!”: Creating and Dominating Queerness in Berlin

By Spencer Spotts

IMG_9355Any queer-identifying individual searching for an LGBTQIA+ friendly city to visit or move to will repeatedly find Berlin listed as one of the top ten “gay friendly” cities. While it may be true that Berlin appears to accept and embrace queerness much more strongly than other locations around the world, one must also be critical of how queerness in Berlin operates, who controls and defines “acceptable” queerness, and which queer narratives dominate cultural and public discourses. So, unless your queerness manifests itself as a white, gay cisgender man, you might want to pause before purchasing your one-way AirBerlin ticket.

IMG_9352The FemGeniuses spent our last Friday afternoon on a “Queer Berlin” Walking Tour (primarily in Schöneberg), one of the many tours offered by Original Berlin Walks. We spent four hours traveling between different neighborhoods in Berlin to better understand queer history and culture in the city. As a gay man, I was drooling over most of the sites we encountered and stories we heard. However, I also worked to remain critical of the narrative. Although the history and sites were intellectually stimulating, I found myself more drawn to the way queer spaces have been created, defined, challenged, and destroyed in Berlin.

image2For example, one of the earlier stops we visited was the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime. This monument, located in Tiergarten, was inaugurated in 2008 to commemorate those who were persecuted by the Nazis due to their sexuality. The large concrete cube slightly resembles the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and has a window carved into it where viewers can look inside to watch a short clip of same-sex couples kissing. Erik Jensen explores this history in “The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness: Gays, Lesbians, and the Memory of Nazi Persecution,” commenting on the differences found in the persecution of gays and lesbians during the Nazi regime, as well as how they are remembered (such as the Pink Triangle). He writes, “During much of the 1970s, lesbians shared the pink triangle and its memory of persecution with gay men, and lesbian activists played a role in promoting it. Increasingly, however, lesbians felt overlooked or consciously ignored by gay men in the movement” (333). Similarly, this memorial originally only showcased gay male couples kissing:

After campaigns and protests, the memorial was changed approximately 18 months later to include lesbian couples. Such dominance over the definition of queerness by white gay cisgender men is incredibly present throughout Berlin, and it especially continued throughout our tour.

IMG_9360A significant part of the tour entailed hearing about individuals and their personal stories/experiences. These figures included Klaus Wowereit, the city’s first openly gay mayor, Christopher Isherwood, and the Prussian King Frederick the Great. Another very significant figure we learned about was Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, a gay Jewish doctor who developed the Institute for Sexual Research, and contributed to gender and queer theory. In “Gay German History: Future Directions?,” Clayton Whisnant argues that “much research has been writing the history of the first homosexual rights movement […] Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld and his Scientific-Humanitarian Committee has garnered much attention” (2). Clearly, Dr. Hirschfeld played a significant role in the development of queerness in Berlin. However, every single personal narrative we heard about focused on a white, gay man. To the credit of the tour guide, issues of racism and sexism were occasionally addressed when discussing certain companies or events. However, the tour itself still catered to the very narrative that it seems to want to avoid and possibly even deconstruct.

IMG_9363The point of this essay is not necessarily to criticize the tour, partially because the tour itself was great. It was very informative, and our tour guide was one of my favorite, and I think most of us genuinely enjoyed this afternoon. Instead, I want to consider this tour as a model for how the dominant queer narrative in Berlin has been constructed and continues to be reproduced. Towards the end of our tour, we learned about the slogan for a transvestite bar that is no longer in existence, the El Dorado. Their slogan reads, “Hier ist’s richtig!,” which translates to “Here it’s okay!” However, these words carry a certain meaning, and are positioned in a specific social and cultural location. Who is allowed into this space, both literally and figuratively? Whose queerness is okay? Who controls power over queer spaces?

IMG_9374In “Gay and Lesbian Life in East German Society before and after 1989,” Jürgen Lemke argues, “The fall of the Wall changed [the] situation completely” for LGBTQ communities in Berlin (36). And although his argument may be true, I wonder—for whom did it change? What narrative was rewritten and what narrative was buried deeper? Although the focus of the tour was to explore the history and culture of queerness in Berlin, we walked away also having unearthed the strands of sexism and racism deeply engrained in the city’s mainstream gay culture. And out of all the moments on this trip, it was this tour that I was reminded of America the most.


Spencer IISpencer Spotts is a rising junior at Colorado College, with a major in Feminist & Gender Studies and a minor in Race & Ethnic Studies. His hometown is Thornton, Colorado, and he is a first generation student. Spencer currently serves as the co-chair of the Colorado College Student Organization for Sexual Safety (SOSS) and hopes to pursue a career in sexual violence and sexual health education for LGBTQIA+ communities. His research interests include sexual violence, emotional partner abuse, effemiphobia in queer communities, and the experiences of LGBT youth. He also has a background in theatre and occasionally directs productions at Colorado College. He works as the Open House Intern for the Colorado College Office of Admission and occasionally writes for The Catalyst independent student newspaper. Last but not least, Spencer is a proud and active Starbucks Gold Card Member.

What is Racism?: A Discussion with Sandrine Micossé-Aikins

By Jade Frost

IMG_8785On this sunny Thursday morning, our class filed into the room, with smiles on our faces and coffees in our hands, where Sandrine Micossé-Aikins was awaiting for us. Our jet lag was behind us, and we were ready to listen to as she started her talk by telling us about how most plays, especially those that are considered anti-racist, are performed in black face. She also told us that the use of blackface in plays is considered to be normal. The room gasped when hearing this, and we were hanging on her every word. In “Reclaiming Innocence,” Sharon Dodua Otoo writes, “It is this ‘normalization’ which is perhaps the biggest failure of this production. A claim to universality must be able to incorporate the visions and perspectives of those who do not fit these norms—especially if the production claims to be precisely about them and especially if the ensemble claims to take their issues seriously.” Along these lines, Micossé-Aikins continued on telling us about the play I’m Not Rappaport, and showed us a picture of a white man with a big grin on his face standing in front of the play poster which showed two white men, one in black face. The whole class was taken aback by this picture, and we were even more disgusted by images from the second play, Unschuld (Innocence).

IMG_8789Unschuld was a play that was done in black face, which caused quite a stir in the community. As a result, Bühnenwatch (Stagewatch) organized a protest during which 42 people came to the play and left when the two actors came on stage in their black face. The producer and director of the play had to temporarily stop the show, because the actors were in disbelief. Afterwards, the manager of theatre contacted Bühnenwatch, and a discussion about Unschuld was held with the cast about the problem with black face. Micossé-Aikins, who is a part of the Bühnenwatch, told us, “Well, we opened up the discourse, and although [change] is super slow, it is going somewhere.” As a result of this conversation, the cast of Unschuld stopped using blackface, but there were still some issues going on. Starting out with chuckle, Micossé-Aikins said, “We [in Germany] are 30 years behind almost everything. I mean the ‘Best Play’ award went to a play that was done in black face and went as far as to use cushions to make the Black woman character’s butt look bigger.”

IMG_8793The whole class was in disbelief in various ways, some shook their head while others laughed with Micossé-Aikins. This could be seen as an example of Pierre Bourdieu’s “gentle violence” that is defined in Maisha Eggers’ “Knowledges of (Un-)Belonging: Epistemic Change as a Defining Mode for Black Women’s Activism in Germany,” in which she claims that “‘gentle violence’ (soft violence, soft power) signals oppositional possibilities of disrupting and dismantling dominant and repressive systems and symbolic orders through critical scholarship.” When asked about what the Black actors thought about the theatre community in Germany, she stated that it is very hard for them, because they almost never get hired and when they do, it is for stereotypical, supporting roles. This reminds me of Jürgen Lemke’s “Gay and Lesbian Life in East German Society before and after,” in which he writes, “Often we find ourselves missing emotion, we have a need for solidarity and closeness. Many of us withdraw to our old positions, and become observers.”

IMG_8794The discussion ended with Micossé-Aikins talking about racism in other forms of art. She posed the question, “What is racism really?” and continued, “No one is really talking about it Germany. Someone does artwork thinking that it is fine and appropriate, meanwhile some people could see it as racism not art.” In the introduction to The Little Book of Big Visions, she writes, along with Sharon Dodua Otoo, “The vocabulary of resistance is merely a means to an end and not the end in itself.” Sandrine Micossé-Aikins’ words affected us all. It was in that session with her that I saw a parallel between American and German ideology of Blacks and how they are treated. I also noticed a new perspective on racism, art, and discourse. Not too many people are choosing to engage in the dialogue that is happening and are, therefore, kept uninformed. Micossé-Aikins is right that Germany may be slow, but they are going somewhere. Who knows where the direction will lead this country, but we can only hope for the better.


IMG_8839Jade Frost is a rising junior at Colorado College from Salt Lake City, Utah. She is double majoring in Feminist & Gender Studies and English Literature, with the hopes of becoming a journalist or working at a publishing firm. She is involved with Black Student Union and The Cipher magazine on campus. Jade’s hobbies are reading, creative writing, binging on Netflix, going for drives, dancing spontaneously and hanging out with friends and family. She enjoys discussing topics such as Black feminism, women with disabilities, and social constructs. Her favorite TV Shows are Law and Order: SVU and Gilmore Girls, and her favorite movies are Love & Basketball and Mulan. Jade loves pretty much all types of music, but her top hits are “Ladies First” by Queen Latifah, “Video” by India.Arie, and “A Change is Gonna Come” covered by Leela James. Jade is excited for this course, so she can learn and discover new things.