Girl Friend: A Critique of Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend”

For their final project in FG212 | RM200 | FM206 Critical Media Studies during Block 1 2023, Sam Asher, Latra Demaci, Marina LeVarn, and Clara Mizock critiqued print and audiovisual media for Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” and created new print and audiovisual media addressing their critiques.





















A Street Art Workshop with Berlin Massive

by Judinelly Gonzalez

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

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.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

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.

Photo Credit: Judinelly Gonzalez

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.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

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.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

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.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

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.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

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.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

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.

Photo Credit: Berlin Massive

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.

Photo Credit: Berlin Massive

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).

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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.

Queer Berlin Walking Tour w/ Mal Pool + the Schwules*Museum

by River Clarke

Photo Credit: River Clarke

What does queerness look like over time and in different contexts? That is a question I ask myself constantly and one that was on my mind during our session Thursday. Queerness cannot be defined by being put simply into one way of identity. Its fluidity allows for multiple histories to be recorded and various stories to be told. Berlin is a city that encapsulates and continues to situate itself in that complexity.

We started the day off with the Queer Walking Tour with Mal Pool at Karl-Heinrich-Ulrichs-Straße. They started off by explaining the historical background of Schöneberg, a neighborhood in West Berlin. Originally, it was a small town outside of Berlin that was mostly comprised of Muslim immigrants in the 1400s, and later in the 1600s, more Jewish immigrants moved to the town. Once the town became a part of Berlin, it continued to be a space known for its inclusivity. This history was able to be built upon for LGBTQIA+ people both in the existing immigrant communities and those moving in from outside.

The Karl-Heinrich-Ulrichs-Straße is now lined with various LGBTQIA+ non-profit organizations dedicated to helping and empowering queer people. The 1920s were a period of open queer expression; yet, when the Nazis came to power in 1934, queerness was criminalized, which lasted even after the end of World War II. It was not until the 1960s that the Gay Civil Rights Movement emerged in Berlin, which created the foundation for the queer infrastructure of Schöneberg. The street itself is named for Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who defined the term “third gender” in the face of the unaccepting Bavarian Government in the 1800s. Coming together and resisting is what made Schöneberg the place it is today. By centering queer life focused on everyday topics, Karl-Heinrich-Ulrichs-Straße has a lot to offer in terms of supporting LGBTQIA+ communities.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

We walked for a bit longer and stopped at the Magnus Apotheke named after Magnus Hirschfeld, who continued Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’s work on the “third gender” and proposed that gender is more of a spectrum. As a gay man, he also founded a group of scientists to investigate the discourse on why homosexuality is linked to mental illness. His film, Anders als die Andern, influentially depicted queer life beyond suicide. Although his film does depict suicide, Hirschfeld’s film inspired Coming Out, an Eastern German film that focuses on a troubled queer person before suicide occurs at all. As the Nazis rose to power, Hirschfeld was increasingly targeted. In 1920, he was attacked in Munich partially because of his film. They also destroyed his institute, and Hirschfeld fled from Germany to France shortly after. He passed away on his birthday on May 14, 1935. Hirschfeld’s work was an important foundation for conceptions of gender, and it still has impact today.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

The final stop we made was at the Pink Triangle Memorial at the Nollendorfplatz Station. Translated, it reads: “Beaten to death, silenced to death. To the homosexual victims of National Socialism.” Many queer people continued to face the effects of criminalization even after the Nazi regime ended. For example, some gay men had their apologies on behalf of the government regarded as invalid and were made to fulfill the rest of their sentences. It was not until the 1990s that all criminalization laws would be repealed, and even later in 2012 when amnesty to be granted. The late time frame for these actions resulted in many victims no longer living to see it through.

With the messaging and location of the memorial, it can be read that “its initiators wished to direct the memorial’s message inward, toward the gay community itself, in order to remind this urban enclave of the perils of political apathy,” as claimed by Erik N. Jensen in “The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness” regarding a similar memorial in Frankfurt (337). Schöneberg has many places where queer people can go beyond simply living life to enjoying it, and the memorial serves to remind of those who did not get to see it through. Despite being a city that many remark its pride for queer life, Berlin must acknowledge the historical tragedies that occurred.

Still, I continued to wonder about similar spaces in East Berlin. It is not that queer people did not live in East Berlin and make a life for themselves. As Jürgen Lemke states in “Gay and Lesbian Life in East German Society,” “Gays and Lesbians have developed an identity as outsiders. But they still don’t conceive of themselves as a minority, which even under so-called socialism has a right to a self-determined life” (35). I think it would have been interesting to examine life during and after the divide between East and West Berlin for LGBTQIA+ people, and it may reveal different ways of resisting compared to those in West Berlin.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

After walking around Schöneberg, the second part of our day was spent at the Schwules*Museum to see the “Encantadas” exhibit. The Schwules*Museum was founded in 1985, and, for the first 20 years, it was mainly focused on gay identity. Over the years, however, it has worked to become more inclusive and bring in other perspectives on LGBTQIA+ identity in their exhibits and archives. There are usually around ten exhibits a year, and they last for a minimum of 3-4 months.

“Encantadas” is an exhibit curated by three Northeastern Brazilian trans women: Sanni Est, A TRANSÄLIEN, and Ué Prazeres. The premise for the exhibit is based on knowledge that is passed down, performed, and gets lost easily. It is to be able to reflect on realities and questions that we may not be able to truly understand, and the curators did not create “Encantadas” to make sure everyone can do so. The title itself is based on the tradition of encantaria, which involves being engaged with mysteries and traditions that are not visible. Even before we could see into the exhibit, we were already immersed by the sound and music that was playing from the inside. They also had glasses of water with carbon sitting on top of tree stools and are meant as a way to cleanse the souls of those who walk by.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

The first thing I noticed about Jonas Van’s “Crystal Ages” were the teeth. They sparkled in various shapes and seemed to be what was humming the music through the installation. “Crystal Ages” was made using the teeth molds from five different trans* people, and each got to select which crystal they wanted the teeth to be cast in. Van wanted to add nuance to the usage of language and reflect on what can be read through saliva as DNA. They complicate the instability of words and go to something that does not lie – teeth.

Daniel Lie’s “I Won’t Look to the Abyss Anymore” focuses on decay, new life, transformation, and time. Originally, the installation looked different than when I saw it. I imagine that the liquid was contained inside the pots, the turmeric-dyed fabric was brighter, and the flowers were alive. Since I only get to see it once, I am glad it was the time that I did. The newness of Lie’s work had all worn away. The flowers were shriveled and limp, the pots spilled leaking liquid onto the floor, and the turmeric was fading. Lie comments on how objects, living or not, change over time and succumb to decay. But does decay always mean death? It can be a new way of being for an object and one that may complicate what it was before.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

As art curated for a German museum by three Brazilian trans women, “Encantadas” highlights the importance of understanding how queerness, transness, and more can change in different contexts. A transnational perspective is embedded into these artworks because they are made with the full nuances of their identities as trans Brazilian artists. What is considered valuable in face of decay may change and whose words are deemed important are various themes that we must grapple with as we see these works. They make viewers feel their impact on the exhibit starting with mirrored plaques. All the plaques of the installations are written on mirrors, so we are implicating ourselves in the space. It made me conscious of where I was standing, how I had to move to see what it was saying, and more. That reflection is vital. It is not there to make us fully understand but rather that we may not be able to. A lack of full understanding does not take away from art, and that is what “Encantadas” is asking us to sit with.

Being LGBTQIA+ does not have one single way of being. There is not a single fixed identity. It is messy, it is decaying, it is historical, it is the future, it is the present, and it is so much more than any one thing combined. The Queer Walking Tour and “Encantadas” are both examples of the complexities within being LGBTQIA+ and how they contribute nuanced narratives to Berlin.

River Clarke is a rising junior at Colorado College from Texas. They are also a Feminist and Gender Studies major and excited to be taking this course. When they are not in class, River can typically be found listening to music, singing, spending time with their friends, or sipping on tea. They are so excited to be in Berlin for the first time and have enjoyed all the experiences that they have had since arriving in the city. All the art that can be found around the city has excited them, especially as they learn more about it and its contexts.

A Conversation with Judy Lynne Fisher

by Riley Hester

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

Since the beginning of this course, Course Associate and former student of Dr. Heidi R. Lewis, Judy Lynne Fisher, has comforted me as a student new to Feminist and Gender Studies. As we spoke during our first class session on Black and transnational feminisms, I sat quietly in my seat, quickly realizing how naïve I was in my previous thinking about feminist movements and how I had neglected the idea and possibility of counternarratives. I was embarrassed at my ignorance, especially given my positionality as a white woman; yet, I felt compelled to voice my feelings of unfamiliarity to the class.

When I spoke, Fisher looked at me with empathy and understanding, listening closely and nodding her head. My anxieties lessened as I realized the classroom was a safe place for discussions such as this. Since that first encounter, I’ve been lucky enough to hear vulnerable stories from Fisher related to her experience as an Indigenous woman in academia and of her impressive motivation despite it all. I have appreciated her empathy and passion for Indigenous people and other minorities. I was not surprised to find these qualities evident in her presentation on Transnational Indigenous Feminism and her research on the topic of the relationships between Indigenous people and Germany.

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

She began her talk by clarifying terminology. Again, as someone with little knowledge of Indigenous communities, I sat next to her relieved to be getting a clearer understanding. Her explanations of certain terms ensured that everyone could refer to herself and her people properly. However, she clarified that since these terms have been thrown around by Non-Native people for so long and since Indigenous people don’t all have the same ideals, there will always be debates over “proper” usage. When it comes to her, Fisher is a citizen of the Choctaw nation of Oklahoma. Though, she uses the term “Indian” in her research more specifically to refer to the stereotypical homogenous images people use to describe and understand Indigenous people. When referring to actual people in the community, “Indigenous” and “Native” are often used interchangeably. Through this preliminary discussion, I was reminded of the importance and power of language and specificity, something I have also come to be extra mindful of in Dr. Lewis’ course.

Before coming to class and hearing Fisher’s talk, I wondered how she could be inspired to do such meaningful work after coming to Berlin. Like many of the other speakers who visited our class, Fisher seemed to have had a moment of revelation at a somewhat random moment on her trip with Dr. Lewis in 2017. During a graffiti and street art walking tour, she noticed a bronze statue of an Indigenous man in a headdress wearing an “I Y NYC” t-shirt. She wondered what it was and how it had gotten there. Even more, she questioned what Native people were doing in Germany in the first place. When the tour guide and Dr. Lewis could not provide any information on the statue, Fisher decided to nurture her curiosity and start her own research.

Photo Credit: Riley Hester

Upon speaking with her family, she learned from her father that she had Indigenous family members enlisted in the U.S. military who had been stationed in Germany at some point. In fact, I learned from Fisher that Native Americans have the highest enlistment rate in the U.S. military. Growing up an “Army Brat” myself, I wondered why I had never noticed this majority. I also thought of my father who was stationed in Germany at the time I was born, and how I know little information about his time serving in Germany. Though I am proud of my father and everything he has sacrificed, I do feel that my upbringing may have censored me from realizing the unfortunate erasure and manipulation of various people and cultures at the hands of the U.S. military.

When Fisher introduced the term “Playing Indian” to the class, I was already wary of what I was about to hear and see. Like the term implies, and to my understanding, “Playing Indian” is the act of Non-Indigenous people taking and appropriating Indigenous culture and practices. With the help of Dr. Santiago Ivan Guerra, Director and Associate Professor of Southwest Studies at Colorado College (CC), Fisher was pointed toward various articles and the Karl May Festival in Germany, which prompted her to further explore “Playing Indian” and hobbyism in Germany, both of which ended up being a great part of her undergraduate work. She informed us that Karl May was a German explorer and author who wrote about the Wild West and Indigenous tribes, including several adventure trilogies.

Photo Credit: Riley Hester

In 2019, Fisher received a grant from CC to come back to Berlin to study Indigenous Feminism in Germany, which included attending the Karl May Festival. Prior to attending the festival, Fisher explained she was surprised to see that actual Native groups would be coming to perform at the festival on its website. This meant Native people would be educating predominantly white visitors on their communities and cultures. The festival included banners supporting the freedom Leonard Peltier, who has been imprisoned since 1977. In addition, visitors were encouraged to sign postcards that would be sent to President Donald Trump in support of Peltier’s freedom. Activism such as this encouraged Fisher, who says there is hardly anything of the sort being done at similar festivals in the U.S. However, Native appropriation was still very present at the festival. Non-Indigenous adults and children scattered the fair wearing Native headdresses, jewelry, and other clothing.

Fisher had a similar experience attending the El Dorado-Templin Wild West Theme Park in Germany. Although there are opportunities for Native participants to provide education for the predominantly white European audience, the theme park still features disturbing visuals and experiences inside the park. This includes displays of Native scalps, hypersexualized Native CD cases, and soap with offensive caricatures of Black people on the packaging. These displays and these kinds of environment contribute to the erasure of Indigenous people, something Fisher continues to study as a apart of her doctoral studies.

Photo Credit: Riley Hester

What I also found particularly fascinating was a conversation we had about “authenticity” and how one may create an “authentic” place where a community, in this case Indigenous people, can be represented and communicated with. It is something I have spoken about in other classes in terms of modernity and what some historians have called the “Teleological Timeline.” From my previous understanding, western ideas and portrayals of minority groups, such as Indigenous people, create a set image of what a community looks like and how people in those communities should be acting. This image is usually adapted and manipulated to fit western ideas and biases in order to place these communities “behind” in terms of advancement and development. This stagnates and isolates a group of people. Therefore, no representation could be truly “authentic,” depending on one’s definition. I could not help but be reminded of this as Fisher expressed the lack of space the full humanity of Indigenous people is given due to the historicized western ideals.

Fisher used herself as an example of this, sharing that she does beading that sometimes does not fit the “typical” idea of what Indigenous beading should be. She explained that sometimes she beads memes or other silly requests from friends and family. She even beaded the book cover of In Audre’s Footsteps: Transnational Kitchen Table Talk for Dr. Lewis. As impressive and talented as her beading work is, it is sometimes seen as shocking or surprising by those who are expecting “traditional” Indigenous beading. This is most certainly due to the historicization of Indigenous people practices. When people have a set image of what something or someone should look like or act like in their heads, it is difficult to accept anything outside of this idea as “authentic.”

Photo Credit: Riley Hester

I think, if nothing else, Fisher wanted us to take away an understanding of and shared frustration with the lifeless image that has been placed on her people throughout history and into modern day. People are ignorant to the existence of Native people in many countries today because of such immense historicization. Indigenous communities are set in place and tied to specific land, making them seem set in particular times and places. This has greatly impacted expectations about Indigenous people. Many people do not expect to see Native people in street clothes or in the city or on the train or in the workplace or in academia. Many people only expect to see Native people wearing headdresses and making dream-catchers and in Western films and in museums and in children’s books. This makes it ever so difficult for Indigenous people to remain connected to their heritage while still living and expressing themselves today. My admiration for Fisher has only grown greater as I now have a better understanding of what she has experienced.

Even more so, I left with a greater sense of what it means to be passionate about your work, what it means to be motivated, and what it means to be constantly mindful of the representation (or lack thereof) of vulnerable communities. I also know now what it means to be understanding and forgiving, even when some people are the least deserving. Fisher’s empathy and devotion are tied to her work and also her daily interactions. I am thankful to have had the chance to speak with her in class, and better yet, to have had the chance to be on this trip with her. I look forward to reading what her published work, which focuses Indianthusiasm in Germany and explores how the figure of “the Indian” in Germany and its relationship to German colonialism.

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Riley Hester is a rising junior at CC. She was born in Germany and has since lived in 6 different places, including Illinois, New York, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and now Colorado. She is a Psychology major and a double minor in English and German. She is new to Feminist and Gender Studies and hopes to expand her knowledge about the experiences of all people in Germany outside of what she has previously learned. She hopes to one day enter the clinical field of Psychology and work to change the mental health care system to make it more welcoming to and accessible. At CC, she is involved with NAMI and is a member of the swim and dive team. In her free time, she enjoys painting, writing, and exploring whatever area she is in. She’s enjoyed her time in Berlin and has valued the relationships she has built with her classmates over such a short period of time.

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.