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.
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.
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 about their 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.
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.