By Claudia Harrison
Our 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.”
Because 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.”
After 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.
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.
Claudia Harrison is a senior Classics–History–Politics 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.