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.

The 2022 #FemGeniusesinBerlin

Photo Credit: Dr. Heidi R. Lewis

Click here to view a slideshow of pictures, and follow @FemGeniuses and|or @AudresFootsteps on InstagramTwitter, and Facebook to see more pictures and videos.

Multimedia Podcast Index:

The RomaniPhen Feminist Archive + the Romanja Power Walking Tour with Estera Iordan” by Christiana García-Soberanez
A Conversation with Jasmin Eding” by Eliza Strong
Jewish History & Culture Walking Tour + Museum Blindenwerkstatt Otto Weidt with Adam Schonfeld” by Bridget Hanley
BlackEurope: The Beginnings of Black Self-Organization in Europe” by Erin Huggins
German Colonialism Walking Tour w/ Josephine Apraku + the Neues Museum” by Amalia Lopez
A Conversation with Sharon Dodua Otoo” by Latra Demaçi
The Wall Museum + the Berliner Unterwelten Tour” by Margalit Goldberg
Blackness in America and Europe: Where the Grey Space Exists” by Monica Carpenter
A Conversation with Dana Maria Asbury, Mona El Omari, and Iris Rajanayagam” by Vicente Blas-Taijeron
Graffiti & Street Art Walking Tour + the Urban Nation Museum” by Alexis Cornachio
“A Conversation with Judy Lynne Fisher” by River Clarke
“Queer Berlin Walking Tour w/ Mal Pool + the Schwules*Museum” by Riley Hester
“A Street Art Workshop with Berlin Massive” by Judy Gonzalez

To read and|or listen to the finales and view the indices and slideshows for previous #FemGeniusesinBerlin, click here

Some Final Thoughts on the 2019 #FemGeniusesinBerlin

Top (L to R): Matthew FitzGibbon, Bella Staal, Kelsey Mattox, Cam Kaplan, Samuel Vang, Maggie O’Brien, Avia Hailey, Nizhooni Hurd, Alexander Jobin-Leeds, and Lauren Hough; Middle (L to R): Miles Marshall, Professor Heidi R. Lewis, Cameron Bacher, Nicole Berlanga, and Eileen Huang; and Bottom (L to R): Caroline Livaditis, Maysie Poland, Mekael Daniel, Dana Maria Asbury (Course Associate), Mimi Norton de Matos, and Zivia Berkowitz

have to start by saying that the five-year anniversary of the course started out with a bang for a few reasons:

  • It’s the first time the course has been full. In fact, we exceeded the maximum enrollment limit of 16 by one student;
  • two of my students were able to secure funding to come conduct research—Judy Fisher, Feminist & Gender Studies Major ’20, 2019-2020 Triota President, 2018-2019 Shannon McGee Prize winner, and Fall 2017 #FemGeniusesinBerlin alum came to conduct transnational studies of American Indigeneity; and Mekael Daniel, Feminist & Gender Studies Major ’20 and 2019-2020 Triota Vice President came to conduct transnational studies of Blackness;
  • and we were joined by my niece-cousin-boo from Memphis, TN, Kelsey Nichole Mattox, who turned 18 and graduated from high school recently. So, her presence was especially meaningful. In fact, she had never gotten on an airplane until she traveled here, excitedly letting us know, “I decided to go all the way!”

Judy and Mekael arrived the same day I did, and we trekked to Radebeul (near Dresden) to attend the Karl May Festival so Judy could observe, think about, and examine Native American participation in predominantly white festival culture in Germany, as well as white Native American hobbyism. Imagine the raised-eyebrows of every single one of my friends and comrades in Berlin when I told the about this—haha. Judy and Mekael also went to the Great Indian Meeting at the El Dorado theme park in Templin the following weekend to continue Judy’s work. Shoutout to my colleague, Dr. Santiago Ivan Guerra (Associate Professor of Southwest Studies at Colorado College), for introducing Judy to the significance of hobbyism in Germany, illustrating the collective efforts necessary for critical theory work.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that it’s been a while since the #FemGeniusesinBerlin were so full of #BlackGirlMagic (2015 was the last time, to be exact), and I couldn’t have been more excited about that. One adorable and powerful manifestation of that was Avi(a) leading several rounds of “Deep Truth, Truth,” a game that allowed her to bond with her classmates, especially her roommates, but also with Dana and I one day during lunch. “Deep Truth, Truth” starts with someone asking another person if they’d like to share a deep truth or what one might refer to as a “regular” truth. A “regular truth” could be anything from sharing your favorite color to a song that you hate; however, a “deep truth” is usually something that one might not share in a group like this, because lots of us don’t know each other well enough to be comfortable with that kind of vulnerability. Then, once the person being questioned decides what kind of truth they want to share, the questioner asks a question. After the question is answered, the person being questioned then gets to ask another person in the group a question. I got to ask and answer twice (one truth and one deep truth), and learned a lot about the students that day. Neat stuff.

In “short,” the 2019 #FemGeniusesinBerlin were such a great bunch even though we most certainly hit a few snags along the way. Here are some (definitely not all) of the most memorable moments:

  1. The weather hitting 90F degrees, something I’m pretty sure never happened in years past, and doing so several days each week.
  2. Bella’s cube bear.
  3. Mekael, Judy, and I being photographed by a stranger (with consent) at the Karl May Festival and finding the very poorly-filtered but very cute photograph on social media (posted with consent).
  4. Lauren’s RBF and fierce modeling skills.
  5. Avia’s phone fan and ridiculous pranks.
  6. Zander playing Captain Save ‘Em, and gettin’ hollered at all along the way.
  7. Eileen’s “hey.”
  8. Nicole being almost entirely silent then shakin’ up the space with the loudest, most hilarious laugh you ever did hear.
  9. Vang asking to sit on our roof (which would most certainly result in his untimely death), asking about transporting beer back to the U.S., telling us he got “hemmed up by 12” (which turned out to mean he was approached by some ticket-checkers on the subway and allowed to continue his trip with a mere warning…side eye), telling folks about sex stores, and gettin’ hollered at for almost every single thing all along the entire way.
  10. Discussing the advantages and risks of comparative analysis.
  11. Mimi’s sneakin’ in and slam-dunking the graffiti workshop brainstorming session.
  12. Miles’ hair flips, especially because they don’t even have a lot of hair, and lessons in lipstick.
  13. Caroline “showing off” her knowledge of the German language (see below).
  14. Matt trolling the entire class almost the entire time and then agreeing to draw a troll during our graffiti workshop.
  15. DeAira Cooper, 2015 #FemGeniusesinBerlin alum, coming to visit.
  16. Dr. W. Christopher Johnson, Assistant Professor of History and the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto and husband of our Course Associate Dana Asbury, coming for a visit and joining us for a few sessions.

I could go on and on and on. I will never forget this group. Such a great summer through it all, which led to my new phrases: Must be June. Must be Berlin.

2019 FemGeniuses in Berlin Podcast Index:
Click here to view a slideshow, and follow us on InstagramTwitter, and Facebook to see more pictures and videos!

Jewish Berlin Tour” by Nizhooni Hurd
Topography of Terror” by Zander Jobin-Leeds
Jasmin Eding” by Avia Hailey
German Colonialism Walking Tour” by Mimi Norton de Matos
Each One Teach One e.V.” by Maysie Poland
RAA Berlin” by Nicole Berlanga
RomaniPhen e.V.” by Samuel Vang
Pořajmos Walking Tour” by Cam Kaplan
Synchronicity with Sharon Dodua Otoo” by Maggie O’Brien
Rebellious Berlin Walking Tour” by Bella Staal
FHXB Museum” by Lauren Hough
The Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted under Nazism” by Cameron Bacher
Queer Berlin Walking Tour” by Miles Marshall
Schwules* Museum” by Eileen Huang
Trans*sexworks” by Zivia Berkowitz
Graffiti Workshop with Berlin Massive” by Mekael Daniel
Urban Nation Museum for Urban Contemporary Art” by Caroline Livaditis
Street Art and Graffiti Walking Tour” by Matt FitzGibbon

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