Berlin has been described as the street art capital of Europe so when I went there recently I was very interested to see how their street art scene measured up against London. The enormous mural above greeted us on the first morning as we stepped out of our hotel – it is one of the largest murals in Berlin and is painted on the side of the Mercure Hotel in Luckenwalde Strasse. Apparently it was commissioned by Interbrigadas to promote German/Latin American understanding and it contains many evocative images, especially on the left side (if you click on the image it will open full size). if you want to see it the nearest station is Gleisdreieck U-Bahn and the DHL depot in which the mural sits allows easy access for a closer look.
We spent an entire day walking around Berlin looking for street art and came across some great examples such as the Cosmonaut/Astronaut in Kreuzberg (above) by the Portuguese artist Victor Ash which is thought to be one of the largest stencil drawings in Europe. Its impact is immediate and highlights the dynamic between street art and graffiti that is widespread in Berlin as the building had been tagged multiple times with unsightly graffiti. Many good pieces of street art that we found had been tagged and in some cases ruined. The problem with damage to street art seemed to be far more widespread in Berlin than in London although it is the nature of the beast when it comes to uncontrolled urban spaces.
This huge mural by the Belgian Artist ROA can be found in Oranienstrasse and was commissioned by Skalitzers Contemporary Art in 2011 for the exhibition Transit. It is a high impact piece and can be accessed easily for a closer look as the fence is rickety at best! ROA has painted murals all over London, one of the most well known being the Heron/Crane in Hanbury Street which can be seen below.
If you are going to look for street art in Berlin then one of the must see places is the East Side Gallery in Mühlenstrasse which is a surviving section of around 1.2 kilometres of Berlin Wall that is covered in street art.
There is something fascinating about the art on the Berlin Wall – this huge memorial to the past was extensively tagged/painted on the west side but remained untouched on the east as the east side of the Wall lay in the so called ‘Death Strip’ and was off-limits until 1989. Art in the East Side Gallery is well worth seeing but most has been tagged which is a shame.
In the piece above by Susanne Kunjappu-Jellinek there are roses painted around each of the years when the Berlin Wall was standing – each rose depicts someone who died that year trying to escape to the West. It is very evocative once you understand the context.
Other well-known works adorn the Wall here such as the well known painting by Dimitri Vrubel showing Leonid Brezhnev and East Germany’s Erich Honecker kissing (based on the infamous photo by French photographer Regis Bossu). It is a very noticeable work and immediately recognisable.
An image that repeats itself in Berlin is Kani Alavi’s evocative painting of a sea of faces spilling through a gap in the wall, some of which resemble ‘The Scream’ – smaller versions of this can be seen in Mitte and Kreuzberg.
We found that Kreuzberg was one of the best places to find street art in Berlin. As for many cities the street art tends to proliferate in poorer areas so if you are going to take photos in some more deprived locations then it is best to be sensible and take stock of the area before flashing your expensive camera around. Kreuzberg is a fascinating area – one to avoid on the first of May each year though as it is the epicentre of the Mayday riots in Berlin.
One of the interesting things we came across at Bethaniendamm in Kreuzberg was this tree house ‘Baumhaus an der Mauer’ or Tree House on the Wall. The house was apparently built on a piece of land that belonged to East Germany but ended up on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall so the West Berlin authorities had no jurisdiction. A Turkish immigrant (Osman Kalin) saw the opportunity and first grew vegetables on this vacant plot before finally building this tree house which is now a bit of a tourist attraction. Some of the locals near here are understandably a bit sensitive when it comes to street photography so be sensible.
Berlin has many buildings that have been occupied by collectives and there seems to be a comprehensive counter-culture in play across the city. Examples include Kunsthaus Tacheles (Art House Tacheles) which was taken over by artists when the Wall came down. Remains of metal sculptures can still be seen on the outside although the building now seems to be abandoned.
So which city was the best for street art? It is hard to say – Berlin seems to be covered in street art and it is part of the culture there but much of the art is tagged and damaged. I think London just about has the edge but I would say that wouldn’t I?
Further information on the East Side Gallery can be found here http://www.eastsidegallery-berlin.de/data/eng/index-eng.htm