How do you know if you are living in a city whose fortunes are on the rise? You might have found yourself bicycling through a mound of magenta chalk dust, leaving a magical neon trail in your wake, or noticed that signposts, traffic lights and telephone exchange boxes have been altered by the addition, say, of cheeky figurines fashioned from wine corks. These kind of arty happenings are now commonplace in the streets of Berlin, a city that has changed immeasurably in the last decade or so.
Loft apartments have replaced squats and so-called street art has flourished, to the extent that trendy districts of former East Berlin now resemble open-air galleries. It’s a pattern of gentrification that will be familiar to the skinny-jeaned residents of formerly run-down corners of London, where Banksy, that master of clever-clever iconoclasm, whips up wall stencils in minutes. Still, Berlin is different. It has no single, dominant, media-savvy maestro of the urban canvas. Rather it is home to a bubbling array of talent, drawn to a city with a unique history of decorating the drab slabs that surround us.
In fact, without Berlin we probably wouldn’t consider Banksy a star at all. Cedar Lewisohn, curator of the 2008 Street Art exhibition at Tate Modern, puts it like this: ‘It’s a rule of thumb that when you see graffiti you know that a district is on the way down; when you see street art you know it’s on the up.’ And the crucible for that transformation — from graffiti to street art, vandalism to museum-piece — was Berlin. The RAF did its bit. It turns out that the German language, with its wonderful ability to snap one noun into place on top of another, has a single word for the vast, windowless side of a building exposed when the house next to it has been blown away: brandmauern. After 1945, Berlin’s brandmauer were testament to devastation. But in the 1970s some Berliners began to see creative opportunity in them. Graffiti artists, drawing on close creative ties between Berlin and New York, set about covering these vast areas of brickwork. It wasn’t strictly legal, but municipal authorities looked the other way. Then, in the dilapidated area of Kreuzberg, in the centre of the city looking over the kill zone between East and West, artists began to experiment on the urban fabric just metres away from the control-freakery of the communist regime. ‘It was kind of an oasis there,’ remembers the Berlin artist Daniel Ginelli. ‘It was the end of town. Nobody cared what artists got up to. Nobody was interested. Art on the Berlin Wall is a big thing now, but at the time no one cared.’
In the 1980s, artists such as Thierry Noir, Kiddy Citny and Lisa Brown began to cover the Wall with bold cartoonish figures that stuck two fingers up to the harshly regulated world on the other side. When the Wall came down, some of them became rich and famous. Others remained obscure. But their spirit quickly infected the former East. Tacheles, a building on Oranienburger Strasse, was occupied by an artistic collective in 1990, providing workshops almost free of charge. Its brandmauern became city landmarks. ‘At that time there was no difference between graffiti and street art,’ says Ginelli. But then new kinds of work began to appear. Instead of using spray paint, artists began to take all kinds of media on to the street. In 2001, for example, a project called Blinkenlights invaded the Haus des Lehrers, a concrete block, or plattenbau, on the monumental Alexanderplatz, heart of the former East. By turning the huge building’s lights on and off in sequence its façade became a giant pixellated screen. In 2003, Roland Brueckner captivated city dwellers with posters featuring a forlorn man appealing for the return of his lost love, Linda. (It later emerged she was a fabrication.)
Today, Berlin’s street art is thriving as never before. Much of it still involves sending up the behemoths of society — whether that be the former communist regime or contemporary corporate giants. And much of it involves the city’s residents. Jan Vormann started a craze by filling in the cracks in buildings with brightly coloured Lego blocks and encouraging others to do the same. It was Lepe Rubingh who spread chalk dust at crossroads, to be spread around town by the tyres of passing cars.
The politics of street art is still potent, too. Neozoon, a trio of female artists from France and Germany, are behind the startling silhouettes of orangutans swinging along building façades. But the trio also modify advertising hoardings, adding traces of fur to the impossibly smooth underarms of bikini models. Then there’s Aram Bartholl, who built his own Google Car, the camera-equipped vehicle behind Google’s Street View. A film shows the car in action. Window down, its driver harangues privacy-obsessed Berliners through a loudhailer with the message: ‘Google knows what you look like. Don’t try to hide.’ When he is dragged from the front seat in a staged lynching, a passer-by joins in.
Of course, the street artists are not immune to the lure of commercial success. Linienstrasse and Torstrasse in Mitte were once their canvas; now those streets are home to the high-priced galleries that exhibit their work. If the subverters are in the end subverted, however, there are plenty more to replace them, even if they might currently be unknown or disregarded.
‘We think of a Berlin street art scene, but I’m not sure there is such a scene, with artists getting together after a day’s work for a beer,’ says Ginelli. ‘Sometimes it’s a very lonely lifestyle.’ But in the German capital, it’s the act of creation that counts.