In Berlin, Wall Stares At You

Is there anything more satisfying than doing something you’re not supposed to: taking a cookie from the cookie jar, listening to music that your parents forbid you to hear, or sprawling colors on the side of a building?  The latter satisfaction, graffiti, or urban art, is not a new phenomenon.  Artists have been covering buildings around the world with creative designs for decades.  However, it is only recently that many of the most artistic practitioners of urban art, such as Bristol based artist Banksy, have become internationally recognized for their talent.

“Urban art is being shown in galleries and museums, handled by auction houses, and is part of a new global art movement taking place outside of the establishment. It is probably the first art movement whose history, relevance and potential is continuously changing, existing in direct correlation with worldwide distribution via the media and the creators themselves. It is also arguably the first art movement where national borders or cultural differences have no role to play.”
(press release)

From October 7th-11th, the Stroke Artfair was held in Berlin.  Now in its third year, the Stroke Artfair is a celebration of the works of urban artists around the world.  Coming off the heels of one of the biggest celebrations of urban art in the world, you may wonder why Germany is host to spectacular exhibitions of an art form that many still consider a low brow form of cheap vandalism?


Berlin has been called a mecca for graffiti artists.  Every year, Germany is host to countless art exhibitions, many of them held in Berlin.  Post-WWII and the division of Berlin into East and West Berlin by the Berlin Wall, there was a flourishing of artistic expression in West Berlin.

The Berlin Wall on the Western side was literally covered with stencils and images expressing the feelings of the youth living in West Berlin, while the Eastern facade of the Berlin Wall punished East Berlin with its clean slate of oppression.  It should be mentioned that East Berliners could not even get close to the wall because of the so-called Death Strip between the city and the wall.  You can see the 100-meter wide Death Strip in the photo with the clean Eastern facade of the Berlin Wall behind it.  Once the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, hundreds of artists flooded into East Berlin aiming to tag the once forbidden dividing line of Berlin.

So, now that you have a bit of the history of urban art in Berlin to use as a resource, that still leaves the question of why now?  What has caused this hot-blooded rush of interest in urban art (besides Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie buying some of Banksy’s art?)

Graffiti artists have used their artwork to express unpopular ideas or opinions critical of social conditions.  Maybe the popular mainstream interest in urban art and artists is a harbinger of a change in social perceptions?  Or maybe people are buying pieces of artwork for that almighty resale price down the road.  Either way, graffiti artists are finally enjoying at least some of the spotlight that they are usually trying so hard to avoid.  As one New York based artist who goes by the name of Inkie and now works for the computer-games corporation SEGA  says:

The urban-art ethos has always been about “reclaiming” public space, or “taking what’s ours”, as Inkie puts it – and you could argue that that’s exactly what these artists are doing now.

Graffiti artists are becoming more accepted and welcomed for their artistic brilliance and creativity (even Barack Obama lent his image to urban artist Shepard Fairey for the cover of Time Magazine.)  Let us hope that urban artists won’t dull the rebellious edge they have today, or the politically charged attitude of the Western Bloc artists in Berlin from years past.

If you’re still not aware of how urban art has infiltrated, or maybe been invited, into the mainstream, enjoy this video of a Banksy directed intro for The Simpsons.

I was in Berlin in March of 2008 and snapped a number of photos chronicling my excursion through the city.  In Berlin, they offer a tour called the Alternative City Tour that traces the history and expansion of the gritty underside of Berlin with significant attention paid to urban art and its place in Berlin life.  The area in these photos is in a back alleyway off of Rosenthaler Straße, near the Hackescher Markt in Berlin.  It is a safe zone where graffiti is encouraged.  Some of it is commissioned artwork, but the majority of it is created by freelance artists. (*The last photo showing the graffiti on the Berlin Wall was not taken by me.  But, maybe it is for the better that I cannot figure out how to remove it!  Lang lebe die Kunst!)

Authored and Co-Authored by: Tim Carrillo, Krysta Brown, and Greg Hoffman

2 thoughts on “In Berlin, Wall Stares At You

  1. Graffiti, or urban art (it is just a another way to say graffiti, possibly because it has less of a negative connotation?) is still considered illegal, and if you are caught, you’ll end up paying a fine or spending time in prison. I did a little fact checking, and in Germany, “Graffiti is not an infraction (Ordnungswidrigkeit) that would have been punished with a simple fine, it’s a misdemeanor (Vergehen) that is punished with a fine or up to two years in prison.”
    Graffiti in Berlin is only welcomed in certain areas, like the alley off the Rosenthaler Straße where I took pictures.
    (Here is a list of 10 places worldwide where graffiti is also welcomed.)

    It is sort of a strange situation that these graffiti artists are in. Some of the best among them are becoming world-renowned, selling their drawings for hundreds of thousands of dollars (the Banksy prints that Brangelina bought sold for over £1 million!) And yet, these artists began as “criminals” defacing buildings. I think what’s most important is that these artists are being recognized for their talents. Also, that the merit of graffiti as a form of visceral artwork that can have a identity beyond gang related material or urban decay, as it has been traditionally identified with, is being investigated, is very interesting.

  2. Do you see a distinction between graffiti and urban art? Maybe the distinction you mentioned in your intro–the difference between doing what’s forbidden and what’s encouraged. Maybe graffiti is illegal and urban art is legal (?). I’ve always had the gut feeling that graffiti is intrinsically rebellious, so I’m looking for a way to distinguish it from the art you identify in Berlin, which is welcomed and condoned.

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