How do you get a sense of the real Berlin and where do you find this urban mecca’s best street art?
A few taps into Google turns up Alternative Berlin Tours which “steps off the tourist trail and explores the cultural landscape from the local perspective….taking a walk through Berlin’s counter culture history and seeing some of the world’s most breathtaking street art”. All the guides are practicing street artists.
Sounds promising. Still, I remain sceptical. Just how many tours can deliver the ‘real experience’…especially in Berlin? But we decide to give it a shot and arrange to meet our guide at the Berlin TV Tower, outside of Starbucks. I’m not hopeful, given the starting point.
It doesn’t feel much better when Ben Spalding, a young American from Maine, introduces himself as the guide to a motley crew of ten.
Turns out, though, he’s a German-speaking part-Puerto Rican street artist. “I do large animals and explore anxiety.”
Now we’re talking.
Street art as a key part of Berlin’s cultural history
In the space of a block, he points out and explains tagging (a form of city ownership or gangs marking territory), stencils, screen printing, taping, ceramics, and knitting. And he puts into it all into context as we walk through the layers of history in this most paradoxical of cities.
Berliners have been scarred by a long history of state intrusion in private lives, from the Nazis to the Stazis. As a collective backlash, it is pretty much open slather on the street today. You can drink alcohol, carry up to 15 grams of marijuana, smoke anywhere, cavort with a prostitute. You can even barbecue naked in the famous Tiergarten Park, if you so want. And you can create art. Though if you are caught in the act, the penalty is much lower for paper-work, which is why screen-printed street art is big in Berlin.
“The only thing you can’t do is cross the street against a red light,” Ben laughs. “Mothers will scream that you don’t value human life enough.”
Street Art and other artifacts in Berlin’s Mitte Jewish neighborhood
Walking under a train line in Mitte, Berlin’s now gentrifying old Jewish neighborhood, we pass a Banksy rat. “Fake,” says Ben. A comment on street art’s commercialization.
We head to Hackescher Markt Hofe, a series of interconnecting heritage courtyards now filled with cafes, bars and galleries. Otto Weidt’s brush and broom workshop, where he protected his blind Jewish workers, has been turned into a poignant museum. Here, too, some spectacular street art is cloistered including an aerosol pointillist-style portrait by Australian artist Jimmy C.
Ben also shows us bronze ‘stumbling stones’ on the pavement, quiet memorials to Jews who lived and died here. We visit Clarchens Ballhouse, the only remaining 1920s-style cabaret in Berlin. “It is a blast to dress up and go dancing here,” he says.
The East Side Gallery of Street Art
We move onto the 21st century with a quick subway ride to Friedrichshain and the East Side Gallery, the public face of Berlin’s street-art scene along a restored section of the Berlin Wall. It’s a popular tourist spot.
Street art in Kreutzberg
Ben is ready to turn up the heat, though, in nearby Kreutzberg, home to Turkish and Vietnamese immigrants (and their fabulous cafes). We are dumbstruck by the scale, technique and searing social commentary of what we discover here.
On one corner of Oranienstrasse, he shows us enormous black and white scrawny animals dangling along the side of a five-story building. Painted by Belgian artist ROA, who trained as a vet, they are the animals that used to live here, says Ben.
Across the intersection is a gripping piece of photo realist art by French artist MTO. Jack Nicholson, in all his manic leering madness, appears to be pulling back the wall to reveal another world, which he inhabits with a larger-than-life-size orangutan.
Our penultimate stop is in the shadow of the former Berlin Wall, where Italian artist Blu has filled the side of a multi-story building with two masked and goggled white figures, one upside down, each trying to grab the mask off the other as they make the sign for East and West with their fingers.
Urban Spree Street Art Hub
Our journey concludes at street-art hub Urban Spree, set amidst a 20th century ruined ‘raw tempel’ in a former railway repair yard. Under a post-Modern decaying archway, Ben explains how Portuguese artist Vhils used chemicals and explosives to carve a sculptural portrait using the building’s very bricks and mortar.
Stunning. And a commission for Levi.
And so the see-saw world of anti-art and art as commodity takes a tumultuous turn. But thanks to Ben’s passion and knowledge we understand the streets-cape now and can join the conversation.
There are many cities around the world that are great centers of street art. New York, Melbourne, Bristol, even Honolulu. I’d love to hear about some of your street art discoveries here.
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