On February 25th I attended an alternative tour in Berlin, Germany. The tour focused on Berlin street art and subculture, and it was incredibly interesting. Our tour guide, Dave, began by explaining the difference between graffiti and street art. Graffiti is exclusively lettering, and it is more focused on the internal graffiti community. Conversely, street art can incorporate both lettering and images, and it is meant to be enjoyed by everybody.
The most popular method of street art in Berlin is called “paste ups.” If artists are caught directly writing or painting on a building they are charged with vandalism, but if they are caught “pasting” images onto a wall, they are only charged with an equivalent to littering. As a result, the latter is much more popular. Unfortunately, paste ups are problematic for famous street artists because residents try to steal them. More unusual methods of street art include “train bombing,” in which groups of street artists stall a train long enough to put art up within it, and “granny graffiti,” street installations that have been knitted.
The tour covered many of Berlin’s most famous street artists, and learning to identify their work was like learning a new literacy. The colorful streets transformed from confusing chaos to a decipherable code. One of my favorite artists was Sobr, a French photographer who took pictures of people dancing at music festivals. As soon as Sobr feels that his subjects are lost in the music, he photographs them and plasters their black and white images on the street. Another street artist, Mr. 6, only illustrates the number six. Mr. 6 is now in his 60s, and he estimates that he has put up about 650,000 six’s around the city of Berlin. A Danish artist called Tejn installs sculptures. His guerrilla installations often have strong political motivations. Like Tejn, many street artists are politically motivated; however, many of them also create art simply to be enjoyed. Other well-know Berlin street artists include El Bocho, Just, and Victor Ash.
One of the most interesting things I learned about on our tour was the existence of Urban Nation. Urban Nation is an initiative funded by the German government. It commissions artists from around the world to use street art to improve Berlin’s most run-down neighborhoods. Urban Nation’s website claims that the organization “has been inviting international luminaries and aspiring talents of Urban Contemporary Art (UCA) to Berlin to show their works within urban fabric of Berlin: building facades, house walls and shop windows.” I think of traditional street art as inherently anti-government, so it’s unusual to hear about government efforts to encourage street art. Does this eliminate some of the art’s edge? Regardless, I think it speaks a lot to the art’s power. People often debate street art’s place in the art world, but the German government seems to believe strongly in it. No matter where you stand on its legitimacy, street art has very real effects.