Berlin is synonymous with street art, and a handful of street artists are famed as much for their relationship with Berlin as they are for their art. That balance has been a little disrupted by initiatives like the Berlin Mural Fest, which brings international artists to paint giant murals on buildings in locations all over town. It has furnished the city with a wealth of dramatic statement pieces that attract visitors from around the world, and which comes with its own app.
I’m slowly making my way around the city to visit some of them. It’s pretty impressive and, for the time-being, this more ‘corporate’ approach seems to co-exist harmoniously with Berlin’s more traditional grassroots approach. Whether that uneasy peace will endure is yet to be seen, but as street art becomes ever more associated with tourism, I’d imagine the backlash in this city is only a matter of time.
Berlin has been described, perhaps blasphemously, as “the graffiti Mecca of the urban art world”. It’s certainly hard to think of a city of similar size with such a diverse street art scene. This evolution isn’t so surprising when you consider that street art was an integral part of the protests against the Berlin Wall. I vividly recall reading the political messages painted on the West of the wall during my first visit in 1988. Years’ later they were selling painted chunks of concrete as souvenirs, regardless of their provenance.
After the wall came down, street art rapidly spread to the former East, as much protest as making the concrete easier to look at. It’s a little weird then, that a city with that sort of heritage spends €35 million a year removing street art to restore the natural beauty of the city – or the grey façades of the post-war, communist-era cityscape, as it’s better known. The ‘tagging’ that blights some neighbourhoods is probably not appreciated by residents, and the city has to act.
On the other side of the coin, one of Berlin’s most loved street artists is El Bocho. As his name suggests, he’s not a local. Originally from Spain, his works have been appearing on Berlin walls for the best part of two decades, and his distinctive portraits of Berlin ‘citizens’ is a homage to the city they love. I’ve only ever come across female ‘citizens’, but there are male versions as well. They are all paper cut-outs, prepared in the studio before being pasted onto walls.
Perhaps El Bocho’s most famous work though, is a series devoted to Little Lucy. Based on a Czechoslovakian TV series called Little Lucy – Fear of the Streets, his Little Lucy is a bit more deranged and psychotic. In his work she is waging a perpetual war against her cat, finding ever more inventive ways to kill it. She appears in one of the images below, her left eye bulging maniacally. As ever, the cat seems to have met a violent end at her hands – literally, in this case.
This is one of the joys of being a street art fan in a city like Berlin, street art narratives can be followed over prolonged periods of time. I’ve been unearthing El Bocho’s work since we arrived, and have found it in other German cities, like Hamburg. His work is a clear example of how a street artist can use the city as a canvass to launch a lucrative mainstream career. His works, like those of Banksy and others, can be bought at not inconsiderable prices.
This is far from the origins of street art, and certainly far from the philosophy of street art deriving its power from representing the margins of society. That’s something to be welcomed in my opinion, but only if there remains space for a new generation of artists to emerge onto our streets.