Coriander can be devilishly hard to find in Berlin. We often found ourselves trudging around several supermarkets in the search for this fragrant herb, frequently without success. That was before we discovered a Turkish shop a few minutes away that sells bunches of coriander so large that you’d assume they were to go in a vase rather than in food. It was while on my way to get coriander one morning that a massive piece of street art by El Bocho brought me to a standstill.
One of Berlin’s most prodigious and popular street artists, it wasn’t so much the size of the artwork that shocked me but the building it was painted on. This was no guerilla street art put up in the dead of night, this was corporate Berlin buying a little street art street cred. The building belongs to a big insurance company, who just so happen to be the same people from whom we rent our apartment.
In truth, I was conflicted. Part of me was happy to see my rent being put to good use, while part of me was outraged that my money was being used on corporate brand accessories. Given the extortionate price of property rentals in Berlin, I’m going to vote for outrage. This is just one of many signs of the creeping corporatisation of street art, and the creeping gentrification it brings with it. Still, even street artists have to earn a living and it has definitely improved the building.
When the coronavirus lockdown kicked in and for several weeks we were restricted to travelling the streets of Berlin, I was able to pursue my passion for hunting out street art most weekends. The sheer volume and variety of street art – including sites I’d visited not that long previously which had been repainted – led me to a question. Is Berlin the most prolific street art city in the world?
It seems like there’s no correct answer to that – though Berlin regularly features high up on lists of cities famous for street art – what is undeniable though is the enduring vitality and creativity of Berlin’s street artists. We’ve been exploring the streets of Schöneberg recently, which is home to plenty of epic pieces. Not coincidentally, this is also the home of Urban Nation, a street art gallery and sponsor of plenty of Berlin’s most famous pieces of wall art.
The streets and estates around Bülowstrasse are the epicentre of Urban Nation, and wandering around them regularly throws up encounters with building-sized artworks. These included pieces by Welsh artist Phlegm, Brazilian duo Bicicleta Sem Freio, French artist Fafi and English artist Rocket01. Like many global cities, Berlin’s street art is truly international. It was up in the old radical left wing district of Wedding that I came across some artists I’d not seen before.
The piece, Tree Children, by Victor Ash, a French born artist living in Copenhagen is one of my favourite recent finds. Given how close it is to Wedding S Bahn station it’s not really that hard to discover. Stuck on the end of a huge block of flats overlooking the railway lines, children with binoculars imitate some less evolved primates and observe the neighbourhood goings-on.
Not far from the Tree Children is the giant head of a woman looking out from behind a tree in a cemetery. The work of US duo, James Bullough and Addison Karl, this is a famous Berlin landmark that it’s taken me a while to visit. You can only do so in winter when the tree hasn’t got leaves. Facing this mural across the cemetery is a modern take on the art nouveau ‘chat noir’ paintings. It’s wonderful.
I made a trip to the East Side Gallery, a strip of original Berlin Wall still in its place along the River Spree. Normally it’s swamped with tourists and most of the artwork looks like it was done by a seven year-old child. There ares some nice pieces though, and my favourite (which is not the now iconic image of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker in a passionate embrace) shows a Trabant car bursting through the Berlin Wall. After weeks of lockdown we felt much the same way.