As this grim winter lockdown grinds inexorably onwards – towards what I’m not quite sure – life in one of Europe’s great cities seems to barely have a pulse. The streets are sparsely populated and, with the exception of a couple of buskers who from time to time make an appearance on our urban rambles, not a single one of Berlin’s great artistic institutions is open. Cultural life has ground to a halt and no amount of Netflix can replace it.
Only yesterday, I was bemoaning the fact that we didn’t live in the countryside, where at least we could go for invigorating walks in nature. Even in a city with as many parks as Berlin, city streets are no substitute for the wide open spaces beyond the city limits that we are no longer able to leave. It’s certainly true that it has become harder to be optimistic while dealing with grey, cold days and limited daylight.
Like most European cities, opera houses, cinemas, theatres and concert halls all remain shuttered. We keep spotting mocking posters advertising exhibitions that never happened, or that should be happening right now in one or other of the city’s galleries or museums. As tumbleweed rolls through this cultural wasteland though, street art remains open for public consumption.
Even if all the things that makes a city worth living in – the arts, restaurants, bars, sport and, of course, socialising – have been closed down for the foreseeable future, at least it’s still possible to indulge a favourite Berlin passtime: street art. The good news is, Berlin’s street artists have continued to make their mark, and plenty of new works have appeared throughout the lockdown. Ironic then that Urban Nation’s street art museum is closed.
The joyful mayhem of Berlin’s street art continues to throw up an extraordinary array of artworks. Given the endless creativity that is displayed around the city, it’s interesting that there seems to be a muted response to the pandemic itself. I’ve seen a few angry scrawls of ‘fight the virus of control’, and some chess pieces that look like the COVID-19 virus, in response to the crisis, but that’s it.
Compare that to the beautiful and haunting vision of Michele Tombolini’s Butterfly. At a distance it just looks like a dramatic and colourful piece of street art. Get close though and it starts to feel uncomfortable to look at. Arms behind her back, mouth taped shut, this butterfly was part of the Indelible Marks project to raise awareness of the evils of child sexual abuse. Street art with a powerful message.
Remarkably, for an artform that is intentionally transitory and subject to Berlin’s weather, Butterfly has been around since 2015. Saved by its size and purpose maybe? Smaller pieces of street art tend to get defaced or obscured by more recent additions. I regularly find myself lamenting having missed the opportunity to see a piece before it was obliterated, but the growing tendency to commission large artworks may change that dynamic.
This is at the heart of the debate about the role and future of street art in Berlin. As it goes more corporate – especially with property developers getting in on the act – it loses some of the organic creativity that has made Berlin famous for street art. As it becomes more associated with gentrification, and less anti-establishment and political (with a small ‘p’), it also produces some stunning artworks. As the days get lighter I hope to find a few more.