It was small, but eye catching for a city that was once divided between East and West, Communism and Capitalism. After all, people in the Communist East voted with their feet, en masse, until they were physically barred from doing so by the construction of the Berlin Wall. A militarised ‘death zone’ designed to keep people in rather than the evils of Capitalism out.
The thought bubble read, “…and all I wanted for Valentine’s was full communism.” If street art reflects the zeitgeist, then the spirit of our age seems to have forgotten its recent history. Maybe it was a response to Germany’s highest court ruling that Berlin’s rent cap was illegal. A decision that resulted in half of the city suddenly owing 18 months back rent. That’s the true zeitgeist.
Since the court ruling, people have been collecting petition signatures to demand the city council buy back housing stock from Berlin’s biggest landlords. The same apartment blocks the city sold for a pittance to those same landlords in the 1990s. Given rampant price increases and a terminal housing shortage, it’s an agenda that is becoming popular.
While something needs to be done to stop Berlin becoming another London, the city will pay a premium for any apartments they return to public ownership. I’m not sure inflating the bank balances of property developers is the best way to use city budgets. Plus, street art is hardly blame free, playing its own role in the gentrification of neighbourhoods.
That piece of art was spotted on a Kreuzberg street that has already undergone a rapid transformation. A once low rent unassuming multicultural neighbourhood has gone full hipster paradise. How many painfully trendy coffee shops roasting their own beans can digital nomads support? The answer it seems is ‘quite a few’. It’s also a beacon for street art.
Still, while virtually every other cultural institution has been closed to us, street art has been one of the few pleasures available during lockdown. It’s reasonably ironic that Urban Nation, Berlin’s museum of street art, was closed like almost everything else. At least the monumental pieces of art they are responsible for putting on Berlin’s walls have remained visitable.
I was on my way to Urban Spree, an area of the city that specialises in Berlin counter-culture for tourists. You either love it or love to hate it. I’m still undecided, not that it really matters at the moment because most things are still closed. It’s also a haven for street art that I hadn’t visited for over a year. I found some interesting bits of art before moving off into Friedrichshain.
Sometimes Berlin feels like an open-air gallery, albeit one that is haphazardly curated and with a collection of varying quality. Another of the street art-housing crisis ironies is that some of the biggest landlords and housing collectives now actively collaborate with artists to create some of the finest and most memorable of the city’s artworks.
Even some of the biggest not-for-profit names are getting in on the act. I’ve seen two big and colourful pieces from Greenpeace and Amnesty International, commemorating the nuclear horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and International Women’s Day. Proof, if it were needed, that street art has become an accepted part of the mainstream.