Berlin and street art are a pairing like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, cheese and wine, day and night. It seems unlikely that you can have one without the other and, even if you did, would it be an experience worth having?
Surely, this must be the world’s greatest street art city? I know of no other that can compete with Berlin on the sheer size, scale and ambition of its street art scene – both organic and the increasingly corporatised forms. As with all things Berlin, there is a backstory to its street art credentials, and it leads directly to the era of the Iron Curtain and a city divided by a large lump of concrete.
Bits of graffitied Berlin Wall still sell to eager tourists regardless of the provenance – spare bits of concrete are not difficult to find – and street art filled a void in the bleak grey streets of a town that struggled for an identity in the post-war decades. Today, Berlin is a massive outdoor gallery, one that I never tired of exploring. During the dreary days of the pandemic, Berlin’s ever changing street art was cathartic.
During the lockdowns of the first and second waves of the pandemic, the street art scene was a gift that kept on giving. Denied the chance to visit galleries, museums, restaurants, or to travel beyond the city limits, searching for new art pieces was welcome distraction, as well as good exercise. The result is that I have an obscene number of photos from almost every corner of the city.
Street art in Berlin comes in all shapes and sizes, every type of material, and spanning the full spectrum from satirical to whimsical, political to out and out bizarre. At one end of the scale there are big, often commissioned pieces of art, at the other end a tsunami of spray painted tags scrawled unintelligibly (to me at least) on almost any and every stationary object in the city. In between, well, there is everything else.
This blog is a mini-homage to the rich diversity of art and artists found in Berlin’s streets, but I had to make some hard choices and decided to stick with the massive, side of entire building, pieces that I find most appealing – some of which have become city landmarks in their own right. In a city frequently blighted by ugly, going on criminal, buildings, anything that brightens up the cityscape should be encouraged.
Of course, Berlin is building on an artform that is as old as humanity itself. Whether the 36,000 year-old prehistoric paintings in the Cave of Altamira, the 10,000 year-old stencils of the Las Cueva de Las Manos, or the new El Bocho that appeared on a residential street close to Frankfurter Tor a couple of weeks before we left Berlin, which was illuminated by late evening sun when I visited, we have left our mark.
It’s a matter of record that, as a species, we have graffitied our way through history – and Berlin’s art is no different. Like the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where it is pointed out that burying a cheap watch in the sand for 10,000 years will make it priceless, perhaps the giant murals of Berlin will have the same cultural value to future civilisations as the Rainbow Serpent Gallery at Ubirr in Australia.
We left Berlin and arrived in Brussels in August, and in the few weeks we’ve been living in our new home, it has become apparent that this is also a city filled with street art. Many of these seem to be based on a something Belgians appear to love: comic strips. The Adventures of Tintin, The Smurfs, and The Adventures of Asterix can be found scattered across the city.
This is a different type of street art, but I’ve also come across other impressive pieces, large and small, that are more familiar. While I can’t quite believe Brussels can compare to Berlin in the street art stakes, I’m prepared to be proved wrong. Either way, there’s lots of exploring to do to get to the truth.