The Future is Female … Berlin Street Art

Berlin seems to have invented a new genre of street art – mattress art. I came across the arresting sight of two mattresses being used to convey messages way beyond my understanding, while meandering aimlessly through Kreuzberg, a Berlin street art hotspot. If that wasn’t enough, on the same walk I also came across perhaps the most terrifying piece of street art I’ve ever seen. There is something properly disturbing about a giant baby/man hybrid.

Tempertot by Ron English, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Tempertot by Ron English, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

A Good Man, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

The Future Is Female by Case Ma’Claim, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

The Future Is Female by Case Ma’Claim, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Mattress art, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

What local residents think of the hideously muscular and angry-looking steroid-using baby that adorns a wall on Wassertorstrasse, is anyone’s guess. Ron English’s Tempertot is anything but easy to look at. As you might expect from an artist who paid $700,000 for a Banksy art piece and immediately threatened to whitewash over it, this Berlin piece is equally uncompromising. This isn’t the world’s only Tempertot, there’s a green one in New York that I’ll be be doing my best to avoid.

Not too far from the terrible tot, just across the Landwehr Canal, the once splendid The Future is Female by Case Maclaim has suffered defacement by what looks like someone throwing paint bombs. It’s a shame, this painting of the artist’s friend and his daughter is a great piece. I’ve seen this type of ‘attack’ on a couple of other large (building-sized) pieces in recent months, the exact same paint bomb MO.

Perhaps this is in response to the more organised and commercial form of street art that Berlin is now embracing, or maybe it’s just bog-standard vandalism. Whatever it is, it’s certainly annoying. I made my way towards Bülowstrasse, to check out what’s been going on in Urban Nation’s backyard. There were quite a few things I’d not seen before, including a wonderful art-meets-biblical history combo depicting The Last Judgement and an Angel of Mercy. These take up two side of the same building.

Along here were several new pieces, including one by Nafir, an Iranian street artist that I’ve seen a couple of times in Berlin. A woman holds a placard of protest reading ‘FREE WIFI’, which has been defaced to read ‘FREE WIFE’. There was also a woman cradling Disney’s cartoon dog, Pluto. Over the road from which is a piece called Grey Habitat. Along with a couple of other artworks, this building-specific piece has been there for a few years, but I’d never photographed it before.

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Angel of Mercy by Julien de Casabianca, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Angel of Mercy by Julien de Casabianca, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

The Last JudgementThe Last Judgement by Julien de Casabianca, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Free Wifi by Nafir, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Free Wifi by Nafir, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Anti-consumerism polar bear by Stefan Ways, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Anti-consumerism polar bear by Stefan Ways, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

In a nearby window packing tape had been used to create portraits of four people, a type of art you don’t see very often. If you know who the portraits are meant to be, let me know. My favourite piece on this Berlin ramble though, was a sticker of Donald ‘he’s going to get us all killed’ Trump. Dressed in fox hunting gear, Trump’s riding a Twitter bird (pub quiz factoid, the bird is called Larry), presumably in his attempt to hunt down truth and kill it.

That’s the beauty of Berlin street art, whether it covers a building, or is no bigger than a beer mat, there’s always something new to catch the eye as you make your way through the city.

Grab Them By The Patriarchy, Berlin winter walks

It looks like we’ll be plunged into a more drastic coronavirus lockdown soon, it might be some time before we get to walk through Berlin again. Luckily, over a recent weekend we made use of a couple of days when it wasn’t grey or raining to potter about the city. One walk took us all the way to Berlin Messe, a convention centre where the Berlin Wine Festival was being held – yes, there was an ulterior motive for getting out of the house.

To be fair, we walked around 12km through the Tiergarten and along the River Spree into the far western part of Berlin to reach the wine festival. We felt we’d earned a free glass (or two) of wine. Which might explain why we came away with twelve bottles of Austrian chardonnay – a sentence my younger self would have been shocked to hear coming out of my mouth. Given the turn of events, stockpiling Austrian chardonnay doesn’t seem so crazy now.

Holocaust Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Memorial to those killed escaping to West Berlin, Berlin, Germany

Der Rufer, or The Caller, memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Der Rufer, or The Caller, memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Bismarck Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Bismarck Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Bismarck Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

The Tiergarten starts just after the Brandenburg Gate, that symbol of Prussian power and of a divided Germany. Walking through the park from here, with a small diversion to the Reichstag, explores major events of 19th and 20th century Prussian and German history. To the side of the Reichstag is a tranquil garden commemorating the victims of the Holocaust, while on the banks of the Spree just behind here is a memorial to those killed escaping across the Berlin Wall.

A striking memorial to the horrors of war, Der Rufer, is close to the Reichstag. A figure roars out a warning, but are we listening? At its base is a line from Italian Renaissance poet, Petrarch: “I wander through the world and cry ‘Peace, Peace, Peace.’” It’s meant as a reminder to be alert to the dangers of such madness happening again. It reminded me of a Rotterdam memorial. A man looks pensively into the sky – from where death and destruction rained down on the city in 1940.

That warning seems apt as you pass the monumental memorial to the Soviet Red Army, a short walk away. It stands as a triumphant statement of Russian victory over Nazi Germany, but behind the memorial is a mass grave of thousands of Russian soldiers who died in the Battle for Berlin. In the distance is another symbol of Prussian military triumphalism, the Victory Column. Commissioned in 1864, it celebrates a victory over Denmark which enlarged Prussian possessions in Schleswig.

By the time the Victory Column was finished in 1873 Prussia had also defeated Austria and France, leading the way for German unification under the Prussian monarchy. The architects of which are commemorated nearby. The most aggressively impressive of three statues is of Otto von Bismarck. Atlas holds the world at his feet, while Germania stamps her foot on the neck of a subdued lion. Subtle it is not. Either side of Bismarck are statues to two other Prussian military men, Roon and Moltke.

Holocaust Memorial on site of former synagogue, Berlin, Germany

Holocaust Memorial on site of former synagogue, Berlin, Germany

Holocaust Memorial on site of former synagogue, Berlin, Germany

Moltke Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Reichstag, Berlin, Germany

Soviet Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

Soviet Memorial, Tiergarten, Berlin, Germany

The history lesson continued after we left the Tiergarten and entered Moabit. Here on the unassuming Levetzowstrasse is a poignant memorial to the Holocaust. The site was formerly one of the largest synagogues in Berlin, the memorial consists of a railway goods car that was used to transport Jews to the death camps in Poland. There’s  also  a statue of huddled people waiting to get into the car. A metal sculpture details Berlin’s synagogues prior to the rise of National Socialism.

On one of the granite figures a prominent ‘Z’ can be seen. This is a references to Zyklon B, a cyanide-based gas used to murder more than a million people in the gas chambers of the Holocaust. It’s a shocking and sobering sight. We definitely needed a glass of wine, so crossed the Spree and the Landwehr Canal to the Deutsche Opera where a U Bahn was waiting to takes us the last leg of our journey.

The Postman Always Rings Twice … Berlin Street Art

I’m regularly impressed by the way Germany continues to openly confront its 20th century history, whether the horrors of National Socialism or the divisions of post-war communism. Some might say that the scale of the crimes committed by the Nazis make it impossible to do otherwise, that a defeated and occupied Germany after 1945 had little choice but to account for the crimes committed in those terrible few years, but it’s rare to find such honesty in a European nation.

Consider Britain’s role in perpetuating centuries of human suffering when it controlled the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Twelve million Africans were enslaved and shipped to the Americas, the consequences of which continue to haunt all three continents to this day. You’ll be waiting a long time to hear a similarly honest recognition of those crimes in British public life. Historical denial, and a longing for a fictional past when half the world map was coloured pink, is one cause of Brexit.

The Unforgotten by Nils Westergard, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Engeika, Street Art by Irish artist Fin DAC, Berlin, Germany

Engeika, Street Art by Irish artist Fin DAC, Berlin, Germany

Engeika, Street Art by Irish artist Fin DAC, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art by queer artist Hugo Gyrl, Berlin, Germany

It’s almost impossible to imagine a piece of street art adoring the side of a building in London similar to the giant artwork, The Unforgotten, by Belgian-American artist Nils Westergard found on Berlin’s Bülowstrasse. This striking image is of Walter Degen, deported to Auschwitz and later Mauthausen concentration camps for being homosexual. The bright pink triangle, the symbol the Nazis forced gay men to wear, illuminates the grey camp uniform.

At the bottom of the image, railway tracks enter the gates of a concentration camp. This piece of art is fittingly in the Schöneberg district, a neighbourhood that’s home to many gay run and gay friendly businesses, bars and restaurants. It’s also home to the best burger in town, but that’s another story. Like the epic, Refugees Welcome, this is a strand of ‘artivism’. Yet again, it’s part of Urban Nation’s One Wall project, known as One Wall – One Message.

Bülowstrasse is the epicentre of Urban Nation’s world, and it’s a fascinating area with an ever-changing collection of street art to explore. It was along here that I came across several pop art-like pieces of poster art by The Postman collective. In this case the postman rang three times, not twice. There’s also plenty of street art to be found along Köpenicker Strasse, which runs through the anarchist-chic Kreuzberg district. In fact, there seems to be a bit of a street art revival along here.

Walking through this district is also a handy route to reach my favourite Mexican bar-cafe, Ta’Cabrón Taqueria – an ideal way to combine a love for Mexican food and street art. It was while wandering down this road that I came across the amazing Engeika by Irish artist Fin DAC. This is a deceptive piece, merging with the surrounding walls and ground so that it becomes tricky to know what’s real and what isn’t. It’s also very colourful, making it easier to spot.

Street Art by The Postman, Berlin, Germany

Street Art by The Postman, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Swiss Made, Street Art by The One Truth Brothers, Berlin, Germany

Swiss Made, Street Art by The One Truth Brothers, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

It was along this stretch of road that I came across a piece that caught my eye thanks to the words, ‘My First Pride Was A Riot’. This is the only art I’ve found by US-based queer artist, Hugo Gyrl. It seemed fitting to have this positive message about sexuality and diversity in the same city that commissioned Nils Westergard’s The Unforgotten.

A winter’s morning on Peacock Island

The whimsical-sounding Pfaueninsel, Peacock Island, isn’t some magical place straight out of the pages of Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or Homer’s Odyssey. It’s not even from the fevered imaginings of Jerome K. Jerome’s literary yarn, Three Men in a Boat. Pfaueninsel is the very real creation of the pleasure-loving King of Prussia, Frederick William II – if a pleasure-loving Prussian isn’t an oxymoron. Set amidst lovely forests, Pfaueninsel is an easy day trip from Berlin.

Despite inflicting an unbending Protestantism on his subjects, Frederick William II was an indolent individual whose religious views seemed to apply only to others. He was twice married, divorcing his first wife and having seven children with his second wife. He had a mistress, Wilhelmine Enke, with whom he had another five children, and simultaneous morganatic marriages with two other women. To anyone who isn’t King of Prussia, this is known as bigamy.

Pfaueninsel or Peacock Island, Berlin, Germany

Pfaueninsel or Peacock Island, Berlin, Germany

Pfaueninsel or Peacock Island, Berlin, Germany

Peacock, Pfaueninsel or Peacock Island, Berlin, Germany

Dairy, Pfaueninsel or Peacock Island, Berlin, Germany

River Havel near Potsdam, Germany

It was his desire to please his mistress Wilhelmine Enke, who Frederick William made a countess in 1796, that led to the creation of Pfaueninsel. To the fairytale twin-towered white palace overlooking the River Havel, Frederick William added a menagerie. This included crocodiles, kangaroos, wolves, monkeys and peacocks, as well as some lions. Most ended up in Berlin Zoo, but some peacocks remained at liberty, their descendants freely roaming around to this day.

Given how many children Frederick William and Wilhelmine had, the island’s original name, Rabbit Island, seems just as fitting, if less ‘royal’. The ferry ride to reach the island is perhaps the shortest in Germany. It takes less than 60 seconds to cross the narrow stretch of water. A return trip costs €4, making it perhaps the most expensive ferry ride in Germany.

I arrived after a fantastic walk from Glienicker Bridge along the forested banks of the Havel. The route follows along the line of the Berlin Wall, which at this point separated the outer limits of the Allied-controlled parts of Berlin from Communist East Germany. If it wasn’t for a few information boards, it would be almost impossible to imagine Cold War tensions in this tranquil place. Unlike all the other Prussian palaces in Potsdam, Pfaueninsel was in West Berlin.

On the island, I headed first to the castle (closed for renovation) which offers great views over the water, and then criss-crossed my way along paths towards the Meierei auf der Pfaueninsel, the dairy, on the furthest point of the island from the castle. I had yet to bump into any peacocks, but found myself passing cages where exotic birds are kept. The island is also home to several species of endangered chicken.

Dairy, Pfaueninsel or Peacock Island, Berlin, Germany

Dairy, Pfaueninsel or Peacock Island, Berlin, Germany

Pfaueninsel or Peacock Island, Berlin, Germany

Pfaueninsel or Peacock Island, Berlin, Germany

River Havel near Potsdam, Germany

River Havel near Potsdam, Germany

There are a few other buildings on the island, as well as some statues and fountains, but the main reason for coming here is for the peace and quiet the island affords. One reason to get there early. When I crossed to the island I was in the company of a family but, even in February, when I crossed back to the mainland two hours later there were about forty people waiting for the ferry (that’s a lot of €4 tickets). I imagine the island gets pretty crowded in summer.

There’s one bus per hour from the ferry to the S Bahn station at Wannsee, I could see it leaving just as I got off the ferry. I was tempted to put my feet up in the Wirtshaus zur Pfaueninsel restaurant and wait for the next bus, in the end I walked back to Wannsee along peaceful trails through the forest. It was beautiful.

Willkommen Refugees … Berlin Street Art

Art is meant to stir the soul, divide opinion and reflect humanity’s deepest, darkest desires. The Catholic Church prudishly painted fig leafs over the male genitalia of Michelangelo’s epic, The Last Judgment, fearful of the effect of such obvious sexuality on innocent minds. The Nazis banned ‘degenerate’ art, art that didn’t reflect their political, ethnic and social views. Although it didn’t stop many of them from admiring it in secret.

The power of art to provoke such responses is one reason that it retains its influence, even in an era of social media and wearable technology. I was reminded of this when I was wandering through a Berlin housing estate close to Tegel Airport. It’s not an obvious open air gallery, but it has street art powerful enough to have polarised opinion and be seized upon by opportunistic politicians seeking to exploit discord.

Little Giants by Cristian Blanxer, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Little Giants by Cristian Blanxer, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Little Giants by Cristian Blanxer, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Cycle of Life by Fintan Magee, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Blue Starling by Colin van der Sluijs and Mr. Super A, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Blue Starling by Colin van der Sluijs and Mr. Super A, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

It’s an odd feeling to be walking between tower blocks, local residents going about their daily business of walking dogs, pushing prams and carrying shopping, while forty-metre tall paintings loom overhead. Some, like the glorious Blue Starling from Dutch artists Colin van der Sluijs and Super A, seem unlikely to cause disquiet. Willkommen Refugees, by Italian artist Borondo, seems calculated to do the exact opposite.

This massive painting depicts a vulnerable and distressed young girl, a refugee, semi-naked and apparently covered in blood. In the background of a snow covered forest, a naked figure is pierced by arrows. It’s a difficult sight to ignore. With people who are fleeing terror and war dying in the Mediterranean, and being persecuted when they reach dry land, I assume that was the artist’s point. For some residents, the point was that no one asked them before it was painted.

Some people complained that it would scare, or even scar, their children, pointing to the nearby infant school. A local political candidate for the centre-right CDU (the party of Angela Merkel) saw this as a potential vote winner, and started a campaign to have it removed. I can understand local residents who had no choice in what was painted, and it is perhaps a little patronising to be force-fed this ‘lesson’ every day as they walk past. Political opportunists on the other hand …

Close to the painting is an area of refugee housing surrounded by security fencing – a familiar sight in German cities. The views of a local resident on their proximity to each other gave me pause for thought, “For the refugees … I don’t know, but if I would have seen what they had seen, I would want to see something different at a place, which will be my new home in safety … no reminder every day of a horrible past.” That’ a pretty good reason to take all residents’ views into consideration.

On Tip Toes by Hownosm, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art by The London Police, Berlin, Germany

Willkommen Refugees by Borondo, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Willkommen Refugees by Borondo, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

2268miles & Luchadora Pachamama, Tankpetrol and Queenkong, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

I Will Not Let You Down by Herakut, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

The controversy is a couple of years old now, but it highlights the impact street art can have on a community. It’s not all gentrification and independent coffee shops. This area close to Tegel is a typical working community, and while I’m sure a majority of residents thought a street art project was good for their neighbourhood, it provides proof of what happens when art offends people’s’ sensibilities. Luckily, the rest of the pieces are much more fun to look at.

I particularly liked the Herakut piece called I Will Not Let You Down, which draws on the close relationship between Berlin and the wild countryside around it. The lovely Cycle of Life by Fintan Magee, depicts the indomitable spirit to rebuild after disaster. People and plants appear on top of urban rubble, a not so difficult to understand reference to post-war Berlin. My favourite, Little Giants by Cristian Blanxer, stands in isolation a 10-minute walk away. It’s well worth the effort.

Toi et Moi … Berlin Street Art

When the sun hits it, the colours of Layer by Layer, an immense six-story high piece of art adorning the entire side of a building close to the Tagesspiegel newspaper building, glow amongst grey Berlin offices. The penetrating gaze of the child who’s about to launch a seagull from their arm is what really catches the attention though. The child is made up of multiple ‘layers’ of different people representing multiple nationalities. A comment on the multicultural city? Or the refugee crisis perhaps?

Read into it what you will, this is just one of many epic pieces from Urban Nation’s One Wall project, which can be found dotted around diverse neighbourhoods in Berlin. The idea is that these huge artworks connect people to the urban landscape in which they live. A more obvious outcome is probably creeping gentrification.

‘Layer by Layer’ by James Bullough and Telmo Miel, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

‘Layer by Layer’ by James Bullough and Telmo Miel, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

‘Layer by Layer’ by James Bullough and Telmo Miel, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

‘Layer by Layer’ by James Bullough and Telmo Miel, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

‘We are many, but allways one’ by Elle, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

‘We are many, but allways one’ by Elle, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Berlin’s street art scene has come a long way since the days when people graffitied one side of the Berlin Wall with messages of hope and despair. Urban Nation is one of the driving forces behind the city’s ever-inventive street art. The One Wall project has been bringing artists to Berlin to paint giant murals since 2014. The results are pretty spectacular.

The beautiful We Are Many, But Allways One by New Yorker, ELLE, stands as tall as the neighbouring trees in nearby Görlitzer Park. A little like Layer by Layer, it’s a mosaic of different pieces of people. This time, famous women, real and imagined. I’m fairly sure I recognise a couple of the people that make up the face that looms over pedestrians below. If you recognise anyone, let me know!

‘Toi et Moi’ by El Bocho, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art by Irish artist Fin DAC, Berlin, Germany

Street Art by Irish artist Fin DAC, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

One of the best parts of One Wall, is that they are often to be found in neighbourhoods and on streets that the average tourist, or Berlin resident for that matter, is unlikely to wander down by chance. If you want to see some of the most impressive street art the city has to offer, you have to work for it – and probably get a day pass for the public transport system.

The Urban Nation website has a handy map to help find artworks, but they are only the most visible part of Berlin’s street art scene. Wander almost anywhere and you’ll find a vast array of pieces. I spent a morning plodding the streets close to home, and came across Person to Person near Moritzplatz. Heading to ‘street art alley’, Bülowstrasse, where Urban Nation is headquartered, I ended my tour in the underrated Schöneberg district. You get plenty of exercise as a street art enthusiast.

‘Person to person’ by Agostino Iacurci, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Black and White Cat, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Black and White Cat, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

En route, I came across a couple of stencils of a black and white cat, I’ve seen others since. Despite my best efforts, I’ve not been able to unearth the name of the artist, but these amusing cats sitting on top of unlikely things (some of which clearly get removed afterwards), seem likely to be feature of Berlin’s streets for a while. There were a few animal-related pieces on my walk, including a polar bear climate refugee, A. A. Milne’s Tigger and a rat from French artist, Blek le Rat.

In Schöneberg, I was meandering my way towards my favourite burger joint, when a bright yellow wall caught my eye. Covering the entire side of a building next to a playground, a baffling scene of contemporary Berlin kids graffitiing a broken wall while watched by children who seemed to come from an earlier century appeared. An owl flew overhead. No idea what it’s supposed to represent, but it was a fun final wall of the day.

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Blek le Rat, Street Art, Berlin, Germany

The brilliance of Berlin’s Festival of Lights

Berlin’s Festival of Lights is a magnificent showpiece for the city, with some of the most iconic buildings used as temporary canvases for beautiful and inventive projections of light. Artists come from a variety of countries, and for ten days their work brings whole areas of the city to life at night. This year the festival celebrates the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, themed as Lights of Freedom. This is Berlin remembering it’s unification, with more than a passing nod towards the European Union.

Berliner Dom, Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany

Berliner Dom, Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

James-Simon-Galerie, Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany

Bode Museum, Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany

The organisers claim it’s the largest open-air gallery in the world and, with a massive two million plus visitors, it is certainly one of the most popular. If my experience at the Berliner Dom and the James Simon Gallery, both on Museum Island, is anything to go by, the 2 million mark will be easily surpassed this year. These are two of the best lights in the whole festival. The huge dome of the city cathedral becomes a canvas for a series of images, including one (tongue in cheek?) that says, “Let There Be Light”.

The park surrounding the cathedral was packed, and thanks to the weirdly hot weather people were camped out on the grass. A musician played street busker standards, and I couldn’t help a smirk when he launched into John Lennon’s anti-religion hymn, Imagine, with absolutely no sense of irony. Above us only light! I shuffled off through the crowds towards the James Simon Gallery, where a huge throng was gathered along the canal to watch a brilliantly animated light show.

Named after the 19th centuryJewish textile magnet and massive patron of the arts in Berlin, the James Simon Gallery is brand new and will serve as Museum Island’s visitor centre. Here, Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem of Kuwait has funded an incredible 10-minute ‘light mapping’ animation that combines Arabic and Western cultural references, and shows some of the gems that reside within the museums that cast a shadow over the scene. Marilyn Monroe makes a surprise appearance.

I arrived as the final couple of minutes of the show played out, and then grabbed a good viewing spot to watch it all from the beginning. It really was fantastic, and is perhaps only rivalled for technical ability by the projections at Bebelplatz. That delight was on my way home, but first I visited the light shows on the Bode Museum, at the entrance of which was another busker strangely illuminated in the light. I walked along the River Spree, past the Berliner Dom and into Alexanderplatz.

Last year, this was one of the best light shows in the festival, this year it was more than a little underwhelming. I didn’t linger and headed towards the Nikolaiviertel quarter, where things were also a little disappointing. The evening was saved by the utter magic of the light displays in Bebelplatz. There are interesting static projections on two sides of the square, but the animated projection onto the Hotel de Rome was wonderful. It was a collection of different artists’ creations. You can vote for your favourite.

By the time I arrived in Bebelplatz the crowds had started to thin out, and it was a far more relaxing experience watching the displays. I’m glad I made this my last stop, the fabulous animations and single projections on the Hotel de Rome were worth the wait. As I wandered home under an almost full moon, I felt at one with the world. A lucky bonus projection awaited me though as I walked down a street close to my apartment. The Ministry of Justice was lit up with a 30th anniversary Berlin Wall projection.

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Potsdamer Platz, Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

St. Hedwigs, Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Berlin’s Festival of Lights and Britain’s headless seagull

In a wondrous celebration intended to greet the onset of winter, the Berlin Festival of Lights is currently illuminating buildings across the German capital. It’s a special year, as the city marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many projections follow a theme of peace and unity against the odds. The history of the divided city, the Cold War and reunification, are played out on the Brandenburg Gate and the Foreign Office of the Federal Republic, amongst others.

It makes for a fascinating series of light projections of iconic moments from the period when the city was ideologically and physically divided. There are scenes of the wall being built, watchtowers searching for East Germans trying to escape to the West, the Berlin Blockade, and Allied air lift that was a lifeline for West Berliners. JFK delivers his famous speech, Willy Brandt and Ronald Reagan make an appearance. It’s another sign of how Germany has owned its history.

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Foreign Office, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Foreign Office, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

The message is clear, together we are better. That is doubly emphasised by the ever present flag of the European Union accompanied by a simple message: Europe United. The British Embassy is taking part in the Festival of Lights this year (it was noticeable by its absence last year). As I left the euphoria of Germany in 1989 at the Brandenburg Gate behind and turned the corner towards my own embassy, I hoped for an equally compelling message of hope.

Actually, 10 metre high letters spelling out the words “We’re Sorry” would have been enough for me. What I wasn’t expecting was a chilling insight into the current state of British society and politics. There, high above me, was a montage of British landscapes, including a sheep and a headless seagull. Intentional or not, is there currently a more accurate metaphor for Brexit Britain? Whatever led to the British projecting a headless seagull next to a sheep onto their embassy, it definitely seemed political.

I had to stop myself from explaining this theory to two young Americans who walked past. American number one looked at the embassy building and said, “What it it?” To which American number two cautiously said, “I think it’s a seagull.” The response of American number one was both unerringly accurate and damning of the British body politic. “That’s rubbish,” she said. It’s not easy being British in Europe right now, but I wasn’t about to disagree with that withering assessment.

The Festival of Lights is one of the best moments in the city’s calendar, and hundreds of thousands of people make the effort to visit. It makes the main sights pretty crowded, but also gives Berlin a carnival atmosphere. It’s fun joining onlookers as they make the slow progression from one place to the next. This has been helped by unseasonably hot weather. I was wearing shorts and flip flops at ten o’clock at night. For an all-too brief moment you can pretend Berlin is on the Mediterranean.

Foreign Office, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

British Embassy, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

British Embassy, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Consumer Justice Ministry, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Consumer Justice Ministry, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

The festival isn’t about politics – and I’m not even sure the British Embassy was trying to be controversial – but, in a year when Germans remember a divided past and look to a united future, it’s hard not to start dwelling on Britain’s attempts to isolate itself from Europe. I lost myself and my thoughts amongst the crowds along the Unter den Linden, as I headed towards Humboldt University and another grouping of light projections in Bebelplatz.

She Is Gone … Berlin Street Art

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.

Believe in Dog by Fannakapan, Street Art, Berlin

Ricky Lee Gordon, Street Art, Berlin

Underwater Kiss by insane 51, Street Art, Berlin

Snik & Nuno, Street Art, Berlin

We Are by Innerfields, Street Art, Berlin

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.

El Bocho, Street Art, Berlin

El Bocho, Street Art, Berlin

Little Lucy and El Bocho, Street Art, Berlin

El Bocho, Street Art, Berlin

El Bocho, Street Art, Berlin

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.

Sailing down the Spree to Müggelsee

Berlin is a city of water, and the surrounding region of Brandenburg is teeming with lakes and waterways. If you fly into the city just at sunset, you can see dozens of bodies of water glowing orange in the sun. One of the most ‘Berlin’ things to do in summer is to head to a lake, any lake, to swim and relax on the freshwater beaches. Some of my colleagues at work hop on their bikes and cycle to a nearby lake for a lunchtime swim. It makes a lot of sense when the city is sweltering in sultry summer heat.

Langer See, Berlin, Germany

Seddinsee, Berlin, Germany

River Spree, Berlin, Germany

River Spree, Berlin, Germany

Old factory on the River Spree, Berlin, Germany

Schloss Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

Brandenburg is said to have 3,000 lakes, around 80 are considered to be Berlin lakes. This includes some formidable waterways. The impressive Tegeler See, close to the nearby airport, is joined to the Wannsee by the River Havel, eventually merging with the Tiefer See at Potsdam. These were popular spots for West Berliners during the Cold War, but residents in the East could claim the biggest of all Berlin’s lakes, the Müggelsee, as their own.

On a recent Sunday we decided to explore some of these waterways on a boat trip to the Müggelsee. We started from Treptow Park and, for the next five hours, we chugged along the River Spree through the eastern suburbs of the city to Köpenick. The journey along the river passed through a predominantly industrial part of former East Berlin, interesting but not beautiful. At Köpenick, we sailed down a tributary of the Spree into the Müggelsee – the middle of which feels more like the ocean than a lake.

From here we cut through a narrow channel in the Müggelspreewiesen, a picturesque nature reserve. This is home to an area known as New Venice, between the Müggelsee and the Dämeritzsee. New Venice came into being in 1926 with the construction of several canals, and it’s home to a mix of upmarket houses and small shacks. Bizarrely, it was first named New Cameroon. I’ve been to Cameroon, there are few similarities. In Communist times, this is where high ranking officials had their dachas.

It’s a beautiful area and, speaking as someone who lives in the middle of Berlin, it’s a little envy-inducing. To really explore the area you’d need a small boat or canoe, we were on a large boat and headed instead for the Gosener Canal which connects to the Seddinsee and then the Langer See, two long stretches of water surrounded by forests. It’s utterly beautiful, and completely wonderful to be in nature so close to Berlin’s 3.5 million residents.

Schloss Köpenick, Berlin, Germany

New Venice, Berlin, Germany

Müggelsee, Berlin, Germany

Seddinsee, Berlin, Germany

New Venice, Berlin, Germany

Müggelsee, Berlin, Germany

Eventually we arrived back in Köpenick, passing Schloss Köpenick on the way. Here everyone on board had to duck their heads as we passed under the Lange Brücke. After stopping to drop some people off, we set off back down the Spree towards the heart of Berlin. We’d been sailing for five hours but had barely scratched the surface of Berlin’s waterways. Despite that, by the time we arrived at Treptow it felt like we’d left the city days earlier.

There are hundreds of kilometres of waterways here, and exploring this watery urban landscape gives a completely different perspective on the city. Oddly, it makes it more human, especially compared to the often grimy concrete parts of Berlin.