When it comes to street art, Berlin is truly the gift that keeps on giving. The Berlin that has emerged following reunification in 1990 has become synonymous with street art. The city’s revival as one of Europe’s most dynamic capitals has, in part, been forged by its association with cutting-edge street art. Formerly grim neighbourhoods have been revitalised and many are now in different stages of gentrification. For better or worse, street art has been a significant driver behind this trend.
I’m a little fascinated by the role of street art in communities, and the way it changes perceptions of a neighbourhood – good or bad. The evolution of street art from fringe, barely legal, activity to mainstream culture in which the most famous street artists can command serious money for their work, is a phenomenon. One that begs a number of question. What is street art? How does it differ from graffiti? Who gets to adjudicate on what is art and what is graffiti?
Ugly and alienating, graffiti is viewed by many as vandalism and is strongly associated with crime and anti-social behaviour. Ever since the Broken Windows Theory became popular in the 1980s – which influenced the zero tolerance approach to policing in New York City in the 1990s under the leadership of the increasingly deranged Rudy Giuliani – a debate has raged over whether illicit or illegal street art is socially acceptable. Does it feed the sense of social disorder that leads to increased crime?
Dynamic, attractive and increasingly seen as a ‘must have’ accessory for the modern urban environment, contemporary street art seems a millions miles from the former image of graffiti. It can position a city on the global stage and lure lucrative tourist euros into local businesses. So much so that street art festivals have become popular ways of expressing the modernity and dynamism of an aspiring city. This runs the risk of the corporatisation of street art and the loss of its anti-establishment appeal.
This is especially true in a city like Berlin, where street art is often overtly political, a chain of thought that began when I came across a story of a street art ‘installation’ in a communitiy in the Tegel district. Nicknamed ‘bloody refugee’, it depicts a young girl refugee bloodied and bruised, and standing in a pool of blood. At 42-metres in height, it’s a massive piece that covers the side of an apartment block, and is so life-like that it upset local residents when it was unveiled in 2016. They started a petition to have it removed.
Perhaps the powerful message was more shocking because of the political context of Germay’s acceptance of over a million refugees, but isn’t that the role of art? Especially, perhaps, of street art? It may not be on a par with Picasso’s Guernica, but it cemented for me the idea that street art can and should be challenging, even if it’s hard to view sometimes. I get the feeling that in the rush to be ‘liked’ and ‘accepted’, street art has lost some of its soul. I’ve yet to visit this bit of town, but one day soon hopefully.
Meanwhile, our meanderings around Berlin have brought us face-to-face with plenty of interesting peices of wall art. Some new favourites include the Wolf of Prenzlauer Berg by Argentinian artist, Alaniz, a mural of rabbits burrowing under the Berlin Wall by British artist collective, Nomad Clan, not to mention Captain Berlin, found on the walls of a comic book store.