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Changing face of street art in Berlin

Can the German capital's art scene stay vibrant amid urban renewal drive?

Walk down a street in Berlin and chances are you will be greeted with wall murals covering six-storey- high buildings or cut-out posters of dancing people peeking out at street corners.

Or you might find tiny figures made of cork demonstrating yoga positions atop traffic lights and street signs, or elaborate knitted art decorating street poles.

Welcome to the world's street art capital, whose unique history, including the Berlin Wall dividing East from West Germany, has drawn artists from all over the world over the last three decades.

But Berlin's renewed prominence as Germany's seat of government and growing economic clout have attracted investors and fuelled rising property prices and demands for urban regeneration.

Experts and artists warn that the changing environment is threatening to call time on the bohemian urban art scene.

 "If I don't go out and change the streets at night, then I'm not a street artist." A commissioned work at an electric ligh
A commissioned work at an electric lightbox in a Berlin park. Some developers are commissioning murals to make the surroundings look more lively, even as the outdoor canvas for urban artists shrinks with the sprucing up of buildings. ST PHOTO: NEO HUI MIN

URBAN PLAYGROUND NO MORE

You can't imagine what happened here - Prenzlauer Berg (an eastern Berlin district) was like a big urban playground. The houses were abandoned and empty, a lot of punks lived here, a lot of artists too.

DR DIANA MAROSSEK, who runs an initiative that documents urban art and helps promote the artists, on how many buildings on the eastern side of Berlin were left uninhabited as easterners flooded West Germany for jobs and more opportunities.

WAKE-UP CALL TO THE CITY

For me, the white - well, in this case black - washing also signifies a rebirth: as a wake-up call to the city and its dwellers, a reminder of the necessity to preserve affordable and lively spaces of possibility, instead of producing undead taxidermies of art.

LUTZ HENKE, who collaborated with artist Blu on one of the murals that had been painted over in black overnight. Blu had called for the blackout of the two well-known murals to protest against gentrification, which artists find stifling.

  • Connecting the gallery with the street

  • You could almost say that El Bocho was born to be an urban artist.

    After all, his fascination with graffiti began when he was a pre-schooler.

    "My first contact was when I was four years old. I saw some really good stencil graffiti in the streets in Frankfurt," he recounted. "I didn't understand it but it was clear it was illegal, and I was fascinated but I didn't know how to do this."

    As he got older, a friend initiated him into the scene, and that became the beginning of a 26-year career in street art that has taken him to cities around the world.

    El Bocho, whose identity is a closely guarded secret, is now one of a handful of artists who have both made a name on the streets but also sell their works in galleries.

    His works include a series inspired by a television programme called Little Lucy, as well as another called Citizens, which are portraits of women, often carrying a message.

    Even though producing for galleries is far more lucrative, he has stayed faithful to street art.

    In fact, he tries to get gallery visitors - who are often not the same crowd as graffiti spotters - to go out into the streets to hunt for his work.

    "In the beginning, there was often a connection between the piece in the street and the one in the gallery. It could be the same character but with a different typography, or there was a question in the street and an answer in the gallery," said El Bocho.

    "In galleries, you see older people, who may be 80 or 90 years old, but if you tell them the concept behind it, they totally love it," he added. "And they say, 'oh now, I'm going out to the streets where I can see the art'. You can open their eyes."

  • Neo Hui Min

"In the 2005-to-2010 period, investors began coming... and the whole street art scene turned," Dr Diana Marossek, who runs an initiative that documents urban art and helps promote the artists, told The Straits Times.

She pointed, in particular, to a controversial extensive urban renewal project along both sides of the river Spree that flows through central Berlin, and which covered 180ha of land. It is one of many that have arrived in Berlin in the last decade, changing the German capital's facade - and also, some say, its soul.

Berlin's vibrant street art scene was born out of its Cold War history, when the then East German government decided to build an "anti-fascist protection wall" to stop citizens from fleeing to the West. Erected overnight, the wall divided families and friends for 28 years from Aug 13, 1961, to Nov 9, 1989.

Stretching 155km long and reaching up to 4m in height, the wall was a powerful symbol of the East-West divide following the end of World War II.

While East German guards kept its people away from the wall, on the western side, it became the world's biggest open-air canvas for graffiti artists.

Among them is Thierry Noir, oft credited as the first artist to paint on the wall in 1984, filling the grey concrete slabs with his colourful big-lipped, cartoon-like characters.

The fall of the wall in 1989 gave way to the golden age for the street art scene as artists from the East joined their western counterparts in painting over the concrete slabs to celebrate their newfound freedom.

The largest section of the wall still standing today has been painted by 118 artists from 21 countries in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the barrier. Named the East Side Gallery, the 1.3km stretch is today one of the most visited sights in Berlin.

But even the last remaining stretch has fallen victim to graffiti, prompting the local authorities late last year to fence off the wall, a Unesco World Heritage site since 2011.

As easterners flooded the West for jobs and more opportunities, many buildings on the eastern side of Berlin were left uninhabited.

"You can't imagine what happened here - Prenzlauer Berg (an eastern Berlin district) was like a big urban playground. The houses were abandoned and empty, a lot of punks lived here, a lot of artists too," said Dr Marossek.

"In 1991, 1992... when I was young, I would look out the windows and see the big boys painting the trains. And there was all the freedom, artists came from all over the world to Berlin, it was still cheap then, and open," she recalled.

But as the capital is being cleaned up as part of urban renewal, Berlin finds itself struggling with its love-hate relationship with the guerilla artists.

On the one hand, the street culture has attracted tourists, and the city authorities were promoting trails for visitors to admire the most outstanding murals.

Most recently, the Culture Ministry has supported the creation of a museum devoted to showcasing urban art. It is due to open later this year.

But urban art encompasses graffiti, and while there is a general appreciation among Berlin residents for wall murals or posters, not everyone is happy when their storefronts are sprayed over.

The German rail has its own security forces to stop graffiti artists in their tracks. It estimates that across Germany, damage from graffiti reaches €8 million (S$12 million) annually.

Berlin's underground service BVG was also not impressed when an entire bedroom was installed in a station last year, or when flower boxes, which are potential safety hazards, started appearing on a train.

The police also have a special task force to crack down on illegal sprayers.

"Everyone is promoting street art, saying 'come here, we've got graffiti and street art', and, at the same time, they have special units, task forces working against it," said Dr Marossek.

 "If I don't go out and change the streets at night, then I'm not a street artist." A commissioned work at an electric ligh
The East Side Gallery (above), a 1.3km stretch of the Berlin Wall painted by more than 100 artists, has been fenced off to keep graffiti away. ST PHOTO: NEO HUI MIN

On a cold December day in 2014, Berliners woke up to find that two of the city's best-known murals, by an artist called Blu, had been painted over in black.

For days, there was speculation about whether the government had ordered the facades cleaned, or if property owners had demanded it.

As it turned out, it was Blu himself who had called for the blackout to protest against gentrification, which artists find stifling.

Lutz Henke, who collaborated with Blu on one of the murals, explained in a column in The Guardian then: "For me, the white - well, in this case black - washing also signifies a rebirth: as a wake-up call to the city and its dwellers, a reminder of the necessity to preserve affordable and lively spaces of possibility, instead of producing undead taxidermies of art."

Many of these big-name artists have simply chosen to leave Berlin.

"You ask me who among the big, international boys still lives here? At the moment, no one except El Bocho. They don't like the investor scene," said Dr Marossek, referring to investors driving up property prices.

 "If I don't go out and change the streets at night, then I'm not a street artist." A commissioned work at an electric ligh
(Left) A mural in Berlin by street artist Plus Minus Null. (Right) Artist Victor Ash's Astronaut is a well-known mural in the hip Kreuzberg district. ST PHOTOS: NEO HUI MIN

Yet, even if buildings are being spruced up, shrinking the outdoor canvas for urban artists, other opportunities are opening up.

Some developers, for instance, are commissioning murals to make the surroundings look more lively.

For purists, however, such commissioned work is not the same.

"I could ask the owner of the building if I could paint on his wall. But for me, it's very important to go out at night and reclaim the city, to do the things I want to do without asking someone because then, the art is really free," said El Bocho, one of Berlin's most successful urban artists.

"If I ask the owner, and the owner says it's a nice piece but maybe don't use pink, use blue, and change the typography, then it's not my art," he said.

"If I don't go out and change the streets at night, then I'm not a street artist."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2017, with the headline 'Changing face of street art in Berlin'. Print Edition | Subscribe