Berlin Graffiti, episode two

Untenstehend, is another random sampling of Berlin graffiti for your viewing pleasure. Also, I give my broader theory about the graffiti in Berlin. I’ll get to that…but first I want to warn viewers: A Black-and-White, adult-audience CSD surprise lurks at the end of the slide show.

Not to mention, this episode is rather epic. 6o some pictures, all from yesterday…many of them even rather beautiful. I hadn’t even set out to take graffiti pictures, we simply went wandering about, but new work was everywhere I looked, and it was all so fragile and transient…and really, all this was just from shooting as we walked. Anyway…on with the theory.

First, some theoretical underpinnings, based on my unscientific observations:

Summer, for obvious reasons, the graffiti season is in full swing. And ‘season’ rather describes it. Graffiti walls are like fields of flowers in that they are ever changing: blooming, wilting and dying, always too soon.

Berlin graffiti is a living organism. It recreates itself, it breeds, seemingly spontaneously mutates, yet always with recognizable influence. The art infests certain areas, leaves some untouched, has prefered feeding areas, zones were the hunting is dangerous, but where the benefit for success great.

One way graffiti both avoids destruction and what I can only assume is its attempt to attract a mate, is its constant mutation. Berlin’s street art is infinitely diverse and always changing. Stickers, paint, marker, acrylics, paper, metals, plastics, plastic wrap and shopping carts (see episode one), found objects, stuffed animals, and just about everything else one could imagine.

A fleeting glimpse of a rare beast…before it gets killed.

Of course, as all beautiful living things on this planet, Berlin’s graffiti is under attack by man’s anal-retentive obsession with cleanliness and order, for bright lights and shiny surfaces, for internet and digital. Texture is the enemy here, it must be sanded, scrubbed and smoothed…photoshopped, cut and pasted.

Of course, graffiti haters (Bavarians especially) exclaim: “Poo Poo!” And: “Terrible…so very unsightly!” Or even the milder: “It can be a bit much. It’s just everywhere!”

My replies are as follows: 1) The city itself is graffiti on the land…why not graffiti the graffiti? I find billboards, advertisements and neon much more a public nuisance than graffiti. 2) the culprits are your children, so it’s your fault for raising them to be disrespectful, indignant brats 3) As with all art forms, without the volume of work, which invariably includes a lot of crap, but which fosters and builds creativity to a critical mass, we would never attain the true high forms of art, whatever that is judged at the time to be.

Anyway…it is for these reasons and others that I want to emphasize that my photographs of the walls, windows and doorways of Berlin are rare and special, to be compared to some hard-won, nature-ific photos of beasts lazing in the savanna, rare sloths hanging from the trees, an endangered family of dolphin in a far away drying up sea. These slide shows are like the latest National Geographic, where you catch a glimpse of our fleeting natural world. A doomed world, but a world that will fight ’til its last muscle spasm for survival. I am trying to be impartial to one or the other, more than the ‘bias’ of what happens to catch my eye.

Again: I know nothing about the industry. I tagged for a week at the age 15 (in 1988, statute of limitations should be up on that)  and Ganesha knows I’ve scribbled on my share of desks, but other than that I am in no way, shape or form, in any way claiming any competence on the subject. I am a naive, impressionable, randomly selected audience member.

Getting on to the theory…

These’s are my observations. And given: Graffiti is credited as emanating from urban culture, possibly the streets of New York. Therefore Graffiti spread to Berlin in the latter half of the 20th Century.

Yet, Berlin graffiti seemed to me to have a further influence. Another…darker power was at work here.

"Bury the Nazis" (in red) "Nazis get out is OUT (of fashion)!...Nazis get in, here we'll convert you!!" (script above)

The battered soul of Berlin’s graffiti

One thing that strikes me about graffiti in Berlin is the frequent deadly serious undertone. Surely, Graffiti has always had social-political motives…but something about Berlin’s art, has a hectic, almost apocalyptic element of the scribblings found in trenches left by soldiers. And Berlin, of course, was used for one very nasty season as a literal trench. And the thirty years of the Wall dividing this city were not a dissimilar influence. The graffiti donning the Berlin Wall had a definite ‘edge,’ being that the Wall was a literal edge a person could cut themselves on.

But it spans probably all the way back to Berlin in WWI, to the wars of Napoleon, to fearful and nervous writings on the cellar walls during the 30 Years War in the 1600’s. And surely some graffiti goes back even earlier.

The sub-genre of Toilet Graffiti is perhaps the oldest form, dating to long before even written script. The nice thing about graffiti is it doesn’t have to be literate. To be certain, there have been penises depicted on men’s toilets going back to the very first fixed toilets. We carved them on the trees before that. But that’s a common subject…we were talking about Berlin specifically. Berlin’s long list of wars.

The deadly and serious political epics through which Berlin has lived surely added another layer. What else is a political propaganda poster than state-funded graffiti?  Where the modern German youth tags and sprays, his grandfather posted perhaps political paroles, words that often translated into murderous action. In those days you read the ‘writing on the wall’ to keep abreast of news. Graffiti was the New York Times.

In any case, there is something very important and, as I said, deadly serious about some of Berlin’s graffiti.

As in all things, what saves Berlin from being too dark is the foreign influences. Perhaps only half of Berlin’s graffiti is written in German. English, French, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Russian are all very common, and in certain parts of the East, I’ve even seen Vietnamese several times.

These all enliven Berlin’s rather somber soul without a doubt…and it is in these layers that I think is the key to the soul of Berlin’s Graffiti. The layers of history, the endless invading armies, the bombs, the walls, the politics, the monarchy, the nazis, the commies, the anarchists…and now all the gentrificating artists, dandies and immigrants, and then, again, the reaction from the ‘locals’ to these influences.

Anyway…that’s my two fucking cents…and now I’m a fucking art historian and critic. Whatever.

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By the way, my last graffiti post got mentioned by An Englishman in Berlin blog, and I don’t know internet etiquette enough to know what I’m supposed to do there. Anyway, I like the blog and it’s cool to find out someone I don’t know reads my blog. So ping back at ya, Britisher lady with a man’s name blog.

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About Andrew Flohr-Spence

Something about the sound and the word. Was a singer/bassist for five years, a German major for five, an English teacher in Germany for another five, then a journalism major in Denver for 5 more, and now I'm back in Berlin (for a while, I intend).
This entry was posted in Lost in Berlin and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Berlin Graffiti, episode two

  1. Bill Spence says:

    Graffiti must be at least as old as modern humans — homo sapiens sapiens — like 200,000 years. Is graffiti mostly a spontaneous expression of self, like leaving one’s mark? The recently discovered cave in southern France shows beautiful outlines of hands and murals of ice age animals. Cave art or cave graffiti circa 32,000 years ago? I can’t wait to see the new documentary film of this by the German director Werner Herzog (he did that amazing film “Fitzcarraldo”, about some crazy guy building an opera house in the jungles of Brazil’s upper Amazon). Anyway, I enjoyed your show of Berlin graffiti and your reflections. Keep it up.

  2. Pingback: Graffiti Art « Emily@UF

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