The meeting place for the street art tour by Alternative Berlin Tour was easy for me to find. I looked for the guide at the base of the Berlin Television Tower in front of the Starbucks. I loved the irony of starting an alternative walking tour in front of a Starbucks.
Ben from New Zealand, our tour guide for the afternoon, was easy to spot. He fit my expectations completely: very hip and young-looking. Having lived in Berlin for the last seven years as an artist – both graffiti and otherwise – he seemed to know his stuff.
We started off nearby, walking a street along the raised railway tracks, where we could see details of various types of graffiti (or street art, depending on your point of view) close up. This was the kind of street I would normally hurry past: posters peeling from the walls, many pasted on top of older ones. I normally wouldn’t even look.
Under Ben’s tutelage, I learned things about graffiti / street art I never realized. For example, some of it is on paper, rather than painted. The artist can take his time creating the work at home, then paste it on a wall in just a few seconds. That way the police are less likely to catch him than if he stayed to paint it right onto the wall. Some artists make and use stencils for the same reason.
A lot of graffiti is just “tags.” A name, quickly spray-painted, that essentially says “Hello world, I exist.” In order to earn respect, though, graffiti artists have to do either “crazy stuff” or “amazing work.”
Ben pointed out a few examples of “crazy stuff.” This included a tag in a parking garage which clearly required inching along a ridiculously narrow ledge with a risk of falling perhaps 15 meters.
He showed us some graffiti high up on a building (This was after we’d all taken the metro to another part of town.). To paint one section, the artist had to lie on his belly and paint downwards using a roller. Another section of graffiti required rappelling down the building. A third section is fire extinguisher painting, which requires filling a fire extinguisher with paint and water and spraying it. Keep in mind that all of these examples are illegal, so the artists have to work quickly, and presumably at night so as avoid notice.
I should point out that if you are anti-graffiti, Alternative Berlin Tour might not be the tour for you. Ben did not even address any ethical questions involved in any of the graffiti/art he showed us. The assumption was that the artists have to get their work seen any way they can. They expect, Ben said, that the art they put out on the street won’t last. It’ll wear off or be painted over. Its fleeting nature, he implied, is part of what makes it art.
Ben took us to an alley near the Schwarzenberg Haus, a safe zone of sorts for street artists. Sure enough, we saw some amazing work there: stunningly detailed and colorful artworks lined the walls. You can click through the slide show below to see some of the pictures I took there.
This was the kind of street art I had come to see. I wandered around the courtyard, and noticed some interesting details, like these small images:
Or this figure peering down from above one of the bigger works of art:
Ben showed us a part of the city called Kreuzberg. In the Berlin Wall period, this was a bad neighborhood, which means housing prices were cheap. It drew artistic types and became a supportive alternative community. Naturally, that drew East Germans as well, once the Wall fell.
We walked by an odd little building next to a lush-looking garden. Ben explained that it was “the house that Osman built.” The little sliver of land it stands on was once a part of East Berlin, but when the East German government built the Berlin Wall, this piece of land was cut off on the West German side. It quickly became a dumping ground for all kinds of old furniture and other junk.
A man named Osman, who lived across the street, decided to clear the land and plant a garden. He used the bits and pieces of furniture to build himself a little house. He doesn’t live there anymore, but after the fall of the Wall, the land was gifted to him, and now his family takes care of it. It’s called the Mauer Garten now.
We finished the tour at YAAM, which stands for Young African Art Market. A row of beach bars used to line the river Spree in this part of the city, but one by one they were replaced by the development we could see down the river. YAAM was one of those clubs, and it’s the last one left. It’s had to move further down the riverside after being evicted from its original site.
While Berlin is rapidly developing and gentrifying at the moment, the alternative community is fighting fiercely to hold on to its authenticity and resist what they see as the mainstream, uniform culture that the developers are trying to put in its place. YAAM is one of these holdouts. Though I couldn’t stay, it looks like it would be fun place to hear some African music and sample African food on a weekend evening.
The Alternative Berlin Tour that I took was free, with the understanding that you will tip the guide what you feel the tour was worth. The company also runs paid tours that delve into other aspects of Berlin’s local and alternative communities. They’re worth a look.
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