It’s Wednesday, September 30th, three days into my trip, and I’m just getting over the last of the sneezing fits I get when I travel. After two days of fairly touristy activities, including climbing the Berliner Dom (and also seeing the crypts), paying a visit to the Konzerthaus, and wolfing down pastries in Hackescher Markt, Peter, my best friend since kindergarten, suggested a more adventurous outing. The next thing I know, I’m walking across railroad tracks, ducking under graffiti-covered bridges, and making friends with squatters who live in the woods near the abandoned rail cars. How did I get here? My friends bought be a ticket.
I went to a public school French immersion program from kindergarten through the 5th grade. All of my classes were taught in French, and I didn’t get a basic English class until middle school. As part of the immersion program, in 6th grade, the students were supposed to go on an exchange trip to Paris. The year I hit 6th grade, the program changed buildings, lost a ton of money, and cancelled the trip. I told my girlfriend this story in passing one day, and she decided to do something about it. She got about forty of my friends together, and they all pitched in to send me to Europe for ten days. I am a lucky man.
And how do I take advantage of the journey? By adventuring into the woods with squatters, and chatting with graffiti artists out by the railroad tracks.
Let me start over…
Germany, Berlin particularly, had huge underground art scene in the early 20th Century. During the Weimar days (post-WWI, pre-Nazi), Germany was home to a thriving subculture of jazz, post-impressionism, free-thinking, pot-smoking, surrealist intellectuals. The Dada movement? Yep, that was pretty big in Berlin. Kurt Weill? He got his start there. Ever hear of Nosferatu? Filmed in Tegel.
Then the Nazis came along. Like with most things their fascist eyeballs saw, they decided that thriving arts scene was too un-German (read: influenced by Jews) to be viewed in public. Artists, writers, and free-thinkers got blacklisted. 4000-some pieces were burned. Some were even sent off to concentration camps. High-ranking officials in the Nazi party pilfered off some of these paintings for their private collections, only to be discovered years later. It turns out Hermann Göering liked Van Gogh and Cézanne. Go figure.
So, the thriving alternative arts scene went underground during the Nazi years, re-surfacing shortly after the war. This was when the neo-expressionists came out. The Neue Wilden, or “New Wild Ones” moved into public view. Joseph Beuys started writing plays. The post-war years saw an unprecedented boom in art, and Germany was right at the head of the table.
Not long after the Wall went up in 1961 (Berlin Wall, not Pink Floyd’s album), a new kind of art began dominating the landscape in West Berlin: graffiti. It was a kind of protest; a way of raising a fist in defiance of communism, and publicly defacing Soviet property. It was subversive, it was vibrant, and it was world-changing. Artists from all over the world came to write on the 14-foot-high concrete wall. It became the largest canvas in the world.
Years later, after the Wall came down, some of the ex-soviet East Berliners began their own style of graffiti. There was something distinctly different about their work. Simon Arms of Smashing Magazine says it best: “Few doubted that the East Germans’ work was weightier. It wasn’t that they were better artists, but that they could express — with authority — the one concept close to the hearts of all people now living in the city: what it meant to be free.”
The graffiti scene only grew from there. This was what I ran into on my jaunt through the Waschauer Straße station’s perimeter, in the Friedrichshain neighborhood. New pieces, old pieces, stencils, wheat-paste posters… it was a living, breathing gallery, unlike anything I had ever seen. Graffiti has become not just part of the landscape, but a language with which the landscape tells its history.
And under the Waschauer Straße station, in a block of converted auto garages and warehouses, there is a little gallery called the Urban Spree Gallerie. This is a DIY mecca. There are classes and workshops, there are regular art shows and performances, there’s even a pair of shipping container units turned into pop-up restaurants. Inside the Gallerie, you’ll find a remarkable show by Hendrik Czakainski, and a shop with prints and books from previous shows. This little gallery acts as a kind of bridge between the conventional world of art-on-exhibit-in-a-fluorescent-lit-galleries and the world of graffiti art just outside the door. It’s more than worth the visit.
I met up with Peter later that night, and headed to Fleischerei Domke, which is one of maybe two or three German restaurants on the whole block. Peter tells me that German food is somewhat hard to find in Berlin proper, outside of the touristy areas. Most of the locals go for the international cuisine, frequenting the kabob and Indian shops that dot the neighborhoods. My dinner for my last night in the city was traditional German gulasch, which is a heaping bowl of slow-cooked beef, topped with cabbage and boiled potatoes. We ate it steaming hot, outside, at a picnic table, in the cold, as the sun dropped down over the Berlin.
We weave through the back streets of the neighborhood, dropping into bars, and drinking, I confess, a slightly less-than-conservative amount of alcohol. Finishing our shots of Calvados, Peter tells me there’s two last items we have to check off before I split for the mountains: visit the Berlin Wall, and get a shot of Berlin from the Spree. There’s a 200-meter stretch of the Wall, still fourteen feet high. still standing, still covered in decades of graffiti. We touched it, turned back toward the Oberbaumbrücke, grabbed a shot of Berlin from the bridge, and went back to the heart of the city.