Berlin Street Art – Graffiti Has “Destroyed” A Great German City

street art berlin

 

I

‘m rarely negative on Yomadic. Mainly, because I’ve been travelling for five months, three continents, and a big handful of countries – so far.  I’ve gained a big serving of perspective on the world we all live in. Which brings me to Berlin. If there’s one thing I truly can’t be negative about – its Berlin street art. Call it graffiti if you will. I’ll continue to call it street art in this article. I have no preference. Either way, I find it difficult to think of a single example of street art or graffiti that has negatively effected any city, on any country, on Earth. When I say “destroyed”, I mean it. As in “we destroyed that breakfast buffet, that bacon was unbelievable!”. It’s street slang thang. People, it’s time for some perspective.

Cities around the world spend a sizeable fortune every day, removing street art and graffiti in the name of cleanliness and beautification. As with most things I disagree with, I can only assume this is due to the wishes of a vocal minority. Most cities have far higher priorities than removing graffiti – which by it’s very nature is temporary. Indeed, in an Ironic twist, London authorities are now spending serious cash to protect some street art from decay, such is the appeal. Copenhagen Denmark, a success story when it comes to urban planning, embraces street art. As does Berlin.

Berlin street art is, in a word, prolific. In areas like Friedrichshain – a hip inner city Berlin district – tags, paintings, murals, political statements, fine art, and sculpture cover everything from houses to shop fronts, to trains and historical monuments. Sometimes, cars. And unless there had been an enormous influx of artists in the last few weeks, it’s safe to say nobody is too interested in removing any of the art.

 

Friedrichshain - Berlin street art on private residence

graffiti covered car -  Berlin

Friedrichshain street art - Berlin

Incredible street art chiseled into a Berlin wall

friedrichshain graffiti

Berlin street art

Despite this abundance of illegal street art and graffiti, or perhaps because of it, areas like Friedrichshain remain among the most desirable Berlin locations for Berliners and tourists alike. On streets that are particularly well endowed, a regular site is camera-toting tourists – smiling away and taking snaps of this incredibly raw, vibrant, and authentic display of art.

Most cities would frown upon this level of “destruction” or “vandalism”, seeking to clean, sanitise and gentrify their inner-city areas. Which is a futile and ignorant attempt to attract the very same demographic that this inauthentic “beautification” repels. Could your city learn anything from Copenhagen, London, or Berlin? Most probably.

Berlin Street Art – A Tourist Attraction?

My own city, of Perth, Australia, is a typical example of how not to do things. A recent push to attract more inner city activity, has involved a “reactivation” of the many historical laneways the city has to offer. Grand Lane, in the center of the CBD, was one of the first targets for the City Council.

The first step was to clean the lane-ways of the existing patina of art, only to commission an out-of-state artist to spray-paint a mural (a collage of birds, no less) – at a cost to tax payers of almost $90,000 US dollars. Ironically, the lane-way has so far attracted no more tourists, locals, or businesses than it did before the government initiated program. The newly sterilised environment continues to be a burden to the local council, now spending funds to constantly clean the mural of any “unauthorised” street art in the same location.

Berlin street art tourist attraction

legal berlin street art

illegal graffiti berlin

East Side Gallery - Berlin

tagging at East Side Gallery - Berlin

The Berlin east side gallery - river side

One of the last fragments of the infamous Berlin wall is appropriately named “The East Side Gallery”. Located on the river Spree, the wall is over one kilometer in length. On the street facing, more visible side, artists from around the world were invited to come and each paint a section. The local authorities later became concerned about these “legal” pieces of street art being “defaced” by “nonlegal” street art. A compromise has been reached, and it is a much better solution than the Grand Lane experiment of Perth.

On the other side of the East Side Gallery wall, “illegal” Berlin street artists have been allowed to take over. Personally, I find the raw energy of this river facing side – where local street artists (aka graffiti writers) have gone to town – much more interesting to check out. I’m not alone with this opinion, on the day I visited, it was this river facing side, hidden from passers-by, that was the main attraction for most visitors. Once again, the public have decided for themselves what is and what isn’t “good” street art.

Art is an incredibly subjective thing. I worked for two years as manager for a contemporary art gallery, up until June this year. It was a busy gallery, and I learned a lot about the diversity of how different art appeals to different people. Street art is a tricky one for many people – despite it’s popularity, there remains a lot of confusion about what is “acceptable”, or even, what is and what isn’t street art. At its basics – street art is art that’s in the streets. This runs the gamut from intricate and technically skilled brush work paintings, through to the patina and layering of graffiti tags and murals. Suffice to say – which example of street art and graffiti may appeal to you, may not appeal to others – and vice versa.

With the proliferation of Berlin street art, there is of course the legality issue. Truth be told, many graffiti artists are not known for their respect of the convention of laws, nor personal property. Although the artists often abide to an unwritten code of what is an what isn’t acceptable, this differs from city to city, and from artist to artist.

It is not the purpose of this article to discuss what is and what isn’t acceptable in this respect. As with the subjectivity of the quality of the art, people have differing views on where street art should appear. Should it be restricted to public buildings? Is it acceptable to paint on somebodies apartment facade? These are only difficult questions if you personally allow them to be.

large format street art Berlin

street art Berlin

gold marie hotel

east side gallery artists

street photography berlin

east side gallery berlin street art graffiti

Berlin street art - Friedrichshain

 

My personal opinion, is that graffiti writers/street artists are among the most talented and prolific artists there are in the world today. In this day, people around the world are rightly fascinated by street art and graffiti. Which makes Berlin such a spectacular destination for fans of pubic art. Berlin is renowned for it’s heritage in street art and graffiti, for good reason.

That’s my take. I dare say if you’ve got this far into the article, street art/graffiti is probably something that you enjoy. Berlin is an incredible city for this style of art, and Friedrichshain is as good a place as any to stay when you’re visiting.

If you have any tips on where else in Berlin to find some good streets, or if you have your own opinions on street art or graffiti, feel free to let me know in the comments below. One thing I enjoy about this forum, is allowing people to express their opinions – whether they agree or disagree with me. It would be a pretty boring world if everyone agreed with each other, on matters of art especially.

Hope you enjoyed the photos of street art in Berlin.

Nate.

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PPS, want to take better travel photos?   Sure, having a nice camera like my Fuji X-Pro is helpful. But, it’s not about your camera – it’s about quickly and easily learning how to use it, and learning what makes a good photo. Want to take better travel photos?  Click here, for my number one recommendation. It’s a book you could have in your hands in the next few minutes – and be on your way to drastically improving your photography.

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41 thoughts on “Berlin Street Art – Graffiti Has “Destroyed” A Great German City

  1. Great update as always Nate.

    You raise some very interesting points about the blurring between art, trash, right, wrong, good, bad, legal, illegal etc. Certainly there is no answer to this question, but I think it’s clear that street art can add a lot to an area.

    There will always be people who think it is their prerogative to vandalise anything they choose, but throughout my travel, and I’m sure you’ll agree, the “unwritten rule” that you refer to seems to be by and large observed.

    Whatever the answer is to those issues, I don’t think it can be doubted that, certainly in Berlin, the presence of street art, combined with an element of decay, discovery and adventure creates a visually stimulating experience for those who experience it.

      1. I just came back from Berlin and I am a strong supporter of the grafiti in some situations.

        However, only around 30% of the graffiti in Berlin is art. The rest is disgusting.

        I was shocked. It may be added to the fact that they city as a whole is dirty. (Garbage everywhere).

        I feel the city has given up. And just accepts the disgust.

        Your pictures that you have taken are beautiful. But you failed to take the rest of the street, which shows how crappy it all is.

  2. Another great article and pics Nate.
    I was in Berlin for a few days in September and managed to get myself over to Teufelsberg – the abandoned CIA spy station, some epic street art through out that place.

        1. Ahh good taste in cities, Ash. I’ve also seriously contemplated moving to Berlin next year. Thanks for the link, will have a read now. Edit – just had a look, what an amazing location!

  3. Hi Nate – what a great blog – I’m really enjoying it!

    Interesting article. I think some of the grafitti here is amazing, but some of the others (eg. images 3, 4 & 6) just look to me like a city that has given up trying to stop vandalism.

    You and Paul are right though, that the boundaries between what is considered ‘art’ and ‘vandalism’ are often blurred. Perhaps thats part of the attraction of these images?

    If you ever get to visit Bristol (UK) you might see some of the Banksy grafitti that has attracted attention over here.

    Cheers,
    Don

    1. Thanks for your comment Don. I find the whole Banksy thing quite fascinating – he’s one of a very few number of artists whose illegal art has now become highly coveted, and even protected (at taxpayer expense). The point you made about “a city that has given up trying to stop vandalism” – well, that’s the question isn’t it? Banksy is a vandal as well, right?

    2. I agree with Don,

      and from what I gathered from my visits, they are trying to become a prime tourist desination (rebuilding of the palace).

      And it may appeal to some, I believe the mast majority of tourists (espcially the rich tourist) would prefer to have the front of their hotel free of graffiti.

      Doesn’t mean you need to do that everywhere. But clean up some.

  4. Great post! I’ve always had a fascination with graffiti, as it can be so raw and expressive, yet so temporary all at the same time. I’ve been on the livemapp app on my phone since May and many members of the community live in London, particularly in Camden, where they are more tolerant of street art. It’s been so much fun seeing the different pieces that members of the community have posted. Bravo to Berlin for having a more progressive view of this kind of art.

    1. Hi Noelle! Like Berlin, London also has a huge amount of street art. Sounds like you’ve got your finger on the pulse there! I agree with you, it’s great that Berlin is so progressive with allowing this expression – which for an increasing number of people, is a tourist attraction in itself.

      1. It’s been a revelation seeing the street art that London has from my fellow livemappers, I wish we had more of streetart culture here. There’s graffiti that’s mostly just scribbles/tags, but nothing that I would label as art. But, we do have a couple really cool sculpture gardens in the metro area that are really cool and have some interesting pieces. There is a French street artist, JR, that has started a really cool project to promote discussion on social issues. He did a TED talk on it, you can see it here: http://www.ted.com/talks/jr_s_ted_prize_wish_use_art_to_turn_the_world_inside_out.html

        I love his philosophy on art and why he started his project. He did another TED talk a year later, to give an update on the project. You can find it on the website too.

  5. Hi Nate,
    Very interesting post/topic. There will definitely never be consensus about what constitutes art, which is fine, but I really have mixed feelings about graffiti. Of course it’s totally subjective and some street art is just sublime while some, to me anyways, is just, well, crap ! Where I really take issue is the use of private property. If an artist wants to use a “private” wall to create something beautiful, thus making a constructive/positive contribution to a neighborhood and hopefully with the owner’s blessing, perfect. However, if I woke up one day and found my house covered in said “crap” I would not be a happy camper. Maybe I’m just uptight ! For the most part though, I think Graffiti has it’s place in cities as it kinda serves as a barometer of society and does enable young talent to express themselves and hopefully hone their skills.

  6. Great post. I personally love street art and collect photos of it from all over the world. I have to say that I don’t care for tagging at all- to me it looks really messy and doesn’t add anything to the neighborhood.

    1. Cheers Ashley. That’s the beauty of art – we all have differing opinions, as different art gives us different reactions. What’s messy to one, is beauty to another!

  7. Defacing property is still defacing property. That’s disgusting. Nice shots. Very colorful subjects for sure. But I disagree– that’s not art. It’s garbage that needs to be cleaned up. Hipsters? Bullsh*t. Vagrants and delinquents IMHO. Sorry.

    1. No need for apologies Jorg – we all have our own opinions on art, and we are entitled to them. I’m happy for us to disagree, neither of us needs to defend our position.

      You’re right in that defacing property is still defacing property. But, many well known artists have defaced property – that act in itself doesn’t mean it isn’t art.

      1. I’m sorry but if you take that ‘art for art’s sake’ logic to other things it just doesn’t work. For instance if I set off fireworks in the middle of the street people will ooh and aah and call it stirring and beautiful. If I set off fireworks under a man’s 100 yr old oak tree and and burn damage it I don’t think he will be feeling quite the same way. If someone tags all over your new Audi that you just picked up a few days ago is that art or vandalism? I can’t imagine being a store owner and having to put up with my exterior constantly being defaced with spray paint. I’d go broke trying to paint over it which would only serve as a blank canvas invitation each time. Wouldn’t then my painting over graffiti art then become vandalism too? Are we supposed to tolerate pornography-as-art projected on a big screen in the middle of the city now? If Annie Leibovitz took pictures of people defecating and hung them from poles up and down Kurfürstendamm is that art? Got to draw the line somewhere pal!

              1. Ok, a civil answer then.

                Where do we draw the line? I guess whenever a majority of people have reached their threshold of tolerance for it. Not sure how things work in Berlin or any other European city for that matter but if it was happening in my hometown and enough people seemed to be in disagreement it might come to a referendum for a change in the law to be passed by the city council. Or maybe simply putting pressure on the local authorities to enforce existing vandalism laws while at the same time establishing outlets for artists to express themselves without having to paint over public/private property.

                I wonder if there are any studies that examine crime rates in areas with and without high density of graffiti and/or graffiti art? I’m not saying that one equals the other necessarily but In other words is it akin to the broken windows theory wherein tolerance of smaller crimes may lead to larger ones? That’s why I mentioned anarchy. Without limitations on where people are allowed to paint their art it might lead to old historic buildings being defaced, or people’s cars, houses, dogs, whatever. Or other kinds of vandilism perhaps.

                I will admit, the whole subject being discussed here really makes me reflect on what art is or isn’t, which of course is so very subjective. Just don’t care for all that in-your-face whether you like it or not attitude of taggers. To me it’s a symbol of the general lack of civility that’s become more prevalent these days.

                Ok, old fogey’s done. Thanks for listening and responding.

  8. Hi Nate

    Interesting piece, and a touchy subject to boot. I have been to Berlin many years ago and thought it a truly fabulous city. I recently visited Barcelona and found the graffiti pretty tedious tbh. Sure there are some wonderful pieces of expression in your pictures, but I find also that your not seeing the building, in its pure state anymore. I would much rather admire a building, than the crap thats been sprayed all over it.

    it would seem that pretty much any idiot with a spray can, becomes a street artist, much the same way as a blurry image thats been instagrammed to death, makes that person a photographer. So what happens in 30 years time when the whole city has been painted over? Perhaps it should be water soluble :)

    1. Hey Nick – nice comparison between photographers and artists. I totally agree. It is a touchy subject for sure, but I think it’s great that everyone has differing opinions, and differing tastes in what is and isn’t art. It would be a boring world indeed if we all agreed.

  9. Great subject and impressive images. But you have to ask yourself: Do I want to live in these buildings or in their surroundings?

    Freedom of expression is enjoyed by all, but when the line is crossed by a minority to express themselves, does the majority lose their freedom? Is this what we call progress?

    Enjoyed your photography.

    All the best,

    Luego

    1. Thanks Luego. Personally, I would love to live in these buildings, and very much enjoyed the surroundings.

      I’m not sure how restricting graffiti would be progression with regards to freedom. But in any case, I do thank you for your comment.

  10. How could we call this Vandalism? If you see any of this artworks around the city, they give you feelings, no matter which kind of them. That’s what art does. Berlin is an awesome city, not only for its historical monuments, but even thanks to its street artists. Street art photography. Take a look here. Aren’t these peaces of art?

  11. Hi Nate.

    I really like your blog, but regarding “street art”, I can’t agree. Sure, there are some real artists, but the majority of graffiti is just crap. And when somebody just had paid a lot of money to get a historic building restored, and some idiot with spray paint expresses his “art” by spraying “Fuck off” (or something like that) onto his wall, he may have another view of this “art” issue.

    Basically, it’s usually nothing more than damaging someone elses property and should be treated accordingly.

    Cheers
    Matt from Germany

    1. Hey Matt, that’s the thing – we are all entitled to our own opinions, and I really appreciate you taking the time to express yours on here. Good to have you arpund, and I hope you enjoy my future posts.

  12. Art, not art, not really relevant.

    Far too much graffiti is applied by said “artists” to other people’s property without the consent of the owners (in many cases, taxpayers). That is simply wrong, even if it is outright beautiful art, (which it is in only a few cases IMO).

  13. We’ve just arrived in Berlin for a few weeks and wandering about checking out the street art is high on the agenda.

    Another insightful and thought provoking blog concerning street art/art etc.

    1. We are just coming to the end of 4 weeks staying in Friedrichshain, and thought I would look back over this post.

      Like yourself, I am a big fan of street art and have found many excellent pieces on our travels.

      Sadly it looks like since you wrote this piece, in Friedrichshain at least, the spray-can warriors have gone overboard and hit up pretty much anything that has a flat surface. The end result, it looks very grim and run-down, and not in a ‘cool’ way.

      There have been a few good pieces, but most are either lost or even worse, covered over by a mess.

  14. its urban crap culture from America is what it is ,it looks terrible and is not art at all,it is a way of pushing peoples political agendas on others,the aborted baby is disgusting ,and all the niggr scribbling everywhere looks like ghetto.the german people don’t even look german anymore,everyone has black hair and swarthy complextion,it is disturbing how the german culture and people have been destroyed,diversified I believe is the term.diversified =white genocide…the jews did this to Germany,and it won’t go unpunished.all you idiot hippy brown ass kissers on here who tink its art are pathetic.its just a toxic mess

  15. Huge stretch to call most of the pictures “art”. Looks more like trash to me and most others. This is not the “art” of great thinkers, but rather trash that anyone with no skill can put out. I’ve never drawn a thing in my life, but I could vandalize and disfigure buildings, walls and statues with the best of Berlin’s “artists”.. hahah..

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