Cities have soul and character; there are an undeniable charisma and vibe about them and, often, there's a sort of personification of the city, somehow ‘speaking’ to us. Berlin is one city with a lot to say, expressing it’s voice through many kilometres of intriguing street art, urban murals, and graffiti. But graffiti and murals in Berlin is not merely an aesthetic ploy to enhance the alternative edginess of the city or play into the Instagram culture of the times, street art in Berlin is a reflection of the city itself.
What is Berlin's street art saying?
There's an inherent communication in most cities - through its social cultural venues, or the layout of the streets, the buildings and architecture, its museums, and even the nightlife it offers; but the best representations of the ancestral tendencies and routines of a city, and the fundamental connection to its history and stories, are those born of its inhabitants - the generations of folk who dwell and die in the city. They embody the city, they speak for the soul whilst speaking for themselves, and in Berlin street art is a beautiful means of urban communication depicting protest, critique, values and belief systems, joy & optimism, stories, and simple artistic decoration.
Communication comes in many forms but artists, arguably, may be best placed to use their voice, having both the tools and platforms, and hence the audience, that remain elusive to most of the population. Music, cinema, poetry, paintings, comedy and so many others have the power to both release an audience from reality, or thrust an audience right into it. So why not take it to the streets?
Berlin does. In Berlin, street art is a mirror to the City's ‘mind’.
A brief intro to Graffiti
Beyond the cave drawings of the Neanderthals, ‘Graffiti’ was first introduced in the Roman Empire when the subdued populations began the ancestral practice of carving a mark as proof of existence, an "I was here" tradition to collectively protest the occupying forces. If Monty Python's Life of Brian’s "Romanes eunt domus" rings a bell, it is a good example of such protest.
In its raw essence, graffiti is about occupying and claiming the streets, an indication of ownership by a community who feels their voices are not being heard. A form of expression as valid as any other artistic display but, defying conventional conceptions of what ‘Art’ is, is often looked at as a crude form of mindless vandalism and disrespect – something the council aught to paint over pronto! ‘Graffiti’ carries with it these connotations, tending to be the label more readily applied to tags or throw-ups rather than the more intricate and time-consuming pieces and murals.
There’s a sense of defiance with street art, and perhaps that’s part of the appeal, but at its essence urban art aims to shake views and perspectives and, most importantly, start a dialogue.
Urban Art in Berlin initiates that dialogue, exposing the voices of the different individuals of which city-life is composed and creating conversation as well as statements. Berlin is the perfect place for street art and urban murals then, not just because it offers street artists multiple different canvases for their work in a gallery that cuts out the middle man and reaches an ever-growing audience, but because it’s a city with an incredible history, and a hell of a lot to talk about.
Urban street art in Berlin
Berlin is a city with a haunting legacy of turbulent and dark recent history, which you can learn a lot more about on our daily free walking tours in Berlin
, and as a result, there is a unique mindfulness and social awareness among the new generations of Berliners. They are not easily led, nor are they likely to tolerate social or cultural injustices and wrongs quietly – an element of defiance of authority and preference for alternative cultures & sub-cultures prevail here unlike in any other city in the world.
The greatest advantage of this art is the power of public exposure. It forces us away from our normal information bubbles and routines by catching our eye, even if we don't like what we are exposed to. We, as individuals, follow a path of least resistance — generally content to seek out and consume the information that reinforces our own existing version of reality, what we like, and received the way we like to be told. Places with urban art confront us on the way to work, on our way home, whenever we occupy the public space. It is a raw and less polished message that expects a reaction, be it positive or negative. Like it or not, engage with it or not, it’s difficult to ignore – and that is something worth thinking about.
Consequently, it’s no surprise Berlin's urban environment comes adorned with many messages and commentary about multiple facets of society. From commissioned Murals in Berlin like ROA with his depiction of the effects of urban occupation on animals, to illegal train bombing from 1UP - one of the strongest Crews worldwide and the Kings of Berlin as the biggest in the city (although Berlin Kidz are coming up fast enough to be considered a serious threat to their crown). Throwies in back-alley galleries, or Vhils Scratchiti’s, aka El Bocho, depiction of Little Lucy in Paste-up, Lock-Ons like the one in Hackesher Markt, or SOZI36's political commentary - all are examples of the reach of Berlin Urban Art and Graffiti and the many voices asking serious and thought-provoking questions of us, the audience.
Berlin embraces Urban Street Art
Beyond the voluntary alternative manifestations of urban art by the people, Berlin does one better: It encourages Street Art. Despite considering it vandalism, and therefore illegal, there are dedicated spaces as legal Galleries (a wall covered in graffiti is also called a Gallery), as well as Berlin Street Art Festivals featuring big names, such as Insane51, and even local Art Galleries such as Urban Nation and Urban Spree Gallery, two of the best places with Street Art in Berlin and considered among the best in Europe.
Urban Spree Berlin
Urban Spree features national and international artists’ works in an alternative environment with Biergarten (beergarden) and even a tattoo parlour. Usually holding temporary exhibits, most of the Graffiti doesn't run for very long, but they proudly maintain the works of some of the best examples of International Street Art, such as ‘The Tucan’ by Portuguese urban artist Bordalo II who specialises in ‘Trash Art’. Entrance is free and is a perfect spot for those who take interest in the urban communication and subculture of Berlin.
Berlin Wall East Side Gallery
Another place with Street Art in Berlin where history can be seen through graffiti, and just a few minutes from Urban Spree, is, of course, the infamous Berlin wall. The longest remaining strip of the Wall is the biggest open-air Urban Art Gallery in the world and is the last stop on our Alternative Berlin free walking tour.
Once a symbol of oppression and division, it now represents union and freedom of speech by the dozens of international murals and pieces where street artists were invited to paint with no rules or restrictions – a fine example of how Berlin street art reflects a new perspective on life here.
Street Art, Urban Grafitti, and Murals in Berlin
With these examples of legal galleries, and the designation in 2006 as UNESCO City of Design, the number of places with Street Art in Berlin have increased and so has the acceptance and appreciation of it, but the true origins of Graffiti are rooted in the defiance of rules and an invasion of public spaces - so there's much more to local street art to see besides the "pretty" murals of Berlin.
Walking in Kreuzberg, one of the best places for Street Art in Berlin, one cannot avoid feeling positively overwhelmed by the number of colourful Paste-ups, Stencils, Urban Knitting, Stickers, Rollers up in Heaven Spots or even Brazilian Pichação — Street Art has no limits here.
Alongside those, there's the already mentioned SOZI36 — someone who takes the political protest to the street, writing his views of current social affairs on abandoned mattresses or carpets, alerting the eye of the unconcerned public to issues such as gentrification or the necessity of the Government to prioritise investment to social causes. Recently, he has been directing our attention to the election of the ‘Alternative für Deutschland’ (AFD) party to the Bundestag, a party with extreme views on immigration and a non-inclusivity amounting to racism and the propagation of hate-speech, SOZI36 wants to make sure people are paying attention to such ills of modern society.
Berlin celebrates a long tradition of resident artists and people with liberal views, values and belief systems – those who champion inclusion, tolerance, respect and love. Berlin’s Urban Art and Communication is all of this - be it a pointed critique of the powers that be, a commentary on daily Berliner life, a smile-inducing or thought-provoking statement or a simple squiggle; more than murals and masterpieces, Berlin street art is indeed Art and a real reflection of what’s under the skin of the country and capital.
Join passionate local guides with unrivalled local knowledge of Berlin’s street art and alternative subcultures and get an unbeatable insight to Berlin’s urban art – book your Alternative Berlin free tour and meet us at Lustgarten every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday from 11 A.M. and visit all the key places with street art and lesser-known hidden treasures of alternative Berlin.