Archive for August, 2010|Monthly archive page

Berlin: name-writing

Berlin surfaces are written on to a degree I haven’t seen in many places… Tags, whether words or icons, are everywhere. The city’s lack of cash (Berlin is hugely in debt) means that graffiti, postering, stencils and so on are rarely removed, but simply layered over each other or gradually fading away. And so the walls (and many other surfaces too) are filled with images and words, many of them the names of the author or artist.

Lots of these are tags: tagging in Berlin has both an idiosyncratic history and quite distinctive contemporary forms. When reunification occurred after the taking down of the Berlin Wall in 1989, many in the former East wanted to participate in graffiti writing, and began to develop styles and tags. For many, however, it wasn’t an invented tag name that they initially practised: one artist showed me scans of pages from his black book from the early 90s, as an artist growing up in the newly unified, former East Germany, he wrote brand names, instead of tag names, before he developed his own tag (the notebook was filled with ‘Diesel’, ‘Reebok’, ‘Nike’ and so on). But then Berlin style developed very quickly (many artists looked to cities such as Prague for inspiration, after initially being influenced by Brooklyn, New York and so on) and huge block letter throw-ups developed in 90s, many of these still being done or fading but visible still, on train lines especially.

Right now, I’m told there’s a fashion for the so-called ‘ugly’ style of tagging, writing as if in a ‘toy’ style. Interestingly, many tags are very simple, but their significance lies in the prolific range of places that they have been written (this would apply to many, many artists, including Brad Downey, Charlie Isoe, PiTR, 6 and others); other tags are amazing because they have been placed on rooftops or high on walls. Some have developed beautiful forms and shapes (such as the stencilled tag of xoooox); others have used icons s a means to get up all over the city (especially someone like Kripoe).

There’s tons more that could be said about Berlin’s culture of obsessive name-writing, but for now, here is a selection of my favourites…

The insanely prolific tags of Brad Downey:

The equally prolific French artist, PiTR, whose tag features here in the toilet of a cafe on Kastanienallee:

Some nice placement here, low down to the ground (as were all the tags by Isoe that I saw):

Kripoe’s iconic fists, followed by his equally iconic rollerskate:

And the little face drawn by Prost (which means ‘cheers!’) all over Berlin (usually laughing, although sometimes angry. This shot shows the archetypical smiling Prost icon:

Here’s an elegant stencil showing xoooox’s tag:

The utter simplicity of a tag that’s reduced to one digit: 6′s tag, here done on paper and pasted high up on a wall:

And along with the memories of Paris provided by seeing PiTR’s tag all over Berlin, here’s the tag of one of my favourite French artists, L’Atlas:

Berlin: city of memories, city of history, city of names.

Berlin’s visitors….

As I mentioned before, I’ve recently been visiting Berlin. Like many cities with a reputation for interesting street art, Berlin attracts a wide range of artists who pass through the city for a short time and leave their work on the walls. So I thought I’d put up a selection of images by people who, like me, have been visitors to Berlin.

In the first few days that I was there, I went to see the Kunsthaus Tacheles, a massive building famed for its history as a squat and now as a centre for creative activity (although to me its atmosphere of hippie-chic cool seemed a little contrived and also somewhat dated…). On its external wall there’s a huge work by one of my favourite French artists, Yz (also known as Open Your Eyes) – and above it is the tag of one of Melbourne’s most prolific graffers, Bones (whose tag, along with those of other members of the 70K crew, I saw all over Berlin):

Here’s a small cat by C215, almost hidden in a corner to the rear of the building currently occupied by Kunstlerhaus Bethanien.

Bethanien is inextricably associated with Backjumps, the creative venture of Adrian Nabi, who over several years produced magazines and curated exhibitions and cultural events in Berlin, involving artists who work in public space. Over the years, artists such as Swoon, the London Police, Nomad, Brad Downey, Dave the Chimp and many other exhibited in Berlin under the Backjumps aegis. Part of the Backjumps events involved the curation of walls around the Kreuzberg area of Berlin for the display of works which would remain after the events were over. Here are a couple of examples, one from os gemeos and one from the London Police:

The area of Friedrichshain is also well known for its art on the streets, and the warren of bars, warehouses and skate park on Revaler Strasse contains hundreds of pieces, some commissioned, some added spontaneously. Amid a riot of tags, stencil, paste-ups and pieces near the Cassiopeia skate park I found a piece by Orticanoodles, with – once again – a tag by Bones accompanying it:

The River Spree constitutes a boundary between Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, and as you travel over the Oberbaumbrucke (a wonderfully gothic looking bridge), the landscape is dominated by a massive piece by Blu, one of a number he has done in the city. Here’s a close up of the work:

Roa, the Belgian artist who has been achieving a lot of well-deserved attention recently, was in Berlin while I was there, and produced some fantastic work, such as this:

I also saw some old pieces in Kreuzberg by the French artist Nelio, whose work I admire greatly for its beautiful placement within any particular space (and which I’ve written about previously on this blog, see here). Here’s one:

And on my last night in Berlin, as I walked down Danen Strasse in Prenzlauer Berg to go back to my apartment, I discovered that Nelio must have been visiting Berlin once again, since a new piece had appeared:

It was nice to think that the phenomenon of artists making visits to this amazing city and contributing to the flux of images in public space was continuing, even as I was about to leave….

Travelling time….

As mentioned in the previous post, I’m travelling at the moment – in the Highlands of Scotland right now. I’ll be moving from place to place for a while, and sometimes won’t have much access to the internet. I’ll post when I can (there’s lots I want to say about Berlin, for example), but posts might be a bit irregular for a while. But please keep visiting the site – normal service will be resumed eventually!

Scratching the surface

Recently, I spent a little over three weeks in Berlin. It’s the first time I have visited this city. I therefore had no firsthand sense of its backstory, or context, or history, my knowledge of it and its street art was based only what I had read or heard from others or seen online. Throughout my time there it felt as though there was always something new to learn – one gigantic learning curve….

For Berlin is a city whose surfaces are almost entirely covered in images, many of them illicit. The sheer number of these uncommissioned images is remarkable: walls are tagged, postered, and painted; street signs are stickered, and rooftops spray painted to a degree that simply doesn’t occur in cities such as Paris or London or New York. And although there are other European cities, such as Athens or Budapest, where a vast amount of wall writing can be found, in Berlin what is striking is the diversity of images and the variety of locations for their placement. Old school graffiti is common, but so are paste-ups, stickers and stencils. Bill posting is an ingrained feature of the cityscape, covering hoardings and walls, sometimes many layers deep:

The placement of images isn’t limited to those walls readily accessible to artists; any surface can be altered, with rooftops, hard-to-reach signal boxes, train carriages, and the undersides of river bridges being covered by illicit art.

There’s so much to say about Berlin, it’s impossible to say much in one post. I’ll be writing several when I get the chance (I am currently travelling in the Highlands of Scotland, without much access to the internet). So here I’ll simply say this. I spent three weeks and three days in Berlin and saw more illicit art (and more types of illicit art) than in pretty much any other city I’ve been. I took hundreds of photographs, but I could easily have taken hundreds more: after a while, I had to stop, because the vast number of tags, throw-ups, stickers, paste-ups and so on started to seem commonplace. I met many artists and ran out of time to meet more of these generous and friendly people, willing to give up their time to talk with me. Three and a half weeks, and this was only scratching the surface, in a city where the surfaces are quite literally indistinguishable from images.

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