I learned how to Graffiti in Berlin
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This is a Student Travel Writer 2018 competition entry
Writings and drawings plaster every side and every corner of the city. Some sparkle, some shine, most of them overwrite each other and all of them share a bit of the truth between the streets of Berlin. Graffiti turns a house into a canvas or a parking lot into a museum when in the German capital.
While on my stay in Berlin for the Student Travel Writer 2016 competition, I had the pleasure to hang out with some of the coolest graffiti writers in town, learning the tricks of the street with somebody that really knows what they’re doing.
In fact, Berlin, often described with the slogan “poor but sexy”, has grown into the European graffiti capital, serving as a hotspot and a must for artists renowned worldwide. Although not always, because yes, graffiti is illegal.
However, the German capital is full to the brim with artists that create thousands of pieces each day, and the police forces have a real hard time stopping it. It’s become an intrinsic part of the culture as well as a great tourist attraction, some may say, so it might not even be in the government’s interest to waste more and more money on white-washing the city.
On my day tour with the crew, I learned both the technicalities of the craft and the myths of the craftsmen.
Let’s start from the basics.
Every graffiti man/woman is a writer.
Each writer has a tag, or a pseudonym they write to sign their works, or even just sign stuff, period. Tagging is in fact probably the lowest form of graffiti/street art, as it’s more for the ego than for the aesthetics, since the rules of the game are to tag as many things as possible, in the hardest possible spots.
Nonetheless, some of the works that come out of this process are more than impressive. Note, tags are specifically what allow writers to have anonymity; identities therefore are almost never ever revealed, but tags exist for recognition, almost like creating a persona or alter-ego.
A Berliner graffiti crew well known for skilled tagging is so-called “Uber Fresh”, the name coming from their initiative to do something different, new and fresh every time. They specialise in doing heaven spots, aka tagging building in incredibly high up places (these places are closer to heaven, or by falling off that height you could get yourself to the afterlife). Uber Fresh operate in black, red and blue and mainly carry out works that go downwards, lowering themselves off the roofs of buildings they break into.
After tagging, writers can also make stencils or paste ups. Stencils are drawn and cut out at home and then take just a few instances to spray onto walls. Although my newly found graffiti friends showed me how to make double layered stencils as well as stencils with all sorts of decorations in the background, single stencils are usually more common as writers are very short on time and can’t stick around waiting for their paint to dry so to add in the detail.
Paste-ups follow a similar principle, since they are made in the comfort of bedrooms or studios, and serve as literal paper stickers that get drawn in as much detail as necessary at home, and then glued onto the walls of the city. Paste-ups around Berlin are common, especially ones that follow a theme between themselves. One of my personal favorites is a man’s creation of several dancing women. Fun fact, these women are actual real people that get photographed when in the club and then reproduced in real life scale on the streets close to bars and shops. Yes, they are a form of vandalism, but they serve as a celebration of female beauty.
The consecutive form of graffiti is “throw up” or “bombs”. These are the common large bubble letters, usually two colors or three, that are first identified as forms of graffiti. Impressively, these forms of art take as little as nine seconds to cover entire walls. You might recall the videos of crews bombing entire trains, even in broad daylight, quick enough to not get caught by the police. This is consequently often a form of teamwork, as one person makes the outline, somebody else fills it in, and somebody other adds the details.
The worldwide notorious crew 1UP is envied for several of these bombs around Berlin, as much as around the globe. The ever-growing graffiti crew, in long 1 United Power, is one of the oldest standing crews in the scene and constantly accepts new comers, having now covered every continent in different shapes and sizes.
Last but not least comes street art, which is something along the lines of painting-like pieces depicting scenes and images on walls. These in fact usually come in greater sizes, and are sometimes even commissioned by the government. Street art paints over graffiti but graffiti mustn’t paint over street art. Street artists are more likely to be recognised and scouted, and even go on to make some real good money from having their works in art exhibitions or producing commissioned material.
The piece above is by Os Gemeos, two Brazilian twins that paint strange-looking yellow people to render homage to men and women in the favelas. According to my graffiti friend, the yellowness of their skin derives from strange dreams of yellow populations the twins had been somehow sharing in their sleep.
The decaying, hung animals above are of a style you may recognise from another of my posts regarding the graffiti world. In fact, this mural is work of the same REA, Belgian street artist who deals with the themes of death and despair by spraying massive dead animals in thin white, black and grey lines.
Victor Ash painted this Cosmonaut in 2007. This is an example of street art that interacts with its surroundings, as at night the Cosmonaut seems to be holding a flag, thanks to shadows cast by a street lamp nearby. Although this looks like a stencil, it obviously couldn’t be a stencil this big, therefore it’s simply a freehand piece made to purposefully look like a stencil. On the other hand, the black blur beneath its hand is not part of this crafty piece, since it’s most likely something made by an amateur trying to use a fire-extinguisher as a massive spray-can. Although this technique isn’t uncommon, it takes a real master to harness the push of a hydrant, and such technique can make breathtakingly big tags on very high locations without the writer leaving the ground.
The Italian artist Blu is responsible for this piece; he explains it represents capitalism. Blu seemingly enjoys criticising society and depicting his frustration for current social issues, as he’s also responsible for two larger-than-life pieces on the river bank, one representing the re-unification between East and West, one showing a business man shackled by his two own Rolexes. However, on my arrival these two pieces were no longer visible, as Blu himself blacked them out in sign of protest, as he heard the landlord was hiking rent prices for people that wanted to live in buildings showcasing such art.
This symbolic piece above is by Nomad, an artist that was picked up by famous critiques and offered the lush American life of fame and fortune, but claimed to have lost himself in the shine and now sadly lives as a homeless man in his in vain attempt to rekindle his true artistic spirit.
Having noticed that this street art draws in several tourists, the Berlin government has attempted to recreate the vibe. Lutz Henke, the writer that helped Blu make his two Kreuzberg mural masterpieces, wrote to the Guardian regarding the issue: “Gentrification in Berlin lately doesn’t content itself with destroying creative spaces. Because it needs its artistic brand to remain attractive, it tends to artificially reanimate the creativity it has displaced, thus producing an “undead city”. This zombification is threatening to turn Berlin into a museal city of veneers, the “art scene” preserved as an amusement park for those who can afford the rising rents."
However, the whole idea of street art is that of an art that’s done on the streets, by the streets. It was born as a form of protest for political and social issues; it was born as a voice for the poor and the unfortunate that wanted to find a voice on buildings. In some cases then, it might be necessary to undo some of the glorious art. Will this be the new path for graffiti and street art?
Check out the Alternative Berlin tour on Graffiti Art.
In order to provide no entrant with an unfair advantage, Student Travel Writer 2018 competition entries are edited for grammar only - stylistic choices and headlines are solely the work of the writer in question and not of The National Student's editorial staff.