Berlin’s street art scene has been around for years but more recently has gained in international recognition with street artists and graffiti painters from around the globe creating an urban gallery anyone can enjoy for free.
In turn Berlin’s street art scene has become a hugely popular sight to see. It is an increasingly important part of the Berlin tourism strategy as visitors from all over the world flock to see the east side gallery, explore the districts of Mitte and Kreuzberg and visit Haus Schwarzenberg on Rosenthaler Straße 39.
A little bit of history…
Berlin’s street art scene emerged in 1961 when the Soviet Union erected the Berlin wall, separating East Germany from West Germany. The wall became the place for West Berlin’s citizens to express their opinions and frustrations on a whole range of different issues. But as well as being a means of political expression, street art also provided a way to transform what was previously an unattractive eyesore reaching across the city. During the Cold War the West side of the wall was totally covered in works of art however the other side remained blank as the people in East Berlin were unable to get close enough to the wall to paint on it (or indeed cross over it).
Following the fall of the wall in 1989 a lot of new graffiti was added to what remained of the East side and this continued throughout the 90’s. As a result you can see a visual tale of the historical and political change that happened in Europe; it’s interesting to see the contrasting art work and messages that are depicted on either side of the wall.
Other parts of East Berlin previously occupied by military (like Mitte) became a new playground for Western artists and opened up a whole new world for the emerging Easter artist who joined them.
All shapes and sizes
You will come across all kinds of street art in Berlin. As well as different types of graffiti, stencil and transfer work there are some impressive sculpture pieces and 3D models dotted throughout the city. Graffiti and ‘paste ups’ are the most popular mediums and you can see evidence of these all over Berlin. Paste ups have become increasingly popular as it provides the artists with a quick and easy means of putting up their art. They can do all of the design work at home then they stick it to the walls of Berlin with wall poster paste meaning they can get away quickly, reducing their chances of getting caught by the police.
Mitte is the central part of Berlin and has been an increasingly popular spot on the tourist trail. Many of the cities famous landmarks, attractions and museums are located here. However before the rise is tourism, Mitte was known as an edgy arts community and although the majority of the art scene has now moved to other, less tourist centric areas like Kreuzberg, you can still see the influence artists have had on this area. At one point there were numerous artist squats in Mitte contributing to a lively creative hub in the centre of the city. Over the years these squats have closed down to make way for commerce and business, hotels and restaurants and some argue that the closure of the last standing and most famous squat ‘Tacheles’, was the final nail in the coffin for the street art scene in Mitte.
One place that is keeping the scene alive in Mitte is an alley off Rosenthaler Straße where you will find some amazing pieces of art covering just about every inch of the alley walls….
Rosenthaler Straße Haus Schwarzenberg
One of the best free art exhibitions you can stumble across, they alley off Rosenthaler Straße that leads to Haus Schwarzenberg, is home to works by some of the worlds most renowned street artists. Here you can find pieces like the ‘the Joker’ by Otto Schade, the famous and beautiful Anne Frank portrait by Jimmy C and numerous ‘Little Lucy’s’ by El Bocho. The alley is a jumble of different styles, continue to the bottom to find a giant mechanical frog. Step into the house at the bottom and go up the stairs to find a cool little book shop and marvel and the thousands of graffiti tags throughout the inside of the building.
Kreuzberg is often described as one of the ‘grittier’ neighbourhoods in Berlin, namely because of the famous Kreuzberg riots which began in May 1987 and continued annually for many years afterwards. Today, Kreuzberg is a melting pot of different cultures and ethnicities, this combined with it’s rich history make the area hugely diverse with a somewhat ‘bohemian’ vibe.
You could say Kreuzberg has a fairly anti-capitalist attitude; you won’t find any chains here and definitely no Starbucks. Subway did open an outlet here but it didn’t last long after uproar from the locals. One thing not to be missed (although it would be difficult to due to its scale) is the Kreuzberg Spaceman created by Victor Ash. Commissioned by the city, it is thought to be the biggest piece of stencil work in the world. If you can, visit it at night and you’ll see the astronaut is holding a flag. There is a street light and a flag from a car dealer on the other side of the street and the mural is painted so the shadow of the flag sits in the hand of the astronaut (however recent images suggest the flag may have been moved, and isn’t in quite the right position any more… if you’ve recently been let us know).
Another wall worth tracking down contains the message ‘love art hate the cops’ and some huge pieces by Belgium artist ROA.
Friedrichshain & The East Side Gallery
An area linked with Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain is also home to a diverse mix of people, fashion and art. Arguably, it is the neighbourhood that contains the biggest mix of street art and some of the cities most famous pieces. The presence of the East Side Gallery, the varied works on Revaler Strasse 99, and some huge pieces by the artist Blu, make Friedrichshain a well worth visit.
Even if you don’t have time to fully explore the borough, try and fit in a visit to the East Side Gallery, just across the bridge where artists from around the globe have left their stamp on different parts of the wall, recording and celebrating a time of both change and freedom.
YAAM & Fuck off Media Spree
While your exploring the street art of Berlin, the YAAM is a great place to stop off and have a drink or two. Although now newly located, next to the river and close to the East Side Gallery at the Schillingbrücke, YAAM has been around for the last 15 years. The YAAM is short for ‘the Young and African Arts Market’ and is one of the most multi cultural places you can visit in Berlin. You will see some pretty cool art on your arrival and once you’ve walked around the back to the beach you no longer feel like your in the city, you really could be anywhere. There are often temporary exhibitions here and other regular events like Reggae concerts and basketball tournaments but the YAAM is also just a great place to chill out and meet new people.
If you exit YAAM, cross the river and then look back over, you will see a huge and very impressive portrait up the side of one of the buildings and the message ‘Fuck off Media Spree’ up another. In case your wondering what this is all about, Media Spree are the company behind much of the large corporate development in Berlin which has often resulted in the closure of squats and the demolition of areas close to heart of artists and street art advocates.
Top 5 street art pieces to look out for:
- Jimmy C’s drip paint installations – check out his Anne Frank portrait (next to Haus Schwarzenberg)
- El Bocho’s work, you can spot lots of ‘Little Lucy’’s character (and her poor cat!)
- Otto Schade’s work in particular ‘The Joker’
- ROA’s animals
- Kreuzberg Spaceman
Take a tour
If you don’t know much about street art and haven’t been to Berlin before (or even if you do) then take advantage of some of the great free walking tours on offer. I really recommend the free walking tour provided by Alternative Tours Berlin that runs twice daily every day. The guide’s are relaxed but knowledgeable and informative, you’ll learn plenty about Berlin’s street art scene and will be taken to some of the best spots to see it. These guys rely on tips though so if you’ve had a good experience then tip them accordingly.