A warning glance is shot our way. Three spray can heroes are marking their territory on a wall and they don’t want us to come any nearer. They don’t look quite as I expected. The blue skivvies and nerd glasses make them appear less cutting-edge artist and more like a couple of the Wiggles cameoing on Saved By The Bell.
According to Robin, our guide, this is a semi-legal painting wall. “Well, no-one knows if it’s legal or not,” he admits. There are some walls in Berlin that are deliberately set aside for street art, but far more get appropriated without permission. If you can walk a block in the German capital without seeing tags, throw-ups, stencils or murals, then you’ve probably got your eyes closed.
Robin is something of a street art and graffiti historian. He’s keen to point out that, although both have their roots in New York, they are two distinct movements. Street art has the viewing public in mind, but graffiti is insular – it’s about impressing other graffiti crews and getting your name seen by as many people as possible.
That doesn’t mean to say that techniques don’t evolve, however. Robin encourages us to look up – the graffiti crews often pride themselves on getting their tags in the ‘heaven spot’ just below a building’s roof. It gets the name because if the person dangling you down by the legs while you spray lets go, heaven is where you’ll end up.
He seems as impressed by some of the tags made with Super Soakers or fire extinguishers as he does with the more obviously appealing street art murals. Of the latter, there are many. Berlin is arguably the world capital of street art at the moment, partly due to lack of law enforcement.
“It’s a city of six million people, but it’s 60 million dollars in debt,” says Robin. “So they employ just 35 people to tackle graffiti, when there are an estimated 3,000 people out spraying every night.”
There’s also a legacy from the Stasi, the former East German secret police. Life under the microscope made East Berliners intensely distrustful of being spied upon. Therefore CCTV cameras on buildings are incredibly rare and it’s harder to catch the artists in the act.
Also important, is the city’s lack of power to prosecute for spraying onto a private building. The owner has to take things to court and that’s generally too much hassle. It’s simply easier to paint over the offending image or – increasingly popular – commission an artist to paint something really good on the walls instead.
Evidently, there’s an accepted hierarchy in the street art world. The general unwritten rule is that you only go over something if you can do better. This, of course, is subjective, but the more impressive set pieces tend to last much longer.
Outside the Zebrano cafe in Friedrichshain, Robin points to a remnant of the Linda’s Ex campaign. One artist left pictures all over the city bearing messages of love for a mysterious ‘Linda’. They popped up in prominent positions, leading to a citywide debate about whether the spurned lover was a romantic or a psycho. It was later discovered that there never was a Linda – it was just one man’s social experiment.
Our mural-spotting continues by train. The U8 line crosses Kreuzberg, where many of the Berlin’s most impressive spraypaint masterpieces stand proud. Of these, an astronaut is the most famous. At night, the shadow from the flagpole of a nearby garage passes through the astronaut’s hand, making it look like he’s staking territorial rights on the moon.
The key thing about Berlin is that street art and alternative culture isn’t limited to hip fringes of the metropolis, and the city’s unique history plays a major part in this. When the East German authorities constructed the Berlin Wall in 1981, it was set back from the border. A ‘death strip’, guarded by soldiers with shoot-to-kill orders, created a buffer zone of rubble and abandoned or torn-down buildings.
This death strip went through the centre of the city, and when the wall came down in 1989, a lot of prime real estate was left unclaimed. Squatters and artists moved into the abandoned buildings, many of which were turned into studios and rather grimy galleries. Most have been moved on, unable to resist the tide of development for long, but there are still surprising pockets close to where the wall ran.
A fine example is C-Base, a bar hidden behind the trees on the riverbank opposite Jannowitzbrücke station. Inside, it is made up to look like a spaceship. The number of plug sockets and extension leads give away what it really is, however – a club for computer hackers. Non-members are welcome for a drink upstairs, but not into the mysterious underground lair.
At thoroughly spruced-up Hackesche Höfe, an alleyway behind the plush shopping centre contains an arthouse cinema, an independent gallery, the scruffiest of cocktail bars and virtually every form of street art available. An extraordinary picture of a man’s face by Australian artist James Cochran, AKA Jimmy C, has French impressionist leanings and seems to be created out of bubbles. Elsewhere, a frequently occurring paste-up character called Little Lucy looks mischievous. The paste-up cats she tortures can always be found nearby, hanging from a noose or otherwise abused.
Even weirder are the scrap metal monsters that bob around opposite the bar. These belong to the Monsterkabinett, one of alternative Berlin’s oddest experiences. Essentially it is a cellar full of mechanical beasts – some with bulging eyes, others with klaxons for noses – which dance to pounding techno music in increasingly claustrophobic rooms. It makes no sense at all, yet feels inherently brilliant.
It’s the starting point for a jaunt through the parts of Berlin that gentrification hasn’t had its wicked way with just yet. French filmmaker Isa leads us to a former train depot in Friedrichshain. It has become something of a focal hub for Berlin’s alternative cultures, with nightclubs, bars and galleries taking ovderelict buildings, and oddities such as circus tents popping up sporadically.
Some of the best street art is here too. Isa tells the tale of the mural on the side of the Cassiopeia club. “I kept coming back as it was being painted,” she says. “At first, I thought it was just going to be mountain scenery. Then the cowboy got added. Then, finally, the banana skins that the cowboy is slipping over. My idea of what it was kept transforming.”
She leads us through the locked-off yards to Urban Spree, a bar-gallery hybrid. The exhibitions are officially closed, but we get the nod from the barman to head up. It’s not often you get to mooch around a gallery with a beer in hand, taking everything in via lights from mobile phones, but it’s something the Uffizi and Louvre may want to think about.
Compared to the next stop, however, it feels like standard museum practice. We head out east, to the end of the S-Bahn line, and then to the end of a tramline. This is the Berlin that most Berliners don’t consider venturing into.
By muted torchlight we traipse through bushes and over damaged wire fences. Manholes are left uncovered on the path and the block of flats is totally abandoned. It’s a chilling, Blair Witch-like experience as we crunch up the stairs through broken glass. Isa calls this ‘urban exploration’ and tells us not to shine any light on the street in case we’re seen.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see syringes at the bottom of the lift shaft or a corpse slumped in the corner next to a broken window. But what we do see are traces of a new generation. The tags and rudimentary paintings aren’t as impressive as those seen in the train depot, but that’s why they’re here. “Kids use the building for practice,” says Isa. “They can make mistakes here, and no-one will see them.”
In the bleakest of settings, experiments are creating life. It’s the sort of energetic mutation that the city feeds off. This has long been the Berlin way; when favourite haunts are developed for mass consumption, those on the fringes will always find somewhere new to express themselves.