Posted by: cgratton | February 25, 2009

If These Walls Could Talk: Berlin

Over the past 100 years, Berlin has been reduced to rubble, ostracized, divided into pieces and then turbulently restored to a shaky reunification.  Today, the streets of Berlin tell this story of heartache.  When riding the U-Bahn across the city, modernized, sky-scraper-filled squares are directly followed by shantytowns and block-long spans of abandoned, decaying buildings and factories.

Those areas tell the story of Berlin’s tragic past, and illustrate its futile attempts at rebuilding from its ashes.

Yet, another narrative is being written across the cityscape

at this very moment.

Today, Berlin is considered Europe’s ground-zero for graffiti art.  Turn any corner, walk down any alley and you’re bound to stumble upon some huge, impressive, Technicolor design.

Sprucing up the block? Or adding to the problems?

Sprucing up the block?

Many are outraged over this, but graffiti art– known on the streets as “bombing“– seems to have no end in sight in Berlin.  Personally, I’m a huge fan of good-quality street art; others, however, aren’t so keen on the “vandalizing”  of everything from the city’s subway trains to apartment building mailboxes.  And so Berlin’s “graffiti wars” rage on…

Yet it seems natural that street art and Berlin go hand-in-hand; their street art is more than just teenage pranksters spray painting obscenities and “__ WAS HERE.”

Far from that, Berlin street art is a lasting document of a rich historic and cultural practice that took root with the Berlin Wall.

In the late 1970’s the East German Border Patrol put up a new part of the wall that was concrete and painted white.  In the early 80’s artists, most notably Thierry Noir, began to treat the new wall as one long, blank canvas—adorning it with contemporary art, poetry and political messages like this:

Hmm..wonder how they felt about Nixon?

Hmm..wonder how they felt about these guys?

Blocks of the graffiti-ed wall are displayed (along with historical information) throughout Potsdam Square (in Potsdamer Platz).  A more coherent exhibit can be found at the East Side Gallery, a 1.3 km section of the wall that features over 100 wall paintings, making it the largest open-air art museum in the world.

One of the pieces in Potsdam Square

One of the pieces on display in Potsdam Square

For a deeper historic look at the Berlin Wall, the Mauer Museum is the official wall museum and a necessary visit when seeking to understand Berlin’s true story.

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