Any blank wall is soon covered. However much of it is graffiti, tolerated but not widely admired.
A distinction is made between graffiti and street art although it often appears together on the same wall. One local explained, “graffiti is words and tags all the same style which are done for other graffiti “artists”. It is generally without artistic merit. Street art is for the public. Much like any art the purpose varies. It can be to purely entertain, make a statement, be political, ask a question, and provoke emotion, positive or negative.”
The artist is communicating directly to the public without filters.
Huge pieces cover the side of apartment buildings, and then, look down and you spot something incidental or tiny, almost hidden.
The artists can be well-established internationally known names, local or relative newcomers, who are known for their style, choice of materials, subject matter or choice of locations. They demand respect for their views, artistic skills or ingenuity in finding original, amusing or even dangerous settings for their work. Some pieces are part of a series – for those in the know, even part of an international series.
Quick and dirty was a previous definition of street art. Relying on stencils or paste ups so artists could arrive, get the work quickly onto the wall and leave. It was secretive and mysterious. Now they can take their time and there has been an explosion of different techniques and larger pieces. “tape is the new paint”
Many of the more well known artists were working in the 1980s and 90’s which is when they established their reputations.
Now street art in Berlin is encouraged and there is an uneasy commercialisation. Much of the tourist income is boosted by the art. Some apparently spontaneous work is, in fact, paid advertising or heavily sponsored.
They have a street art festival and ironically, a street art gallery.
“Even street artists have to eat.”
In Berlin, of course, there was an ideal canvas; The Berlin Wall. In the 1980’s much of the Western side was already covered in graffiti. When the wall came down almost 2 kilometers of it was preserved and street artists were chosen to paint the blank side i.e. the former East side, work that commented on separation and unity. Known as the East Side gallery, it is a huge tourist draw although many works have faded over the years. A recent drive to get the artists to repaint some of the work, proved provocative.
Even the local cemetery has adopted the street art oeuvre.
We opted for a street art tour. It can only be a 2 hour snapshot as much work is temporary, either by design, or as a reaction to change in the neighborhood. Much like any audio guide in a gallery it enhanced our experience with insights into the “street art scene”
Frank, our guide, had long legs and we had to keep up with his pace and his commentary but by the end we were able to recognize the work of individual artists and some of the intentions behind the various work.
So sometimes messy, sometimes intriguing or beautiful, street art in Berlin is in your face and if you care to look deeper there are artists trying to communicate with you!