Paint the Town: Street Art in Berlin

by Nadja Sayej

Berlin street art began in the 1970s in the former West Berlin with phrases written on the Berlin Wall, cartoons, scenery and visually poetic statements by artists like Mij K Do. As the public filtered into the former East Berlin, it became abuzz with spraypaint, covering doors, windows and walls of the districts of Friedrichshain, Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg with tags in the early 1990s. In 2003, poster art emerged with the famous “Where’s Linda?” project by an artist named Roland Brückner, while street artists like XOOOOX started popping up with paste-ups as Mein Lieber Prost sketched out simple cartoon faces.

Shepard Fairey made a mural at the foot of Friedrichstrasse in September, while Bansky has also made his mark. There is a specific crop of street artists keeping the movement alive in Berlin. From dogs on garbage bins to Sponge Bob Squarepants on the sides of buildings, here is the best of Berlin street art, which is still growing, almost 50 years since it started.

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Shepard Fairey

Probably the most interesting venue for street art in Berlin is the former NSA Field Station, which is called Teufelsberg. Built in 1936, it was meant to be a Nazi military technical college. It was never built (WWII began). Construction restarted in 1963 to build the listening station in the former British sector, which Americans shared until the 1990s.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, German authorities took hold of the building and its dome. It went through several private owners, including David Lynch, who planned to build a meditation university. Teufelsberg is now privately owned, left bare bones and is washed in graffiti by artists like Vitra from Helsinki. The artists have permission to tag and paint the building as a graffiti gallery. Over 180 artists have made work here, some part of European Heritage Days. It has the feel of an artist’s commune and appears to be the opposite of its initial use.

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Vitra from Helsinki in Teufelsberg

If you take a public tour of Teufelsberg, find a QR code which looks like a helicopter landing pad on top of an abandoned building. The code links to this site. How to scan it, though? Another story entirely.

Adrian Buenita who used to co-run Idrawalot Gallery in Neukölln said one of the biggest Berlin street artists to watch is Rallitox, who most recently created “human sticker” project, where he Duct tapes volunteers to walls in public places. Previously, his raw-looking works show us the dark side of society.

LUCILUX is an illustrator whose work sometimes graces the streets (and convenient stores). One of her most popular works is a monster made of shredded newspaper which was highlighted at the Pictoplasma Festival, though a more permanent work can be found in a garden colony of Neukölln, which she created with the artist Patu.  “To be honest, I felt my old body the next day,” she says of painting in Berlin, “I forgot how exhausting it is to paint outside.”

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LUCILUX — Photo from Urban Spree

In the core district of Mitte, there is endless street art, especially in the area of Rosenthaler Strasse, including works by the London Police Group, while world-renowned artists like El Bocho are said to live and work in the city. Neu West Berlin is a temporary art venue which will soon relocate. The Berlin Wall open air gallery will remain in its backyard, however. This is where pieces of the Wall are preserved and much of its initial, heritage street art can be seen.

A wall sponsored by Converse sneakers hired Berlin street artists Rylsee, Gogoplata and the Wurstbande collective to collaborate the Clash Wall, a tall wall where the artists portrayed various characters inspired by submissions from social media platforms. The winning characters made their way to the final wall at Torstraße 86 in Mitte.

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Wurstebande

In the former east area of Kreuzberg, the Oranienstrasse and Adalbertstrasse areas are filled with layers of street art by Klub7, Caro Pepe, Crin, and Herr von Bias, who combine old school techniques with new ways of covering the city in a splash of color.

Urban Spree, a nightclub, gallery and hub for artist studios and residencies has become a leading venue in Berlin street art – just walk past it and you’ll see. Set in the district of Friedrichshain, it’s located in the RAW compound, a lower-level complex of former railway maintenance buildings which have given birth to a new generation of bars and nightclubs. Its home an ever-changing cast of local street art, including murals by artists like KEF! art, who painted the beer garden last month.
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DBLTRBL — Urban Spree

From the Marginal Notes show at Urban Spree Galerie

From the Marginal Notes show at Urban Spree Galerie

Image courtesy Urban Spree

Image courtesy Urban Spree

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KEFart — UrbanSpree

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Unknown Mural — Urban Spree

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UrbanSpree

Artists who did residencies at Urban Spree include Canadian artist Andrea Wan and Swiss artist Rylsee who created a mural at Urban Spree with Vidam.

Andrea Wan

Andrea Wan

Rylsee & Vidam at UrbanSpree mural, Photo Lucky Cat Place

Rylsee & Vidam at Urban Spree mural, Photo Lucky Cat Place

JUST” a.k.a. Bo Niedhaus, an artist photographer who has been capturing Berlin’s street art since 2005. Since the pieces don’t last forever, like Blu’s two-building piece in Kreuzberg which was painted over black to accommodate new apartments, JUST captures the fleeting moments. He has a recent obsession with stickers, which is plastered all over his Instagram.

German photographer Norman Behrendt re-released his book “Burning Down the House,” a portrait series of over 80 anonymous graffiti artists in Berlin. Shot over a five-year period, all of the artists have their faces hidden. While the styles have evolved into more digital, graphic styles, some things never change. As the graffiti artist Duko said, “To be a writer is a big secret. You don’t tell many people, you only tell people who you can trust.”

See more images here.

Nadja Sayej is a Canadian reporter, broadcaster, photographer and cultural critic based in Berlin, Germany. In covering architecture, travel, design, technology and art, she writes for The New York Times, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, The Guardian, The Economist, Forbes, PAPER magazine, Maclean’s, The Globe and Mail,GOOD magazine, among others.

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