Discovery Intern: A CITY OF PAINTED STREETS
There’s so much more to Berlin’s street art than I would have ever known.
Recently, I spent a full day travelling around Berlin learning about graffiti, street art, and all the history, differences, styles, influences, and artist hierarchies between the two. I had no idea it was so complex! I have been given a new understanding of why a lot of graffiti groups around Berlin and the rest of the world do what they do.
It’s easy to write it all graffiti off as vandalism, and the artists don’t deny that’s essentially what it is, but what may surprise you is the reason behind it isn’t inherently to be destructive.
It’s a chase to get the coolest, most unique form of a personal or group brand painted somewhere it will be noticed, before law enforcement can stop them. Why specifically? To fuel their addiction to adrenaline, promote their message or values to the public, and to gain respect among other street artists in the area. It’s as simple as that.
It may be hard to believe, but there is actually a fairly rich history that can be found in graffiti in Berlin - for example the GFA, painted by ‘Glorious Five Artists’, has remained untarnished on this wall for over 20 years!
Street artist Roa painted these hanging animals with thousands of tiny spray-paint strokes to convey the message that natural habitats are being destroyed as a result of increasing urbanisation.
I was also shown some epic street art and learned why such large-scale murals were designed and how they were created. Street art, by contrast, isn’t solely about getting a name on a wall. It’s a dedicated piece of artwork, created by a respected graffiti artist, and is often commissioned by a company to add value and decoration to a blank wall that is vulnerable to tagging. Sounds boring? It’s not! The artist is literally given license to use the whole wall, unhindered (as long as they don’t cover over any existing large group tags, called “bombs”) to convey any message they desire. Think of it like designing a wall’s own personal and meaningful tattoo. This is where the real talent of an artist can shine.
The Astronaut/Cosmonaut, arguably one of the most famous street art pieces in Berlin was painted entirely by hand, using a grid system that was sketched on the wall. If you look closely, you may see the Astronaut’s right thumb and index finger form a small girl reading a book. The mess on the lower-left is the result of a miss-pressurised fire extinguisher filled with paint.
This cool mural was skillfully painted to depict a different image depending on which eye the viewer opens while wearing red/blue “3D” glasses.
There’s also a really interesting and somewhat complex structure of hierarchy within this world. Scribbles/tags are the scrawled thin-lined letters you can find almost anywhere in a large city. Bombs are the larger, often filled-in initials or lettering that incorporate some form of artistic technique and design in their construction. Bombs and murals/art pieces are permitted to cover scribbles, but scribbles can never cover bombs or murals. To break this rule would invoke wrath and potentially violence from other rival graffiti groups, or the original artist whose work has been tarnished. This can even extend to all of the perpetrator’s tags being hunted down and erased as a form of revenge. If there is a disagreement, both parties can agree on a payment in paint-cans to settle the dispute.
Sometimes a famous group will place their bomb next to an art piece they admire as a sign of respect. This example shows the iconic vertical lettering of “The Berlin Kids” - the most notorious group of street-artists in Berlin placed next to a mural painted by Brazilian brothers “OSGEMEOS”.
Heading to the ‘graffiti studio’ we were shown how some effects are achieved with a spray-can, and the basics of how each nozzle can apply different streams of paint. I even got to practice some of the techniques I learned to make my own little bit of street art (on canvas!) which was super cool!
At the end of the day, it was just a really amazing experience to be introduced to an art-form so deeply ingrained in Berlin street-culture. It’s also been interesting as I continue my travels, being able to recognise techniques or work from certain groups that have spread to different parts of Europe and the rest of the world.