The Family turns out to be a natural-born hipster. While I was busy photographing street art, or admiring architectural points subtle enough to hit you in the face, she took a photo or two which turn out to capture the essence of night-life around Berlin. This happened over and over again, but most noticeably in the far eastern part of Kreutzberg near Oberbaumbruecke. In John le Carre’s cold war trilogy where the spy-masters Smiley and Karla face off, this bridge is the setting where Karla crosses finally to the West. I had a mad moment of imagination when I thought I would search for the gold cigarette lighter given to Smiley by his wife, which Karla stole in Delhi and dropped on the bridge as he crossed it. Instead, I took a few shots of the restored 19th century Gothic bridge (featured photo), as The Family examined what turned out to be one of Berlin’s hot spots: the Watergate club (photo below).
Most people come this far east in Kreutzberg for the many clubs which have sprung up in this area in the last decade. We were too early to start looking for a few sips of beer and music to dance by, but going by past experience, if it had been the right time, then she would have been able to either talk her way in for both of us, or found a different place. By all accounts, the area comes alive around midnight. We didn’t wait so long.
We had come here on a search for one of Berlin’s iconic murals, the one called Backjump by BLU. We stood on the bridge and admired the mural. The light was fading, and it was clear that our photo-walk through Berlin was almost over for the day. The gloomy double-decker Oberbaum bridge was made in that anachronistic Gothic style which we now think of as Harry-Potter-architecture. It was built at the end of the 19th century to take the increased traffic of that time as well as the then-new U-bahn. It was blown up in the last days of the war as a futile defensive measure against the advancing Red Army, and rebuilt in 1994. There was incredibly wild street art at the foot of the bridge (panels above). They were hard to photograph in the narrow space and in bad light.
As we walked back, I was intrigued by a gathering of people under the U-bahn line near the Schlesichser Tor station (photo above). A quick look told me that the kiosk is called Burgermeister, and its main offering is absolutely clear: burgers. This is another of the legendary places around here. I was torn, but decided to give it a miss, thinking of a bigger dinner later. This was a mistake because our dinner experience that night turned out not to be good. But that is another story which ended with The Family’s hipster radar leading her into one of Berlin’s hotspots of street art.
What I remember about painting as a child was a joy in spreading colour. I felt some of that when I stood in front of the enormous wall, part of which you see in the featured photo. You can lose yourself in the colour, the textures of the wall, and the little details the painter has put on it. When you step back, the camera is a small thing which is almost lost in the larger picture.
In the days when the RAW-gelaende was in actual use as a railway workshop, this must have been a loading door for equipment. I can imagine the delight in being able to paint over such a large area in three colours. I can imagine stepping back to decide how to use the white and black to make the colours pop.
1-UP crew is an artist’s collective that seems to do a lot of business with Urban Spree. They appear together in every web reference I could reach for the crew. Here is one of the doors they painted in the backyard of Urban Spree.
For good measure, here is a second door painted by the 1-UP crew, also in the back yard of Urban Spree.
The Family and I stood in front of this wall and admired the colours. “What is it?” I asked. “I haven’t the faintest”, she replied. Is it incomplete? Is it a question you can ask about any piece of street art?
Could a travel blog post end with a more appropriate picture?
The sun was setting when we walked up to Kotti. It has been known as one of Berlin’s most dangerous areas for decades. A recent police list ranked it seventh, behind Alexanderplatz and Warschauer Bruecke. We were there to look at the 10 years old Cosmonaut mural by Victor Ash. But we got distracted.
As soon as we emerged we saw a minaret of the Mevlana mosque, and its shallow Turkish dome, silhouetted against the golden sky (photo above). The Family said, “This looks interesting”. Behind us was a traffic island which seemed to have turned into a fruit and vegetable market. We walked into it and eyed the produce. It looked fresh.
We walked past it into Reichenberger Strasse, and immediately saw an alley with shops looking out into it. A few steps in, an underpass brought us to Dresdner Strasse. Right at the corner here was an interesting mural outside Kremanski Cafe (featured photo). We peered into the big window and saw people peering into their laptops (photo above). Just a regular cafe then. Disappointed, we moved on to the next window: Cafe am Kotti, which also looked ordinary.
The area has been considered less than safe for decades; first it was the Turks in the ’70s, then the squatters in the ’80s and the fights between skinheads and Turkish gangs, in the ’90s the druggies evicted from Berlin Zoo, East Europeans in the oughts. This decade was summed up nicely in a sentence by a resident quoted in a magazine: “The idea of Kotti as a cool neighbourhood attracts young people, and young people attract drug dealers.” The idea of Kotti as less safe than Alexanderplatz or parts of Friedrichshain may be coloured a little by the shades of skin you see around you.
We walked through the little streets of Kotti for a short while, looking for street art. There was not too much visible in the places we walked through. The mural which you can see in the photo above was the biggest we saw. The area was shabby and run-down, but full of interesting-looking restaurants. It did not seem to have an edge of danger. Crime statistics show that Berlin is safer than Brussels or Amsterdam, and Europe in general is safer than the US. When The Family said, “Should we have dinner here?” our conversation was about the time of the day and where else we needed to go rather than safety.
The time-honoured way for artists to make a living is to paint advertisements or decorate restaurants. Berlin is full of hard-up artists. So its not surprising that many street food stalls are wonderfully decorated. The vegan street food stall which you see in the featured photo caught my Indian eye. The star anise and the mortar and pestle were lovely touches.
The same stall had this picture off in one corner. This brazier full of glowing coals, the colour of the flower, and the red of the chilis together warm up this corner of Warschauer Strasse and Revaeler Strasse.
Next to it was the burrito stall made famous by a future Joan Miro. What makes those snakes smile? I love the cheerful colours of the sign.
At the other end of the town, near Ku’Damm, we found a young Asian artist trying to make a living by spray painting old LPs. The second life of vinyl is a colourful incarnation. I was happy to see the artist with a mask, but I did get a whiff of the paint that she was spraying. If we had masks with us, we might have stayed for a longer look.
Back near the Indian vegan food stall, we saw this wonderfully decorated sitting area near an imbiss stall. It was too cold to sit, although the stall was open. The Family and I stood to admire the murals.
I suppose it has steadily grown colder since then, and the outdoor seating will not be in use. Will these wonderful murals last till the spring? Very likely the next set of street artist will have plied their art over these walls before then. Street art is an ephemeral medium.
This closed kiosk had been done up well. I liked the sight of three different drinks in martini glasses. The bar was open, but we did not open the door.
Where did The Family take the photo you see above? She does not remember, but it was most likely somewhere in the RAW-gelaende. I’d missed this wonderful piece of commissioned art. Being an artist is an uncertain life. Very few ever become commercial successes. Most will make a living on little commissions. Some will struggle even for that.
Berlin is full of beautiful large murals. Some are commissioned, others are illegal. Some are by well-known artists, others by the not-yet-famous. The mural in the featured photo is visible from the Tiergarten S-bahn station. I don’t know who it is by.
This famous mural by Case McClaim is right by one of the exits from the Heinrich Heine Allee U-bahn station on the U8 line. This area has a constantly changing variety of other wonderful work.
Get off the U8 at the Moritzplatz station and walk to Prinzessinen Gaerten to get to this huge mural painted by Agostino Iacurci.
Take the U1 to the Schlesisches Tor station, and then walk towards Oberbaumbruecke. When you reach it, turn around and look for this mural by BLU before you cross the river. Look around and you will find an undergrowth of street art.
Take M10 or M13 to the Warschauer Strasse stop and right at the corner of Revaeler Strasse and Warschauer Strasse is Urban Spree. This is a curated work by Tavar Zawacki, which has passed the date until which it was protected. By now it will have been painted over by Victor Ash.
Behind Urban Spree are abandoned warehouses with ever-changing art work on the walls. I don’t know who made the one which you see above.
This large mural is in the incredible gallery near Anne Frank Zentrum on Rosenthaler Strasse. You can get there from the S-bahn station at Hackescher Markt or by taking U8 to the Weinmeisterstrasse station. I can’t find who painted it.
If you get off at the Bernauer Strasse stop of M10 and walk towards the Berlin Wall memorial you’ll see this work facing the road. It was designed Marcus Haas and executed by Xi Design (this is an advertising agency which has hacked the wild meme). I like the map of Berlin hidden in the marbling of fat in the slice of steak.
Two more works are easily visible from public transport, but I didn’t manage to photograph them. You see a stencil by JR when you take the M2 coming down from Prenzlauer Allee towards Alexanderplatz. Look to the right of the tram just as it gets towards the end of Prenzlauer Allee. The famous mural of the Cosmonaut by Victor Ash is visible from the U1 line. As you take the U-bahn from Kottbusser Tor towards Schlesischer Tor, look to your left just after starting.
There must be many others. These just the large ones The Family and I managed to see.
After walking through the solemn memorial at Bernauer Strasse, we decided to walk in Mauerpark. It is an interesting place. Before the division of Berlin, it was a railway yard. It was broken up into the Soviet and French sectors after the war. Later East Germany built the wall along here, and most of the park became part of the death strip. Now it is an unorganized and badly maintained park. When we arrived on a Sunday after a storm, it was crowded.
We had an evening with friends planned ahead of us, and realized we didn’t have the time to browse through the Sunday flea market, or spend time at the informal bars and cafes around it. So we climbed the slope up to the sports complex we could see. The doors were shut. We decided to walk around the wall admiring the artwork and the artists at work.
Bikes are as much part of Berlin as graffiti
Signage at Mauerpark
The wall clearly faces the west in Mauerpark
Graffiti at Mauerpark
The last days of a zombie image
Sunset glow on the artist’s wall at Mauerpark
Artist with friend at Mauerpark
Artist at work in Mauerpark
There is an amazing energy here. Over large parts of Germany you see people working hard, making a good middle class life. Here at the Wall Park you see the other side of Germany. The fashionable people from Prenzlauerberg mixing with people who are the grit in the wheels of progress. Something new is being created here and it can be either good or bad.
We admired the golden sunset from the top of the hill for a while. We were a little behind time for our evening. There was no time to rock the karaoke which we could hear. People were still streaming into the park, but we had to leave.
There is a Paris that I never saw, but one which is celebrated in books and paintings, movies and memories. This is the Paris where artists from around the world gathered and talked to each other, while creating new works. There were hundreds of artists, of whom we now remember few.
Berlin today seems to be a vital place like that. The fall of the wall has given a space, probably temporary, for artists to flourish. We walked through a crowded galleries full of fashion photography cheek by jowl with exciting experiments. Artists from all across the world seem to gather in Berlin today. We came across bookstores which carry eclectic collections of books on art: from slim self-published volumes to glossy magazines.
Artist at work in Mauerpark
Artist with friend at Mauerpark
Artist below Oberbaumbruecke
Artist at Urban Spree
And every now and then, outside these art-spaces, we would come across people painting on door and walls. There was graffiti in German, English, Turkish and Arabic. We found young (and not-so-young) artists painting large and ephemeral works on walls, others doing signboards and doors. The atmosphere reminded me of artists’ collectives in Shanghai a few years ago.
Berlin is edgy and exciting today. A great place to retire to.
The Family noticed this piece as we walked to the Mauerpark in Berlin. We stopped to admire it. I didn’t notice something which was obvious when it was pointed out. This work completely follows the law: the house number and the “Ausfahrt freihalten” signs are left untouched, and only the door and the frame are painted. Legal street art!
The Family walked into a dark courtyard in Berlin, and I followed. Coming off the brightly lit Rosenthaler Strasse, we seemed to suddenly fall into a hole in the ground and find ourselves in wonderland. There were paintings on all available surfaces. In a variety of styles. Some lit, others not. Some bathed in red or blue lights. Others with well-placed white lamps emphasizing some special feature of the work.
There was street art in all sizes. The gallery below has all the large works. There were smaller pieces everywhere. In the semi-darkness it was difficult to see them all. The photo above is of a section of a wall where many of them appeared next to each other.
The courtyard was not empty: there was a cinema (Kino Central) and a bar, which was well-populated. We had no desire to leave these paintings. We had not read anything about this collective at all till then. When I searched later I found some mentions, including the fact that Banksy had been here. Did we miss his work? We saw so much which was wonderful.
The place was darker than it seems from these photos. I had to lighten the images. Some looked entirely dark in the camera, and required a bit of work to recover. The lion painted on a door with light streaming out of a viewing slit took some work, as you can see from the granininess.
The street art of Berlin is too diverse for a single post. Nor am I enough of an expert to be able to classify it into styles or periods. Instead I will post by areas. The photos you see here were taken just around the northern exits from the Heinrich Heine Strasse U-bahn station. The mural by Case McClaim is famous and probably the oldest in this set. The others were found opposite it and in the subway entrance just around the corner.
An interesting door
Look behind you …
Here’s looking at you kid
Case McClaim’s mural
When Berlin was a divided city, this area contained a border crossing. At that time it was built up with cheap pre-fabricated housing, one block of which you can see in the general view of the area. The three chimneys belong to a modern (post-unification) power plant at which generates about half a gigawatt of electrical power. The plant simultaneously generates slightly more than this in useful heating supplied to the area. The plant was designed by the architect Jochem Jourdan. We did not have time to visit the artworks which are integrated with the power plant.