Berlin – The Wild Side

The video of two members of the Berlinkidz gang slinging from a rope tied to the roof of a high rise building in Berlin has gone viral since it came out. In the twilight, when the lights of the Berlin sprawl create a mystical haze – these guys take just a few minutes to scribble a few characters that resemble an obscure South American ancient script.  We can see them standing up on the roof of a speeding U-Bahn – with arms stretched, crying the sound of victory, after spraying their mark on the trains.  Vandalism or art? That is the question.  Beating the sight of building owners, tenants, and the law enforcement, these kids would go to the extreme of danger to leave their “mark”.  Ego, adrenaline and the sheer excitement of the wild are the main factors driving them. This is a glimpse of the wild side of Berlin – the world that gets exposed to the mainstream through tagging, graffiti, and street art, and these days social media and youtube videos. For many this is considered as “breaking the law”, and a mere destruction of public space. But street artists would argue – that – so are the advertisements and the thousands of billboards across the city landscape. What is visual pollution and what is not – is a topic for another day.  But this side of Berlin has much to offer – raw and uncut. A pure expression of the human spirit.

Admittedly, this wild underground life of Berlin has toned down quite a bit in the last couple of years after a run of more than 20 years, since the Wall came down. So when the wall came down in 1990s, a large section of the central city area called Mitte opened up. During the Iron Curtain era, this was largely abandoned and fell in the no-man’s land within the eastern section. Being so close to the border with West Berlin – no one really developed it. So it was not surprising to find garbage and rubbish from WWII still remaining there. Broken jeeps, aircrafts, shells – not to mention the ruins from the war that were left intact. (Check out this book) . So people started making stuff out of it. Given that there was not much out there – the people who came to this area were mostly freaks and misfits. There was already the Kreuzberg area in the West that was thronged by those who wanted a safe haven to dodge the German military service (yes Berliners had an exception). A combination of all these factors gave rise to a subculture that brought out the “other” side. Cheap living supported by major gentrification push from the government, brought in people from everywhere – mostly artists who took to the streets as their theater. Today, many of them have gone to major commercial success. The Banksy effect is pervasive and Berlin has its fair share of commercially successful artists. Many street “purists” however, do not like them; and are not pleased with these commercial developments and would prefer to keep doing streets from the underground, away from material mainstream success, in stealth and incognito. Such folks breed anarchy at heart. And I admire them.

Now personally speaking, ensconced in the mainstream, this subculture was outside my radar until a few years back when a friend of mine in New York introduced me to Parkour and street art in the Bronx and Yorktown area. I will get into the connection between the two later but like second hand cigarette smoke I was still a bit removed from what really went on. Walking around Berlin with a former member of the 1Up gang was an eyeopener. My first lesson was to understand the distinction between tagging, graffiti and street art. Graffiti is an outline with fillings of color – almost always done to make a personal statement. It is meant for other gangs or groups – usually a statement of ego and vanity. As simple as – “mine is bigger than yours”. Tagging is a basic form of graffiti – mainly to demarcate territory. There is a hierarchy within the gangs that ought to be respected. 1Up was one of these gangs that has an elevated stature in Berlin that others rarely crossed. Tagging and graffiti also serve to contextualize the place. There are folks who keep tagging over and over again. Someone cleans it up just to get tagged again. Tags are also a mark of protest – one such was all over Mitte to make a statement against the commercialization of the area. Mitte today is so trendy and expensive that it is driving the poor artists away.  It has become a hip neighborhood now with art galleries and trendy coffee shops.

Street art, however has a very different purpose. It is mostly for the viewers consumption. I was told that the newer breed of artists that are coming in are treating the street as just a window into their virtual world of social media. So they use the street to just get noticed and then conversation on art and commercial terms continue via social media. This is driving some of the old school graffiti/sprayers to other locales as a path to commercial success. I am told opportunities are opening up in other places in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. I did see that in Budapest last year and in Chile and Buenos Aires earlier this year.

I walked around marveling at the details and learning the stories behind them.  Stories on the refugees migration, their ironical detention in the Tempelhof airport (which was used for the Berlin airlift), deceit, human rights, heartbreaks…they are all there. I was struck with the variety of materials that are used. The staple is the paint can. Usually a beginner starts with chrome and black paint learning to do outlines. They have to be clean, proportionate and obviously, have to be done quickly. It takes several months of watching, practicing outlines, and forms before they can give a test and join the group as an artist. Once they join, then go up the hierarchy. There are rules, and gangs have their own set of highly rigorous governance mechanisms. A group like 1Up! has about 100 members – with a large percentage of girls. (Approach them at your own peril; gangs are very protective of their girls, and there is no tolerance for sexism). Many artists use stencils. Multi-layered stencils are used directly when the artists want to keep the artwork for long. Others can do more complex work on stencils in the studio and paste the paper onto the wall. Of course, these wither, crumble and fade away sooner. The only thing apart from the materials that ensure longevity of the art work is the respect for the artist itself. The notion of transience and impermanence is central to the artist’s psyche. Whats pretty today will not be there tomorrow. Either will get overwritten or just gone and forgotten.

The most fascinating material I saw was the use of the fire extinguisher. It came to Berlin from the streets of Paris. Fire extinguishers are easily available – one just need to break and grab it from a public place. Fill it half with paint and the other with some medium – then pressurize it with compressed air at a gas station – and you are good to go. It holds a lot of paint – so one does not need to carry a ton of paint cans. There is a strict protocol not to leave any material behind at the site so with the extinguisher it helps keeping your paint gear light. It takes a lot of practice to master the use with the nozzle though, but it is very effective. Without mastery bad things can happen. Notice the scribble near the famous astronaut – it is one such disaster. Although the guy who blew it was quite senior, he was not experienced in the nozzle control. Following the rules of the gang – he was apparently demoted and had to suffer a reprimand course of training before he was allowed back.

The recent trend is to combine parkour and graffiti art. Sadly, but not surprisingly, it has resulted in many casualties and fatalities especially when trying to do the epitome of all public places – the trains. It is the ultimate thrill of action art. I always associated action art with someone like Jackson Pollock  but this is of course of a different league. No absinthe or LSD involved. Quite the contrary – the Berlinkidz don’t touch alcohol, dont smoke, or do drugs.  They are on a strict diet and exercise. Despite their dedication, the Berlinkidz are believed that they would either get hurt or end up in prison. Pushing the human boundaries to the limits of danger – both physical danger and danger from the authorities to make that personal statement is of course not everyone’s thing. One artist told me, “the street is a very humbling place. You need to learn the hard way and then get erased soon. We do not come from art schools, but we learn and express through this rough cruel way.” I found this to be quite a paradox. But then as with many things in life – I am too small to pass a judgment. I can see both sides to this quite vividly. It can be pursuit of an ego trip in a humbling way. The truth to me is to be able carry forward and bear these contradictions – co-existing with each other.

I learn a great deal from such excursions. Not the least of which is that beyond the apparent two dimensional view of what I see there is a third or even more dimensions that is not visible but it is there. At a minimum there is always a “story” behind these art pieces, which is not available to everyone. I am grateful that, even in a very limited way, I could get behind the visible and learn about some of these stories.

Note: Here is a collection of pictures – mostly taken with my iPhone and a few with my Leica M9.

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