As the areas where theWall once stood rapidly gentrify, the spray-painters, stencillers and squat artists face being moved aside…
The man who hangs cats
High on the wall is a cartoonish picture of a poor little pussy cat with its neck in a noose. “This guy doesn’t like cats,” explains Stu. “So he thinks of various ways to kill them. Some of them are really quite inventive, but mostly he just hangs them.”
Stu is an Irishman who came to Berlin to work as a financial analyst. He got made redundant when the hedge fund house of cards began to tumble, and has since become engrossed in Berlin’s street art scene. He now earns a living taking visitors round the ‘alternative’ Berlin – the squats, the artist communes, the independent galleries and, of course, walls covered in graffiti of varying quality.
“I used to go to parties,” he says. “And people would look at me strangely when I told them what I did. No-one works in an office here – they’re all poets, artists or DJs.”
So he became sucked in. He can now explain the differences between tags, throw-ups, stencils and bombing; he can identify the individual artists; he can differentiate quality of paintwork; he can tut loudly when he sees a breach of unwritten protocol.
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What became of the East Side Gallery
He reserves his biggest condemnation for what has happened to Berlin’s most famous street art showground. The East Side Gallery is one of the few remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall. It lines the banks of the River Spree, dividing Friedrichshain in the former East Berlin from Kreuzberg in the west.
When the Wall was torn down in 1989 this small stretch was left for local artists. Each was given a small section and told to go for their lives. The result was a series of murals, largely with themes of peace. Unfortunately, since then, they have been mostly covered over by mindless tagging and poor quality splodgery from people wanting to make a name for themselves. “It’s the bit that everyone wants to see,” says Stu. “But it’s something of an anticlimax. Unfortunately, too many idiots want to write ‘I was here’ on the Berlin Wall.”
Life in the shadow of the Wall
The Scheunenviertel area is crammed with galleries, cafes and bars – and plenty of street art, as Stu points out while we’re walking through. He spots one with a dashed box around it, and a little gift tag emblem saying “Cut & Go”. Apparently, this is a badge of honour – there’s one anonymous chap who goes round putting the Cut & Go boxes around what he deems to be the best pieces of work.
The signs advertising the prices of happy hour cocktails are ubiquitous, and thoroughly dangerous. Scheunenviertel is one of those places where once you start it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be back in the hotel before the early hours.
The coolest bar of the lot is Zapata. It has a grungy, arty vibe which is created partly by the clientele and the decor, but largely by the building it is in.
Kunsthaus Tacheles looks completely incongruous in its surroundings. It’s a dirty, dishevelled former department store, and would be a complete eyesore were it not for a unique Berlin phenomenon.
When the Wall was up, the areas in the immediate vicinity weren’t exactly prime real estate. Alongmuch of the Wall’s path, there was urban decay; buildings nearby were left to ruin. When the Wall came down, the first people to move in to the territory surrounding it were the squatters and the artists. The buildings became illegal homes, studios, galleries and bars. And of course, they were the coolest, edgiest hang-outs. The most visible example of this is by the River Spree near the East Side Gallery. On the Kreuzberg side, a series of squats still line the riverbank, while on the Friedrichshain side are the warehouses that morphed into huge clubs in the 1990s.
Of course, with the Wall gone, the areas it once cut through are now highly sought-after. One by one, the artist squats have been shut down, and multi-million euro loft apartment and office block developments have taken their place.
The last squat outpost
Kunsthaus Tacheles, therefore, is the last great outpost of Berlin’s immediate post-Wall zeitgeist. In the sense that people no longer live there, it is technically no longer a squat, but the artists and craftspeople that have taken it over don’t pay any rent. It is covered in graffiti and could do with a good tidy-up.
Walk through the archway to the land at the back, and there’s a showroom made from shipping containers and plastic sheets. Inside there are some astonishing sculptures carved out of scrap metal, the biggest one being a giant cockerel.
Inside the building and up the litter-strewn stairs are a series of exhibition spaces, all belonging to an individual artist.
Unfortunately, Kunsthaus Tacheles is on borrowed time. The artists have come up with petitions, action plans and marketing schemes to save it, but in all likelihood, it will not be there two years from now. Another big money development is on the cards, and a chapter in Berlin’s first twenty years after the Wall will come to an end.
The art scene will live on, of course. Creativity is in Berlin’s blood, and the hotspots will simply move to another area – probably further east. But for now, despite enormous changes taking place since 1989, great things still grow in the shadow of the Wall.
This post was kindly funded by Oh-Berlin holiday apartments
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