To the East of the city, by the banks of River Spree, runs a daily 'Alternative Tour' of the city. A reasonably sized group of us gathered at noon for a three-hour walk through the sites of Berlin's counter-culture. This tour is another so-called free tour, which is to say, it is one that is done for tips. Unlike the Amsterdam 'free' tour I recently took, this one was not pushy and did not try to pump us to give money, it was much more low-key. Our guide, a young Australian woman, introduced herself to us and it turned out she was relatively new to Berlin having lived in the city just one year. Her main qualifications for the job were her command of the language, an outgoing personality and her enthusiasm for street art.
After having a chat with another one of the company's guides, who runs their ever popular pub crawl in the evenings, we stopped to admire our first piece of street art. We learnt a bit about the artist, an Italian woman, how the work was made and what it might mean. We then took photos and filed off to the next artwork.
We were given an interpretation of this work that both started and stopped at the blatantly obvious: it is a political piece of street art about the euro crisis. I'm not so used to this blunt form of art criticism and if I try to imagine it in a museum tour it can be almost funny. Here, however, it more or less worked as it was in keeping with the directness of the art itself. Indeed, I had the feeling that the majority of the street art we came across was raw expression, though there were some refined works too, and this got me wondering, what is the attraction in looking at miserable art? When I thought about it further I came to see that these sorts of pictures are to art what teenage grunge bands are to music. They rarely have the skill or subtlety of expression of gallery artists and they are working to a much more immediate, easy to grasp, aesthetic. They are still expressive, some maybe even more so than the professional art, and some people (mostly younger) will feel more connected to this sort of art than to what they'd find in museums. There are exceptions too; crossover street artists who branch into advertising, gallery shows and coffee table books, which we'll come to later.
She talked a lot about the different techniques employed by street artists, such as, attaching wheat paste posters to the wall. I found it surprising she did not acknowledge the man standing to the side of her sticking an advertisement, piece by A3 piece, onto the wall. The technique is very similar and I was struck that the advert was not printed on a large sheet of paper but was rather home-made and assembled from many smaller pieces. She said that street art being used for advertising was frowned upon yet I also see that it's rife. The NSDM wharf in Amsterdam, where I will open another tour in a little over a week, is full of street art advertisements for trainers. It is also, not co-incidentally, where MTV have their offices and studio.
The pivotal moment of the tour for me came when we were walking in Kreuzberg. We came upon a large and very direct piece of street art: a hand giving the finger with the words 'FUCK YOU' above it, just in case you didn't get the message. On the side is another piece of text reading "TRAVELLERS WELCOME FUCK GHETTO TOURISTS". I guess that would mean us. She said it was a new piece that was 'brutal' and she couldn't find a neat way to incorporate the message back into the tour, as it was a direct challenge to our tour's legitimacy.
We instead talked about a large squat that once occupied the land in front of the wall that was so spectacularly showing us the finger. The place had been cleared by the city authorities fairly recently amid speculation that a fire which precipitated its clearance, on public health grounds, was not accidental. My impression was that the whole area was cleaning up and while it still had the self-identity of being grungy and alternative, the reality was something else. The cafes we passed were actually not so cheap and the punks were outnumbered by the hipsters and Turks going about their business. The conditions that had created Berlin's counter culture were no longer in place and, block by block, the city seems to be returning to the mainstream German fold.
While we were talking about a street artist who was fined a hefty sum by the city authorities, decorators on the other side of the road were painting the front of a building an elegant shade of cream. It must be an unrewarding job painting a building like that in the full knowledge that within 48 hours it would be tagged but, on the other hand, that does also mean that as a painter you have a steady stream of work. Indeed, even the street artists have this problem of their pictures getting plastered in tags and we learnt that some return to touch up their art.
We came to the work of some successful street artists, a pair of twins who make large-scale paintings such as this one on the side of the building. There must be a system for the promotion of artists like these and it might be interesting to learn how the street and money collide and interact with one another. The Banksy film Exit Through The Gift Shop covers some of this terrain quite entertainingly but does so from a self-serving position. A cooler more analytic documentary would make for myth-busting viewing.
The last stop on the tour was a park with some street art. Some alcoholics were drinking beside the art we were looking for so we did not interrupt their reverie and instead concluded next to this statue. There was nothing said about the statue, however, it was to all effects invisible. I found this a pity as it too is art that is found on the street. By focussing so exclusively on contemporary street art a great deal of art that is also found alongside it was missed and I would have found the comparisons very interesting. Perhaps that is just me reimagining the tour with a broader visual field that would bring into focus some interesting questions around who makes art, for whom, and how. Those sorts of questions which open up a discussion of society, politics and aesthetics were outside the scope of this tour, however, which stuck to simply showing some examples of one type of art. Finally, it is a tourist walking tour after all.