“The shape of art and its role in society is constantly changing.”
Berlin. Before my lifetime, it was a city of two tales. The west occupied by the Capitalist ‘Allies’ – France, UK and USA. The east occupied by then the Communist USSR. On November the 9th 1989, the government of the east announced that its citizens could enter the west of the city.
Almost 27 years later, Alex and I visited the East Side gallery, a huge, heavily graffitied expanse of the wall. When I first saw the expanse of the graffiti, the scale of it in person plays a huge factor in its perception. Some people may ask ‘How could such an important memorial be so easily vandalised?’.
Graffiti has long been used as a means of expressing ‘anti-establishment’ views. I was introduced to this art form very early on in my life, but not through the conventional means. I grew up in Croydon: an area, in early 2000’s, filled with gangs. Anything would get tagged: walls, buses, shops; anything that we could mark our territory on to show dominance. Police buildings, cars, public transport (deemed to be part of the establishment) would often be vandalised too. It was a big ‘fuck you!’ to the people at the top – our way of voicing our dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Fast forward some years and my next encounter to graffiti came through none other than Banksy. In terms of art, Banksy is one of few whose art is understandable regardless of your background. The majority of people can relate to social commentary in art, simply because we live it. When Banksy draws for the can and shoots at the oligarchs and corrupt politicians of the world, it’s understood by the masses. I’ve always admired his work – he seems to speak for the common man…the working class man. He uses a universal language that transcends cultures and race.
More recently, I was introduced to Errol Donald. In the ‘80s, as his alter ego ‘Pride’, he was a founding member of one of Europe’s most celebrated and respected graffiti crews, The Chrome Angelz. He mentioned that graffiti “In large part, invited me to explore thoughts and feelings around identity and culture through the use of a brand new medium. This was at a time when I felt that creative voices outside of the mainstream were being largely ignored, and hence (letter-based) graffiti art was misunderstood for a very long time.” Having studied at Camberwell school of Arts whilst being part of a Chrome Anglez (what some might see as a conflict of interest) Errol saw a unique opportunity to combine the two cultures. Perhaps that’s why he is one of the most prolific forefathers of modern graffiti.
From right; The Chrome Angelz: Pride, Mode 2, Zaki Dee and Scribla (third from left).
We are all far too well acquainted with those friends on Facebook who use the platform as a place to voice their opinion; in most instances, its both ill informed and waffle. However, others may opt for a more artistic method – graffiti. As talked about above, it’s a means for many to express feelings, views and thoughts.
The Wall is covered in powerful imagery; the piece showing Brezhnev kissing Honecke (My God help me survive this deadly love) is potentially the most recognisable amongst them all. However, the extent of the use of graffiti, and Berlin’s attitude towards it, wasn’t fully clear to me until I wandered through the city. We stayed on the east side of Berlin, just by Ostenbanof Station. The buildings themselves were exactly what I had expected: dark, looming figures protruding from the earth. They were brutal. Well, they should have been brutal. These buildings were covered in graffiti, and I don’t just mean scrawlings or tags, but huge pieces of art spanning the entirety of the place. It was beautifully ugly. Alex and I were shocked at the apparent attitude towards graffiti in Berlin, there were no police telling people to stop; there were no council workers painting over, nothing! It was as if graffiti was as much a part of the city as the very buildings themselves. It makes you wonder why in London, or even other parts of Germany, that there are such different attitudes towards graffiti. We have places in Brick Lane, Hackney and Brixton that graffiti is more ‘accepted’, but still not completely.
I can only think that the reason for such a large amount of graffiti in East Berlin is that it’s part of the communal voice, one shared by hundreds of thousands of people. The wall coming down signified the end of segregation and oppression; the graffiti is potentially the echo of the power that brought it down, adamant on making sure that nothing like that ever happens again.
The power of course was the people. The graffiti art is by the people. These huge pieces of art are for the appreciation of the people. I guess Berlin isn’t a city of two tales anymore, but rather one united voice. I, for one, am a fan of it. I believe graffiti, in all shapes and sizes, is an art form. It’s an indivuduals expression of feelings, of thoughts, of ideas. And that is not something that should be vilified. As Raymond Salvatore Harmon said, “The shape of art and its role in society is constantly changing.”
I guess this is the shape of art in Berlin now.
Words by Tayler Prince-Fraser
Editing by Darren Stoddart
Photos by Alex Williams