It’s dark inside. The aggressive graffiti on the walls battles with peeling posters. Doors swing open aided by a pulley system engineered with old sand-filled bottles. Guiding the way, with the help of his cell phone light, artist Axel Void explains how this former artists’ squat in Friedrichshain, Berlin, was recently legalised when its 50 residents got together and bought the huge, rambling, poster-plastered building.
This is a familiar story in Berlin, where art and capitalism are lodged in a fierce and seemingly endless battle. Street art, the city’s most rebellious sub-culture is rapidly gaining international admirers, and — as a result – enthusiastic buyers. The recent Stroke Artfair, which promised to be an ‘unconventional and uncompromising,’ showcased street artists and graphic designers in an exhibition that was more commercial than edgy, with businesslike stalls featuring catalogues and whopping price tags.
Can a subculture survive if it ceases to be subversive? After all, street art’s power stems from the fact that it’s illegal. Its creators are admired for living on the margins of society. There’s the romantic notion that spend night after night taking heady risks, with no rewards other than the satisfaction of knowing they’ve transformed a formerly soulless urban space with their art.
Berlin is an exciting place to watch this drama unfold because it’s all happening right now: low rents are drawing artists from all over the world. They network on MySpace, Facebook and in smoky, grungy, candle-lit bars. They hit the streets in the early hours of morning, covering walls and buildings with spray cans, stencils and huge painstakingly-hand painted posters. Some are talented. Some are not. Yet, together they change the city incessantly with art that’s endlessly ephemeral: it can last for years or be erased in 24 hours.
At a bombed out train depot in Friedrichshain, infamous for anti-capitalism protests, livewire music venues and spectacular graffiti, art historian and painter Georg Zolchow, explains how Berlin’s street culture was revitalised by the fall of the wall. Georg leads the Graffiti Workshop for Alternative Berlin, a company that introduces tourists to the city’s mesmerising underbelly. “Artists from the Soviet-occupied East emerged to find a completely alien world. They began to squat in buildings that formerly belonged to the State. And paint.”
Explaining the difference between graffiti and street art, Georg says with graffiti you’re painting your name repeatedly. “You play with fonts… let them dance a little, have a game. Street art is urban communication.” What they have in common is rebellion. Urban art tends to be rude, challenging and confrontational.
Balancing on a large pile of rubble, Axel Void points out his latest work: a mural of a dismembered rat. “We’re planning to have breakfast on the terrace facing it,” he grins breezily. Undeniably, this work is designed for the streets, not strait-laced suburbia. Yet, urban art’s become irresistible to buyers looking to add oomph to their collections.
Legendary Banksy sells for tens of thousands of pounds. If he spray-paints a wall, his work is either cut out by a collector, or covered in protective Perspex. Even though it’s illegal, it raises the value of the building it’s on. Urban art’s buyers range from celebrities like Brad Pitt and Christina Aguilera to sharp investors expecting huge returns.
It’s ironic that the driving force is anti-capitalism. ‘Reclaim the streets’ is a common theme on the walls of Berlin. “We need to take back the city. Berlin is full of advertisements. I think it’s important that we have more than just commercial signs out there,” says Alias, whose powerful black, white and red images of wistful little boys and jaunty dogs in scarves have made him famous. When graffiti goes it’s a sign of the city getting gentrified, of rents going up. “In the end, who does the city belong to. Absentee landlords? Advertisers? Or the people who actually live in it?”
Brush with commerce
Many artists start as vigilantes. Alias began spray painting at 14 in his parent’s village to protest a proposed nuclear dumping ground. He has his own code of ethics: “I focus on old walls. I don’t trash walls, I make them better.” He says it’s important to have his work on busy streets. “I’m transporting an emotion. How and where I do it is important; I need to reach people.”
About five years ago, a gallery contacted him on MySpace, leading to a successful exhibition in Hamburg. He now sells regularly in galleries, and offers prints of his work for €300 each. “It’s a good way to finance my work on the street. Each spray can is €3.80. I work with art paper. It gets expensive.” He seems vaguely uncomfortable with the commerce. “It’s kind of strange. So I don’t work on canvas for galleries: I paint on material found on the streets like wood and metal.” Ironically ‘Street cred’ is essential for sales. “A fan asked me to spray paint his house for €600. It was super strange; this rich man in a big car taking me to his house. For him, it’s trendy. A little revolution for his friends.”
Secretive El Bocho, of the city’s most energetic artists, plasters his vivid posters across doorways, stairwells and on huge walls, transforming grungy spaces. His most popular character is ‘Little Lucy’ a girl who’s does terrible things to her cat. “Political statements are too easy… I tell stories. I try to make my work positive, it’s art in an open space and I want it to create a good feeling.”
Like most street artists, he works at night. “The feeling is different, the colours… The sudden, explosive changing of an urban space with a huge unexpected poster excites me.” He avoids new houses, drawing a line between art and vandalism. “Sometimes it’s tough to find space – I can’t paint over graffiti because then there’s a war.”
At the age of 33, El Bocho’s paintings already sell for between €3000 and €10,000 in galleries. His work on the street, therefore, is constantly ripped by sticky-fingered entrepreneurs with Ebay accounts. He adds, “I’m a product. Does that make me a sell out? Much more people see my work on the street than they would in the gallery. If I criticise capitalism in the streets and then sell my T shirts for a couple of euro in the mall, that would be hypocritical. So I do my own work, and I sell at a high price I set myself. This way I’m respecting my art.”
El Bocho does design jobs, illustrates political columns in newspapers, creates CD covers for the music business and owns a gallery. His work on the street is the engine for other projects. “Commercially – everyone likes the idea of this wild young artist from Berlin working for them,” he laughs. “I think my work in a gallery is as powerful as on the street.” As for the strict anonymity, it’s just convenient. “If I give a TV interview I wear a mask, not because my work is criminal but because I want to work freely without people taking pictures. I don’t want my neighbours to know I’m El Bocho.”
Back to 25-year-old Axel Void in the former squat, just back from a successful show in Palermo titled ‘Nothing New For Trash Like You,’ where he was paid to cover three walls with murals. He says it’s not fair to expect artists to choose between passion-fuelled art on the street and commercial success. “If I say I’m doing red it doesn’t mean I can’t use blue anymore. For me painting is something I like to do. I do what I think is aesthetic. And of course, I have to live, so I need to find a way to make it work.”
Kunsthaus Tacheles, a bizarre, dramatically painted, five-storey building moved from subversive nerve centre to tourist trap in just a decade. When the Berlin wall came down in 1989, an artists’ collective moved in illegally, turning Tacheles into a focal point of Berlin’s urban art scene. Today, despite its graffiti splattered walls, crowded electronic music nights and thousands of awed visitors, its residents are being dismissed by local artists as ‘sell outs.’ The overpriced tourist tat on sale inside only serves to reinforce this opinion. Tacheles is currently threatened with demolition and its residents are fighting to keep it open by asking for donations and signed appeals from visitors. They plan to turn it into an ‘autonomous International art and culture house.’ Yet, word on the street is that Tacheles is unlikely to survive.