City as Canvas

In Berlin, The Art of Travel, 10. The Art of Place by Gillian1 Comment

My course load here in Berlin includes a class about ancient art. We have learned about manifestations of Germany’s imperialist, colonialist history in the art world; how the country’s bloody participation in the scramble for Africa resulted in their sordid ownership of several ancient artifacts, not to mention a scarily nationalistic attitude towards these ancient and modern cultures. So for this post, I will not focus on any items I have seen on museum island or in the German history museum. I have found street art to be the most honest and self-representative art form Berlin has to offer.

Street art is by and for the people, uninvolved with and untouched by the government or other institutional forces. Street art is a form of expression that speaks from a place of oppression, of dissatisfaction–its publicness at the core of its message, its innovation at the core of its meaning. Though highly political, it is uncensored, uncurated, raw. Berlin’s street art stands in stark contrast to the very polished and poignantly academic yet unfeeling and often prejudiced exhibits you can find in any museum, especially the five you can find on museum island.

I have seen so much beautiful, provocative street art since arriving in Berlin. The streets are drenched in graffiti–you’d be hard-pressed to find a single block without it, actually. I love it. I love walking or biking down the street, racing through my own mind, going through mental check-lists or deeply reflecting when suddenly I get visually hit by a giant mural. While the East Side Gallery is of course the most famous (and unfortunately hackneyed) example of this reminder, I always stumble upon my newest favorite street art accidentally. It reminds me, it reminds Berlin, of the city’s past–be it imperialist, Nazi, or GDR. More importantly, street art keeps Berlin in the present, attuned to its imperfect nature and the problems which remain to be solved.

I’ve seen “Free Palestine” graffiti’d right next to the words “keine macht für Niemand” (no power for anybody). I see the Unteilbar sign, two open overlapping hands representing the anti-discrimination movement which promotes the collaboration and support of every person, everywhere. I’ve seen just the word “Bildung,” which refers to a nationalist and specifically German idea of holistic learning and mastery of all subjects. I’ve seen the feminist sign with the words “unsere Stadt” (our city) on phone booths. I can find “kein Mensch ist illegal” (no person is illegal) on almost every block, and I see “no deportation” on dozens of benches around the city. In parking my bike just the other day, I saw the words “happiness is when the bass kicks in” on the bike post. Right now sitting in a cafe and looking out a window, I see “#thisismyworldBerlin.” There’s a lot of graffiti about Berlin–much of it profanely proclaiming allegiance to the city. I don’t know what to make of all these ideas on different walls in the same urban space. What influence does it have on us, on me, to be seeing these images every day?

However, I always come back to the mural I’ve used as the featured image for this post. Obama covering his eyes, Merkel covering her mouth, Stalin covering his ears. See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil. Maybe it’s stuck out so sharply in my mind because I saw the pastels at sunset, and the colors and the lighting was just right. The clear political connotation–that the US pretends not to see evil, that Germany doesn’t speak out against it, and that Russia in its censorship pretends it doesn’t happen at all–has been on my mind since I’ve seen it. Maybe it’s the specific calling-out of these countries. I don’t know, but it’s been with me.

And maybe that’s the point.

(Image: Speak no evil, hear no evil, see no evil: Obama, Merkel, and Putin: the USA, Germany, and Russia; Source: Gillian)


  1. Hi Gillian,

    I love this post. You write so beautifully and the wholesome simplicity of your engagement with art is so inspiring to hear about. I think everybody wishes that they could feel as connected to the “places” they inhabit as you evidently do.

    When I visited Berlin as a senior in high school, I was also struck by the thought-provoking street art I witnessed. There is something so subversive and rebellious about the very notion of street art as if the citizens of a given place have decided to take their own power through the vessel of creative expression. That kind of unbridled capacity to express thoughts freely is not necessarily conducive to enclosed, carefully curated environments such as museums, and it’s wonderful to know that the historical tradition lives on.

    I haven’t seen much street art in Paris, but the few murals that I have come across have been some of my favorite sights in the entire city. Spontaneously coming across a piece of art that makes an impact on you is an unmatched and visceral experience, and I think that that very indescribable sensation that you alluded to is exactly what the point of it all is—producing images that linger with passerbys.

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