Seeing Things: Graffiti Berlin
by Tara Goe
My Eastern Berlin arrival is appropriately morbid—halfway into my train ride we stop in the countryside for four hours after hitting a pedestrian on her bike. The English translation over the intercom is also mangled. I eventually exit onto the Berlin streets drunken and disturbed, and although I instantly fall in love, I am troubled by my strange affection for this deeply melancholy city.
The mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, proudly describes his hometown as “poor but sexy.” Indeed, this is ostensibly why I’ve come here—to bask in the warm, creative glow of a city in transition, to seek out contemporary art gallery after art gallery, each a stone’s throw from another one (although some remain well hidden). However, distracted as I am by the city itself, I lose all interest in its galleries. Berlin appears to be in a permanent state of dis/repair with building after building covered in graffiti. Sounds torpidly romantic, doesn’t it? Appropriately, my initial guide to these streets is a typologist and graffiti writer who is currently working on a new typeface for Parliament cigarettes. Perhaps I should have visited someplace sunnier?
My German is horrible, but it doesn’t matter that I can’t understand half of what’s written on the walls. Berlin’s untranslated graffiti communicates the mood of the city perfectly. Artists may toil away in their cheap studios, but the city tells the real story, and I have to remind myself: There is nothing particularly sexy or romantic about poverty or an abused welfare system in which hip, unemployed 20-somethings adopt as many dogs as possible to glean more money from the state. Despite my best, abandoned efforts to seek out gallery art, it’s hard to turn my eyes away from the almost fatalistic writing on the walls. The entire European Union is watching Berlin—alive with newness and transition—and awaiting its economic fate, looking for signs of an alternative to American captalism, real or imagined.
photo by Tara Goe