Jarryd Salem is a travel writer who has been backpacking around the world since 2007. Documenting his experiences in sustainable, long-term adventure travel, he is currently travelling overland from SE Asia to South Africa without using any air transportation. You can follow his journey on his blog NOMADasaurus and on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Instagram
Few cities around the world have managed to bounce back from such a troubled history in the way that Berlin has. After years of genocide, war, division and oppression the capital city of Germany is now known for its cutting edge, liberal views on politics and society.
From this history a massively charged art scene has developed promoting free thinking and rebellion. From the bohemian suburbs of Kreuzberg and Friederichschain to the abandoned buildings and warehouses tucked away in the back corners of the city some of the most famous and fascinating pieces of art have been installed, both legally and illegally, either waiting to be discovered or completely removed from prying eyes.
Along the longest section of the Berlin Wall still standing is the emotionally driven East Side Gallery, the largest open-air art gallery in the world. Used as a representation of the resilience of the Berlin population this has become an ever-changing relic of history.
One cannot really experience Berlin without delving into some of the powerful, beautiful and moving pieces of street art located all over the city.
“Astronaut” – Victor Ash – Mariannenstraße, Kreuzberg
Towering high above Mariannenstraße in the tragically hip suburb of Kreuzberg is one of Berlin’s most famous art pieces – Victor Ash’s Astronaut. Commissioned by the city in 2007 as part of the Blackjumps street art festival, Ash’s floating spaceman measures 22m by 14m and is thought to be the largest stencil in the world.
In an interview with Alex Wells, Victor Ash said that his motivation behind the piece was, “making the astronaut in relation to the space race between America and the USSR, to the idea of fighting for something that isn’t with soldiers, that isn’t here on Earth—it’s in another dimension. That’s the kind of idea that inspires me: it’s more global, more human.” He felt that the location being in Berlin was important due to the way the city was viewed as an ‘icon’ during the Cold War.
“The Wall Jumper” – Gabriel Heimler – East Side Gallery
The Berlin Wall painted on the Berlin Wall. This simple image remains one of the most powerful and inspirational pieces on the entire East Side Gallery. French artist Gabriel Heimler portrays a man jumping over the barricades from West Berlin into East Berlin.
It is analysed to represent an East German acquiring freedom by leaping over the wall, although Heimler supposedly meant it to represent a man crossing into the East to buy up the East German state companies. Whatever the true meaning is, it now stands as an artwork that promotes liberty and unification in this world.
“The Artist’s Tears” – Jimmy C – Revalerstrasse, Friederichschain
James Cochran, also known as ‘Jimmy C’, was a key player in the underground graffiti art movement back in his home country of Australia during the 1990s. Having graduated from university with a master’s degree in visual art and inspired by traditional Aboriginal dot paintings, Jimmy C then took his unique art across the seas and now has his work featured in some of the world’s hippest cities.
Famed for his use of drip style painting, each piece is completed with hundreds of bursts with a spray can. ‘The Artist’s Tears’ is a recreation of an original piece he made 10 years earlier, now plastered in Berlin marking the merging of his “interest in figurative realism in painting with graffiti or street art.”
“Es Geschah Im November” (It Happened In November) – Kani Alavi – East Side Gallery
When the Berlin Wall came down, Kani Alavi was there. Looking out from his bedroom window he noted that he was “expecting to see happy and excited faces, but as I observed them closely, I also saw sad, insecure and frightened faces.”
When he was commissioned to paint a mural on the East Side Gallery, one image came to mind. That of thousands of oppressed East Berliners, now being offered the opportunity to break through the wall and meet up with loved ones for the first time in 28 years. But along with that immense relief came a fear of the unknown. The emotions expressed on Alavi’s people aren’t those of happiness – they are of uncertainty.
“Shackled By Time” and “Take Off That Mask” – BLU – Cuvrystrasse, Kreuzberg
Under the pseudonym of ‘Blu’, this Italian artist has been travelling the world showcasing his street art since 1999. In 2008 he made his way to Berlin to paint the huge mural, ‘Shackled By Time’.
His location wasn’t just chosen based on opportunity – this was where one of the 12 border checkpoints of the Berlin Wall once stood. Keeping this tragic point in history in mind, he painted the image of a headless man fastening a necktie wearing two gold wristwatches, which are connected by a gold chain; similar to handcuffs.
His second mural named ‘Take Off That Mask’ depicts two figures trying to remove the cloth from over the faces of each other with one hand. The other hand on each is held in the position of an ‘E’ while the other man poses with a ‘W’ – for east and west, the two sides divided in Berlin between 1961 and 1989.
“Diagonale Lösung Des Problems” (The Diagonal Solution To Problems) – Michail Serebrjakow – East Side Gallery
The simple gesture of a ‘thumbs up’ is usually interpreted as everything being ok. For 28 years in Berlin, everything was far from being all right. However the opinions and emotions felt by the citizens of the city held little value to those who were in charge of the oppression.
To fight back was suicidal and to question authority would bring intense pain to friends and family. Instead people were forced to simply pretend that they were happy with how things were eventuating. Michail Serebrjakow’s moving piece of art, The Diagonal Solution To Problems, alludes to the enforced positivity that was pressed down on the city.
Being chained into a signal of “yes” means little when “no” is not an option.
“The Pink Man” – Blu – Oberbaum Bridge, Kreuzberg
Blu has left more than his fair share of fascinating art in Berlin, and this piece is no exception. The mammoth pink creature apparently about to consume a smaller human is actually pieced together with hundreds of smaller pink men.
Typical in Blu’s style, this is not just simply a piece of art with little meaning. The minuscule naked men with looks of pain etched on their faces are all tied together to form one giant monster. With his gaping mouth and vacant eyes, the evil demon is going to eat the one person who is an individual – the white man breaking away from the mould.
It could be read as society’s evils constantly devouring those who try to seek independence and freedom by choosing to not conform; reminiscent of the terrible Nazi regime of previous years. Those standing back and viewing the piece of art can form their own opinions.
Ohne Titel (Untitled) – Andrej Smolak – East Side Gallery
Along the entire length of the gallery the varying designs of motifs tend to signify peace, freedom and unity. A strong message that can be felt as you walk from one end to the other. When you come across this untitled piece by Czechoslovakian artist, Andrej Smolak, all these impressions come together in a beautiful and uplifting moment.
The white dove is pulling on a chain linked to an imprisoned hand. Two powerful symbols of peace are breaking apart the confines of captivity. Contrasted with the imposing ideologies of the wall it is painted on you can’t help but feel a longing for harmony across the city.
“Suspended” – Alice Pasquini – Warschauer Strasse, Friedrichshain
From the Italian city of Rome comes Alice Pasquini, otherwise known as AliCé. AliCé has taken the graffiti world by storm with her portrayals of independent and strong women in ways that break away from traditional stereotypes.
Focusing on creating art that is “about people and their relationships” and “representing human feelings and exploring different points of view” she has some spectacular work featured in cities all around Europe and Australia. ‘Suspended’ is a series AliCé has created close to the East Side Gallery which is similar to something you would find in her personal sketch book.
Unlike many artists, she takes full responsibility for the messages in her art and does not hide behind an alias or a mask, remaining happy to represent herself in the media spotlight.
“Grandma I Made It” – Unknown – East Side Gallery
Hidden amongst the multitude of art, graffiti, scrawling and writing plastered all over the wall is this simple comment which in four simple words creates a powerful experience. Was Grandma from East Berlin or West Berlin? Was she a survivor or a victim? Who was the author of this piece? What was she trying to accomplish by visiting the Wall?
Unless you happened to look at the right space of wall at the right time, you would miss this message. How many other heart-wrenching messages are hidden on the Wall, throughout the streets and in the traumatised memories of Berlin?
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