Welcome to the alternative world of Berlin, where we explore the unusual and less discovered places within Berlin city itself, and get introduced to some alternative (or quirky) culture, urban lifestyle and meet up with the passionate artists and their works, the eccentrics, the freaks and even the crazies, if some might call them.
Street Art and Graffiti culture
Berlin city seems to be…., well, perhaps you can say, the Mecca for international street artists. An observant stroller along the streets will notice that almost the entire city is covered with a showcase of vibrant and bold street art in a variety of styles, designs, colors and techniques. They could be creative, humorous, melancholic, educational, sarcastic, or outright annoying; but mostly they are undeniably expressive and sometimes thought-provoking too. It is almost like a huge open air art gallery.
Above are some random murals found on the sidewalls of buildings in various places in Berlin.
Picture 1 : Marlon Brando in a single color, multilayer stencil art technique.
Picture 2 : Leviathan by the prolific Blu. At one glance, it appears to be a big human being eating something from his hands. Looking closer, the big human is made up of hundreds of smaller human beings, all of whom seems to be struggling, pulling or climbing on each other. The message: During the time of war and oppression, there were too many people betraying each other in order to survive, a “people-eating-people” world.
Picture 3 : This artist specializes is drawing animals which are native to that particular country, but in his version, the animals always looked starved and shrunken to ribs and bones. It is his own way of telling the world to preserve nature and the wildlife.
Street art & graffiti is a whole new world and has its own story to tell, for those who are willing to spare a little time to pause on the street and look at them, and give them a little thought. They are not just the works of your average punks who vandalize the bus stops for fun or with mischief (Well, there are those too, of course).
Some of us may wonder : Why are they spending so much time and resources doing this? What makes them tick? They are not even earning money for it. Well, some of these urban artists have their own ideologies and feel that they have a social responsibility to contribute their part and share their thoughts with the world. Street art is the only way they know to express themselves and to project their thoughts publicly. Freedom of expression is most important in their eyes and so they are willing to risk even a €1000 fine if caught (for defacing the public properties).
Nevertheless, street art is so common here that you can observe them almost everywhere in both east and west Berlin; in the train stations, on the exteriors and interiors of abandoned buildings, on the remaining side walls of bombed out flats, even within the city center itself, on roofs, poles, trees, benches, etc. Almost every decent wall and surface there is, there will likely be some artworks to be found there. There are even tours that bring you to street art workshops and teach you the various skills and techniques of doing them properly.
El Bocho – an artist who created practical jokes with his cartoon street art. His character is called Lucy, an excerpt taken from a comic strip where Lucy is a little girl who owned a cat. In El Bocho’s twisted version of his own brand of humour, however, Lucy is a deranged cat-murderer who always thinks of various creative ways to kill her cat. In his street art cartoon, which you can spot all over Berlin, wherever you find the Little Lucy, her cat will not be more than 50 meters away. So, he made it a game for pedestrians to try to find the cat, and to appreciate the creative manner in which it was murdered. This is meant for pure entertainment.
A more serious side of El Bocho however, has another type of street art which is just as well known as Lucy. This usually comes in the form of a young girl, always looking solemn and sad, and usually has a monologue bubble with it that expresses some remarks relating to love and relationship. This, in reality, is actually about the relationship between the girl and the city (Berlin) itself, how the girl feels towards the city that she lives in; it gives some food for thought for passersby to observe. Sometimes, the sketches also come in other forms, there was one of a little boy sitting on a bomb, looking miserable. All of his sketches are intentionally drawn at a lower level of the walls (the children’s eye level), so that children who walk past them with their parents, will observe them and hopefully, the thought-provoking art will expose them to the harsh realities of the world and will trigger them to think and ask questions at a young age; hence they will have a better understanding and awareness of the past and present conditions of the world and acquire a better social conscience as they grow up to be responsible adults.
Some of these street artists are risking even more than the hefty fines for defacing walls. The spots they choose to work on, can even be life and limbs risking. This below (DRS & POET), for example, may look like a normal graffiti job or a punk kid’s attempt at vandalism. However, in the world of the urban street art culture, this is the work of a highly admired artist. Why? This particular kind of location of the wall is called the “heaven’s spot”. Imagine, how do you paint on a spot like that? There are only 3 ways : 1) Lying down flat on your belly at the edge of the roof, holding a long paint roller downwards at a sharp 90° angle, and do the work while not being able to look at it. 2) The artist ties a rope around himself and rappel down the wall with someone supporting his weight at the top of the roof, for the duration of the art work. 3) The artist hangs upside down, with someone holding onto his ankles with a death clamp, while he holds his art apparatus and completes the work, upside down. On top of these crazy things the artist has to do, he also has to have some kind of connection with the building management, or knows someone who stays in this building, in order to be able to access the roof in the first place. So, that’s where the artist earned his famed reputation from.
Kunsthaus Tacheles (Art House Tacheles) In Oranienburger Strasse, Mitte. A hundred-year- old building which was originally built as a luxurious and elaborately furnished departmental store (with elevators made of glass apparently) in the Jewish quarter during the heydays. It was later taken over by Nazis and a dozen other parties for various uses, then partially demolished; and then after the fall of the Wall, it was under the threat of eviction and some local artist has taken an initiative to send out an SOS call to all fellow artists from across the world to come and “squat” the building, in an effort to maintain the heritage and prevent demolition.
Until recently, it has been used as an art centre with a cafe, cinema, exhibition and performance space and workshops of the squatting artists. The courtyard behind houses some abstract sculptures made from creatively used scrap materials. All over the exterior and interior of the buildings are painted with colourful, big and bold graffiti style artworks and murals, inside this building houses a huge collection of artists’ works including their studios and workshops.
Now, most of these are gone and only remaining few art studios and the remnants of the artists’ works in the multi-facades of the building. The large bold writing on one of its side walls said: “How long is now?” It is said in reference to how much time does this historic landmark have, before it is taken over by the banks and being torn down? The answer, it seems, is not long at all. Its days appear to be numbered.
When we were exploring the building interior, we even met some of the artists in the midst of moving their works out of the building. A wave of sadness swept the atmosphere as we see them quietly carrying their heavy pieces down the stairs, being forced to move out of this building, which has been screaming for attention and retention for 20 years, a habitat which they have come to call their home and workstation. And now finally, it has fallen into the hands of the banks, with the fates of its occupants uncertain.
This is one of my personal favourites of the Berlin urban art project – the giant spaceman found on a side wall of a building in Kreuzberg (an area in West Berlin dominated by the Turkish community). It is a black and white stencil art, stretches almost from top to bottom of this 5-storey building, and hand-painted by the artist Victor Ash. It was designed in such a way that at night, the nearby street lamp together with a nearby flag pole, will project an image of a waving flag just beneath the hands of this spaceman, making it look as though the spaceman was holding a flag while floating up in space, a cool and eerie image, in the darkness of night at the secluded part of town. Most unfortunately, I was not able to return to this place at night to watch this awesome display, so i only have the daytime photo of this cool astronaut, without the flag.
Alternative Pub Crawling
Berlin is known for its scene of bubbly and energetic nightlife. Like a normal pub crawl, we visited many pubs, bars or clubs within a single night. However, our venture on this night wanders beyond the usual popular and crowded clubs and bars. Instead, this one took us to the less popular pubs but more to the alternative sort. On this night we visited 4 bars and 1 club, and were given different varieties of shots all along the way by our Scottish guide who carried god knows how many bottles in his backpack!
The first bar was called Yesterday’s Bar, a.k.a. Flower Power bar, due to the 70s’ theme and the colourful floral decorations inside the bar. The second bar was The Last Cathedral, a Gothic rock bar, complete with skeletons, coffins and tombstones, and loud heavy metal music in the air. What was surprising was that there were actually few Goths inside the bar itself, and one was actually reading a book with immense concentration, inside the dark and loud place. Hmm.., that’s unusual.
The third was a Ping Pong bar, there was one ping pong table in the middle and everyone holds a bat and run around the table in rotation, trying to hit the ball when it came to their side. Whoever missed a hit will have to leave the table, hence shortlisting the players into a final 2, and then a normal game until there is a single winner. After that the whole rotation game starts again.
After that, there was the Absinthe Bar, where the biggest collection of Absinthe was available for us curious tourists to try. Hmm… not exactly my favourite drink, but a good experience to try it, anyway. Then we moved on to a club called Casiopeia, located in a very hidden spot, if i still remember correctly, in an abandoned train station. Like a normal club with a dance floor and endless flow of beer, we made acquaintances with the rest of our pub crawlers and danced till the wee hours, ending our night at 3.30am and making our own way back from the foreign place in the freezing night. I ended up falling asleep while waiting for the train, standing frozen in the train station!
Claimed to be Berlin’s most hardcore tour. “Not for the faint-hearted or claustrophobic!” That was what we’ve been warned before joining.
The truth is, there was a whole lot of walking to do, and some climbing over the walls too, over heavy snow-covered tracks and barbed wires, and exploring the inside of abandoned buildings, and climbing to the rooftop of a 100 year old ice factory. Oh, and it was also snowing on that night, making our exploration more difficult with the slippery icy surfaces and snow covered pot-holes and construction debris.
First and foremost, we have been taken to meet some urban monsters. Located in its underground lair, beneath a bar, in a narrow alley within the Mitte district (central Berlin). Unknown and unlikely to be discovered by the normal working professionals and other pedestrians who walk the streets everyday just outside this alley. When we walked into this alley, it felt like a blast to the past. It was certainly a huge contrast with the busy city street we walked on just seconds earlier. It was quiet, and ….. all the buildings looked so ancient and torn. And every inch of every wall was covered in street art. A little walk deeper into the alley, we came to a dead end. Where monsters ruled. True to its word, they are indeed monsters – giant mutated bats, spiders and 3-headed freaks and ferocious, slimy monster skin heads; all up close and personal, chasing and biting at you, if you get too close. Known as the Monsterkabinett, they are actually robotic/ animatronics built by a group of ingenious people, using metal and other scraps, added with some heavy hydraulics and some creative furnishings to their lair. Throw in some pyrotechnic effects, deafening heavy metal music and some unexpected explosions in a dark dungeon, with an absolutely crazy ring master for a host; you get your recipe for a very amusing Monster Cabinet.
Next, we moved on to an abandoned building, similar to the great Tacheles, where artists who squatted there have converted every surface of every wall into their personal art gallery.
Then we stopped by at an alternative “theatre” where it’s entrance is almost camouflaged by the colorful murals and a secret password needed for the gates to be opened. Here, extremely strong home-made Gluhwein with extra shots were served while our hosts masked up as Gorillas performed a “time-walking” session with their weird giant rusty-wheel machine and some head-spinning “not-for-the-epileptic” light and sound show. Hmmm……….. there are some things that I just must surrender to the name of art and quirkiness……
After that, we were taken to the industrial area next to the Spree river banks, where there was a hundred year old ice factory. A massive, partially demolished building, looming spookily in the orange twilight sky of the chilly, snowy night. Like all other pre-war buildings in Berlin, this one is also in the midst of debate between the artists, history freaks, poor urban settlers of East Berlin and the development conglomerates. As it is located along the most strategic location, along the Spree River banks, it is also one of the buildings which falls victim to the Media-Spree Project, a massive gentrification project of Berlin, its objective is to rebuild this part of Berlin and to position some huge media and telecommunications companies along the river.
I am not one who is into trespassing ancient dilapidated buildings in the midst of night, but it was hard to resist the passion of our very dedicated and excited guide, Isa, the Swiss-French roll-her-own-tobacco punky girl who can’t wait to share her love and awe for the building with us. Influenced by her bubbly passion, all of us braved the barbed wires and slippery icy grounds and climbed over the challenging brick wall in the midst of falling snow. Too bad, my camera chose this exact moment to die on me, so I was unable to take any photos of this cool building. Making her way in pure darkness like a cat, Isa went on excitedly to show us all the awesome artwork and ancient ice-making machinery inside the building. Even a rusty old pipe sounded interesting, coming from her. We climbed on to the rooftop, stood next to the tall, ancient, art-covered chimney and enjoyed the frosty night air and peaceful serenity of Berlin’s cityscape over the river for a little while, before proceeding on to our next adventure for the night.
Hacker’s Lair – a secret underground society who calls themselves C-Base, with this statement for their motto :
“Unter Berlin liegen die Uberreste einer 4.5 Milliarden Jahre alten Raumstation verborgen.”
Which literally means : “Under Berlin are the remains of a 4.5 billion-year-old space station hidden.” The members of this secret society are not your normal teenage punks but are all working, well-dressed, middle aged and very intelligent people. They are basically a group of technical geniuses who genuinely believed that under the city of Berlin is a giant old spaceship and the famous Fernsehturm (TV Tower) in Alexanderplatz functions as its antenna.
According to them, the first artifact was found in 1995 and the C-Base club was soon set up to conduct more detailed investigations into this discovery. Their further research revealed a C-shaped structure of the station from 7 rotating rings. The station is located at the centre of today’s Alexanderplatz (hence the TV Tower as its antenna). The area spans over 700m2 and consists of several reconstructed laboratories, experimental surfaces, research and design units and a cultural cover.
The C-Base society has today evolved into a habitat for the pooling of knowledge and ideas of these future-oriented intellectuals, with a variety of creative, scientific-technical based research and like projects. Other than the spaceship thingy, C-Base looked like any other ordinary bar, we did not manage to get into their “Member’s only area” downstairs, as there was a technical presentation in the bar on the day of our visit.
“Berlin is poor but sexy” – a sentiment shared by many artists and common Berliners alike. I couldn’t help but agree. In a few years time, after its active gentrification exercise, Berlin would probably be “rich but dull”, just like its counterparts in most richer European nations. It was a good time for a visit.