Every time I visit Berlin, which I do every few months, it seems a bit lamer and tawdrier. More and more of the dopier kind of tourists, more signs of social decay (beggars, madmen screaming at nothing, fights, vandalism, subway stenches, puke puddles), more chain stores. Don't get me wrong; it's still an interesting place, but the 'there' that was there is fading fast. In fact, Berlin's cachet is fading right in sync with street art's cachet. Take it away, Alex Cocotas:
I first visited Berlin in March 2008. The highlight of my trip was the Alternative Berlin Tour. I found the flyer in my hostel; it described itself as an “anti-tourist tour.”
…[T]he tour lasted more than eight hours. We visited artists’ studios in the Tacheles building; we illegally mounted a section of the Berlin Wall; we broke into an abandoned prison and climbed onto the roof to watch the sunset.
Along the way we stopped at numerous street art installations. They were everywhere: on walls, on sheered sides of buildings, wrapping around whole apartment complexes: colorful, political, irreverent. I had never seen anything like it. I took tens of terrible photos to show family and friends.
A few years later Exit Through the Gift Shop came out and suddenly everyone with a stencil and spray paint thought they were Banksy, and social media gave aspirants a platform to distribute their work globally with the meme as their conceptual framework. But at the time, it was pretty unique: a city draped in public art to brighten the day of pedestrians and residents, to give fresh stimulus to dull buildings.
Every time I stumble upon one of these murals or buildings I am always a bit amazed to find this fugitive artifact of memory disinterred from the phantasmagoria of impression. What then seemed so radical is now in the most generic and sterilized neighborhoods of Berlin, places I try my best to avoid. The Tacheles building, which I returned to after the tour and where I happened upon an impromptu concert in an artist’s studio that shocked my somewhat provincial perception of things, now sits empty, awaiting demolition and conversion to condominiums.
Street art was “discovered” and now covers every city with pretensions to cool. Developers use it to raise real estate prices; some artists are happy to go along, others keep their distance. What once appeared as semi-anonymous benevolence on the part of its creators now seems like an intentional act of brand building. Much street art I see today operates at the nexus of tired clichés and exhausted ideas. It sadly waits for someone to take its picture, unable to conceal its lack of joy and hollow origins.
And now it has been institutionalized by Berlin’s city government as the “Berlin Street Art Festival,” undoubtedly the brainchild of some mid-level bureaucrat tasked with dreaming up schemes to financially capitalize on Berlin’s accrued social capital.