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The Berlin Voice
Guest Editorial by Jeanne-Michele Vigna

Most visitors can recognize that Berlin is a unique city that has cultivated an identity that sets it apart from the rest of Germany and much of the world. There exists a special approach to living, born of a rich and tumultuous history, and a place at the crossroads of Europe.

Those who look a little deeper can see in Berlin a unique visual identity that extends beyond mere architecture. It hangs on lamp-posts and mailboxes and is plastered on walls. It sits on the shelves of some of the city’s finer shops. Street art in Berlin is serious business and just feels different. The work of illustrators and graphic designers there seem to share in a playful approach that doesn’t shy away from trying to impress.

New work by RugStar

But from where does this approach to visual culture derive? Berlin has a long and distinguished lineage in the arts. Historically this city has produced artists with an illustrative eye. From Die Brucke to the Capitalist Realists, Berlin artists have continued to mine an illustrative, graphic vein in their work. The rich history of cabaret culture certainly contains many elements both playful and coy, but I’ve never gotten the feeling that today’s Berlin artists are content to trade heavily in the past. So what is it? Why does this city pulse with a visual identity seemingly all its own?

Car tag, Berlin

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in Berlin over the years and have formed my own opinions about the visual culture of Berlin, but I wanted to see if others shared my opinions and saw Berlin as a unique place graphically. I asked Berliners, native and temporary, from a variety of backgrounds—graffiti artists, graphic designers, rug-makers, musicians—how they saw Berlin, and why they thought Berlin makes a unique place. Their answers are as unique and multifarious as they are.

One thing on which everyone agreed is that economics play a role. By the standards of most capitals, Berlin is phenomenally inexpensive and that attracts a lot of different kinds of artists. The low cost of living and high rates of unemployment has certainly helped nurture the creative classes, but there are many other cities around the globe in similar situations today. So, let’s leave those kinds of answers to the Richard Floridas of the world and deal with some interesting people.

Wall tags with a character, Kreuzberg

Melissa Logan from the band Chicks on Speed, an American who studied art at Munich, and seems to have worked and lived in many of Germany’s largest cities provides and interesting perspective. She thinks that it is the art scene in general that creates a kind cyclical vibe, with disparate groups feeding productively from one another. “The graphics that take place are often a by-product of other activities like Gob Squad who are a group who work in performance, their imaging also becomes part of the graphic scope.” Berlin is also a city that has a lot of space for expression. “Because most of the city is falling apart, there is a lot of opportunity to add to (the visual sphere), this gives the feeling that the city belongs to us, the people in the streets.” A continual process of influencing. Melissa can see how this may have helped Berlin develop its unique graphic identity. &rlquo;The best graphic designers are the ones who never learned it. The most important factor is that (the best graphic design) is a by product of other activities.”

East Berlin vacant land. Graffiti reads to, “My Lost Lenore.”

Berlin certainly has much more space than cities of comparable size or importance, and the space is organized differently. Berlin native and graphic designer Ulrike Bruckner who trained in Amsterdam described it this way. “I’ve lived in other cities, like Amsterdam, and what I miss there is NOT the organized free space. Everything (in Amsterdam) seems finished and well organized. Berlin is more chaos.” Anyone who has spent much time in Amsterdam can certainly relate to the idea that it can be a bit meticulous. It would be a gross understatement to call space in New York even tightly controlled. Berliners are blessed with a public space that is both open and loosely controlled. Brezel Goering, another musician, from the Berlin-based Stereo Total points to the fact that “street art is not as criminalized as in other cities.”

Backjumps Magazine, for example, turned the city walls into its magazine pages.

Flower graffiti, Kreuzberg

So why does it look the way it does. I dare not suggest that there is sameness in the street art and graphic design of Berlin, but there does appear to me to be a shared playfulness and a willingness to experiment. “Because of its history Berlin is culturally dominated by underground ideas,” says Goering. “When the city was divided, ‘serious’ culture was very low key, but there were a lot of underground activities, and things like the Love Parade started as an underground event. It is the same with a lot of artists from Berlin. Jim Avignin started as a painter on illegal techno parties before he became famous.”

Chicks on Speed’s Logan attributes the playful nature of the work to the open nature city itself. “Berlin’s graphics are colorful and playful because it is done by funny people who had to escape the confines of ultra conservatism in Stuttgart or realist-crazed London or the police state New York has become.” Goering thinks that Berlin street art and graphics are so colorful playful “because the city is so ugly. But playfulness was always connected to the Berlin spirit. In the (1980s) Berlin was home of the movement ‘genius diletants’.”

Work by Tasso

In the end, I think street artist Tasso sums it up best. “My work in Berlin, I think and hope, brings my pictures close to a much larger public. Through that exposure, I hope to find a way into the galleries.”

Jeanne-Michele Vigna has a BA in English and a BFA in Environmental Design. She currently works as a designer for a product development firm in Baltimore, Md., and as a freelance illustrator.

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PUBLISHED ON Jun.15.2006 BY Speak Up
Armin’s comment is:

Bryony and I were in Berlin in May of last year for FontShop's TypoBerlin and spent a full eight days there. I had no idea what to expect of the city and I was blown away by it. The city itself has a character unlike any other I have seen. It is mellow as well as energetic and, at times, a more genuine and "original" version of what New York was, is and wants to be. The combination of cobble stone streets, über-modern architecture, tree-infused plazas, hidden courtyards, abundance of museums, and the dichotomy of east meets west creates a fantastic experience and I am not surprised that the art and design scene flourishes in such a way.

The street art throughout the city is, as Jeanne-Michele states, serious business. There were some amazing things sprayed and painted everywhere. We were in Italy last month and the grafitti there is more like a cat taking a piss to mark its territory, whereas graffiti in Berlin feels much more personal and has a voice.

For anyone that has the opportunity, I can't recommend a visit to this city enough. Just wait until the world cup ends, though.

On Jun.15.2006 at 08:49 AM
Randy’s comment is:

On several occasions in class, Stefan Sagmeister would often praise the creative output of Berlin. He too attributed it, at least partially, to the somewhat dire economic conditions.

On Jun.15.2006 at 10:08 AM
Bryony’s comment is:

For your comparison:

Italy (from Rome to Vezanello with multiple stops)

On Jun.15.2006 at 01:14 PM
Josh’s comment is:

I had the chance to live/work in Berlin and i second Armin's comments. Despite the fact that the city alone is in $15 billion debt, the city is remarkably a magnet for the young, hip and artists of all sorts.

Look to Prenzlauer Berg for the hip spots. As for the art it is of course everywhere.

On Jun.16.2006 at 02:41 PM
art’s comment is:

Not really persuasive as to berlin. Most of what was written could be juxtaposed onto another city and make sense. like

“The graphics that take place are often a by-product of other activities like Gob Squad who are a group who work in performance, their imaging also becomes part of the graphic scope.”

Yeah, but also in every city - same thing, there are groups in performance who also get their whole design-image thing on. That isnt defining Berlin.

After 1989 and the opening of the "berli" alot of representational issues came together in Berlin around big "o" orientation. The city was already a complex of signs and meanings and changes underway. It was beautiful and a mess.

Thus when Jasper Morrison was invited back then, among others, to devise a public art work, his suggestion was actually intriguing, because it allowed the city transformation to "be" the sign.

His suggestion was to set up very distinct street signs for the actual signs which were just missing - often due to the fact old East streetnames had been removed. These new signs were to be larger than average street signs, kept their aesthetic clear with the information, letting the city do its "wild" growth instead of the sign trying to parody it. The signs were informationally helpful, explaining as I recall, the old name of the street, the new (if it exists) and WHERE you are standing in relation to a section of city map.
And along the way, the designer in recognizing the actual city as it was that moment in time, brought in a character both info-rational and situationist...

I only read about the work in blueprint, it wasnt realized I guess. What I see today is really the last vestiges of a "wild growth" of city, made through personalizing it through tagging... but hardly current - the days of Berlin as a kind of place to get lost in and place markers is just not really the same as it was. Nothing wrong with that, except maybe other markers make more sense perhaps. Not all markers are visual graphics.

Finally - doesnt wall-imagery and semi-graffiti ever transform? I mean, its 2006... those photos dont say anything about here and now in berlin.

On Jun.19.2006 at 07:03 PM
Beaman’s comment is:

Berlin has a charm that I've not quite found in any other major city. That's why I moved here. Your words ring true.

On Jun.26.2006 at 10:18 AM