Berlin: A concrete canvas for Urban Expression

Berlin could be described as the Louvre for modern street art – not conventionally navigated like typical galleries or museums, instead through backstreets and underground passages, lit by daylight or the dim glow of street lights. Berlin is a gallery of graffiti, stencilling and tagging that is free to view but exclusive to those who dare to scratch beyond the city’s surface.

Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall, East Gallery.

The most famous street art example is the remaining stretch of the Berlin wall, a wall which can also be attributed to the growth of this art-form in Berlin. The significance of the area, and the conviction of expression on this concrete canvas demonstrates the power of street art; a form of artistic expression that goes beyond aesthetic appeal communicating political messages and illustrating controversial aspects of local society.

Urban art, in general, is a form of cultural expression, its application within the public domain often inspiring comment or controversy. The social commentary and engagement of the art is influenced by the geographic location of the work in relation to local social demographics – revealing the layers of social classes within a city’s urban landscape.

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art located outside Gleisdreieck Station, Berlin

The more public and visible spaces could be likened to the prime position of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre with full engagement of the visitors and the main attraction. In terms of public real estate, in most modern cities these premium urban canvasses are reserved for commercial billboards resulting in monetary transactions for their tenancy.

Instead of being the centrepiece of a city (the gallery) premium street art canvas walls of urban areas with less commercial interest, off the main retail strips, in back lanes, underneath bridges, along the edges of transit ways and train lines, and even in disused and neglected buildings. The selection of location is symbolic of a movement against mainstream control, and becomes symbolic of a freedom of expression.

Urban art is a form of expression for various minority groups; an artistic movement, a social class, a political belief, a religious faith.

Tacheles, Berlin

Tacheles Art Residence, Berlin

In Berlin the artistic community Tacheles have taken residence in an abandoned building shell on Oranienburger Strasse. The building has become studio space for numerous artists working with reclaimed and recycled objects, re-applied to various mediums including sculpture, jewellery, paintings, installations, performance and graphic arts. The building itself has an intimidating appearance to those who prefer a clean, well-lit, commercially branded city experience: it captures the gritty grime and darkness of the “other-side” of Berlin, and on this flip-side the artists find their inspiration from themes and subjects that are generally taboo in mainstream culture.

In Pakistan, a country in constant political, religious and cultural conflict, graffiti and stencilling was the chosen form of expression for artist Asim Butt. Between 2000 and 2008 he daringly expressed his opposition to local and national politics by using ruined and rubbled walls across Lahore and Islamabad, another topic of taboo within his local culture.

Asim Butt’s profile grew in proportion to his daring application of street art and became a silent but strong voice for many of his countrymen who opposed the political and military directions at that time. His artistic career came to an abrupt end in 2010 when he allegedly took his own life in his apartment in Karachi.

Street Art, Berlin, Germany

Street Art on Dircksenstrasse, near Alexanderplatz, Berlin.

In all its forms graffiti and street art is a contemporary form of expression, a voice for urban minorities. In the past decade the growth of underground culture (or urban minority cultures) has had a strong influence on urban fashion trends from graphic arts, music, clothing and social culture. Street art’s growing influence has seen it emerge with an identity that is connected strongly with contemporary urban culture. As a result in larger cities the acceptance and visibility of street art has become a sign of contemporary cultural development and urban sophistication.