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Berlin and Beyond: Writing on the wall

Tamsin Walker
June 29, 2018

If all the world's a stage, then all of Berlin is a canvas. Here, urban art is writ large. No bad thing, says Tamsin Walker, in a city where money is increasingly doing the talking.

Tamsin Walker
Image: DW/T. Walker

Scrawls on the wall

I guess in my early months in Berlin, I did notice the graffiti, but it pretty quickly just became part of the look of the place. As integral to it as empty bottles, dogs, Vietnamese flower shops, kebab shops and a grouchy demeanor.

So I stopped actually seeing it. Until a couple of weeks back when my youngest daughter who's making her first forays into the world of reading and writing suddenly clocked that the crazed curls, twists and lines scrawled over the city's face, are in fact letters and words. Crying out to be seen and read.

Though not by me, it seems. Invariably when she asks me to decipher the writing, I can't. And that, I have it on good authority, is because sprayers are not scribbling for the pleasure of the general public, but for each other, in what can be interpreted as coded communication, a means of tracking where they have been and how far they dare push a form of expression which is punishable in Germany by up to three years in prison.

Read more: Berlin and Beyond: Bomb on my doorstep

Stickers and graffiti on a double door
A 'decorated' door in BerlinImage: DW/T. Walker

Not that that seems to be a massive deterrent. Last year, the capital recorded a 3.9 percent rise in the kind of creative "willful damage to property" which, like it or not, is quintessentially Berlin. It's a point of debate here, for sure, with plenty of people saying they'd rather live in a place untainted by the liberal hand of the city's sprayers.

Endless creativity

But there are also many who welcome them, and their cousins, the resident street artists, as a means of resisting the Berlin's deepening love affair with investment and architectural monotony.

Testimony to the place of the freedom-of-expression mentality, is the popularity of the infamous crews, One United Power, or 1UP, and Berlin Kidz, both of which regularly score viral hits with their performance-like acts of vandalism on bridges, rooftops and trains.

Just as popular though is the street art shaping the walls, doors and streets of the capital. From tiny cork characters glued atop street signs, hand-painted posters, polystyrene figures in prison stripes, to mosaic cats, sticker art and colossal legal murals, the creative detail is not only seemingly endless. It is endless. Ever changing in form, content and impetus. Yet always so intrinsically Berlin.

Read more:Berlin and Beyond: Bomb on my doorstep

A black and white striped polystyrene figure
In inmate stripes, a polystyrene man makes a dash for it along the steel girders of a Berlin bridgeImage: DW/T. Walker

Sitting one afternoon, by the river Spree, my eye comes to rest on the opposite bank. Once home to bars and clubs with genuine character, it has now been given over to a row of hulking but bland waterside office blocks. One of the new builds is adorned, in big plastic letters, with the name of a mail-order fashion house. It might be easier to read than much of the writing on the streets around it, but its clear, uncoded message is of a shift in this city so famed for the a-rhythmic beat of its creative heart.

As I look back to my side of the river, I realize the steps on which I'm sitting are covered in graffiti. So, too, the railings and the wall beside me. For the first time in a long time, I really see it. And I immediately feel at home.

In Berlin and Beyond, British-born Tamsin Walker takes a closer look at some of the quirks and perks of life in Germany, which has been her home for almost 20 years. She tweets as @TamsinkateW

Trailer: Berlin and Beyond

Deutsche Welle Tamsin Walker
Tamsin Walker Senior editor with DW's environment team