After years of legal battles, Berlin's famous Tacheles art squat has officially closed. It marks the end of an era of free art as artists search for new ateliers.
It's early in the morning on September 4. In front of the Art House Tacheles in Oranienburger Strasse in downtown Berlin, a small group of people dressed in bright colors has gathered together - some 70 artists and sympathizers. Then a few of the artists hand the keys to the dilapidated house over to the court marshal, who seals off the rooms, marking the end of an institution.
"Tacheles is important for Berlin," said artist Gina Yadegarie, who worked there over the past year. "It's a monument to free culture."
Yadegarie comes from southern Germany and can't understand why some Berliners see Tacheles as a rundown tourist trap. She said the conflicts that have occurred among the artists there are unavoidable: "Here are people; here is life."
Passing through many hands
In 1990, in the midst of the chaos following the fall of the Berlin Wall, artists started squatting in what was then a disused department store to keep it from being torn down. Built in 1909, the structure had been part of a shopping complex in what was then Berlin's Jewish quarter. The house was later used by the Nazis and badly damaged in World War II.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, a kind of free artistic space came into existence. Now it is an insolvency estate and is slated for sale by court order.
For years, artists protested selling Tacheles by negotiating with the owner, HSH Nordbank, appealing to Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, and collecting a petition with more than 200,000 signatures. But in vain.
"One thing is certain," said illustrator Roman Kroke, "That something remains that cannot be taken away and that will live on."
Art community mourns
Brittle tones drift through Oranienburger Strasse. Two artists, self-proclaimed guards of Tacheles, play a farewell song on a grand piano that's been parked at the end of the street.
"When the court decision was made at the beginning of June, many artists groaned, some even cried," remembered a young French woman, Marie Gutbub. She discovered Tacheles three years ago as a tourists and has returned regularly ever since to support the Art House with her translation skills. "Tacheles is one of the world's most famous sites of alternative culture," she said.
Some 400,000 tourists visited Tacheles last year alone, coming from the United States and South America, from Europe and Asia to see exhibitions or theater performances.
"In art we trust," chanted artist Adler A.F., succinctly summing up the philosophy of the place. Tacheles has been a landmark for international art lovers for years, where free, non-subsidized art was celebrated and experimentation was cultivated in the midst of degeneration. Visitors could observe the artists at work in the ateliers and talk with them - for many, a whole new experience.
Sympathizers from all over
Rebecca Roman from New York came regularly to Tacheles. She paid homage to the "spirit" of the Art House with an Indian ritual. White smoke rises out of her bundle of sticks and is meant to protect this place of creativity and show respect, she explained.
Liam Melaluka from Melbourne compared Tacheles with a modern cave in which many people have left their traces and written their names on the graffiti-covered walls. For him, Tacheles is a Gesamtkunstwerk that spans decades.
"Where shall we go now?" This critical question is printed on a cloth waving from the façade of the building. Some of the artists are said to have found new ateliers in a club in Berlin's Neukölln district. And a virtual Tacheles has already been established online.
Tacheles' spokesman Martin Reiter called it "art theft under police protection." And illustrator Kroke summed the situation up saying, "Not only Berlin - the whole world is losing Tacheles."