Walls of Berlin

We’re in Berlin so of course the first thing we do is see the infamous wall. We are in easy walking distance to the wall memorial where part of the wall has been retained plus other bits added to create an informative and thought provoking memorial site.

Nearby is the Nordbahnhof, or north train station, which has a display about the Ghost stations which existed during the days of the wall. This station had an exit in both East and West Berlin, so the doorways were bricked up so there was no access between the two sides. Other stations in East Berlin territory were disused and the trains from West Berlin would pass through them slowly without stopping. West Berlin had to pay a fortune to the east for this privilege of passing through GDR territory.

There was also the inspiring Chapel of Reconciliation built on the site of another chapel that was destroyed by the GDR when the wall was built because it was in the no-mans zone, or death zone. What impressed us about the chapel was it was completely round, built from rammed earth (I like to think from the wall or the ruins of the previous chapel). The chairs were in a semi circle and the priest stood at the same level. There was no power hierarchy, or glitz or pretension.

We walked to Alexanderplaz for a picnic and checked out the large iconic tower built by the GDR to help spread their propaganda. And then joined an Alternative Berlin Tour with about ten others young travellers from Canada, US, Brazil and Oz.

Our guide, Jonathon gave a short and entertaining history of Berlin after WW2 on the ground with chalk and then we set off to discover some of the amazing street art and alternative culture and living areas of Berlin. If you scratch a little beneath the surface Berlin is a teeming with activists, alternative life stylers, anarchists, artists, musicians. According to Johnathon they were all drawn to Berlin because West Berlin was largely ignored and many of the young people in the sixties and seventies got involved in protests against the wall.

Then when the wall came down, people from all over the world arrived to add to the cultural melting pot and it became the hip place to be. It has a huge graffiti scene, both legal and illegal. Techno music, night clubs and parties are huge. There is no surveillance cameras and people are more relaxed about laws and rules in Berlin than other parts of Germany. Part of this is because Berlin is a poor city, many of the business and manufacturing moved out of West Germany to other parts of Germany during the divided years.

The street art scene in Berlin probably took off because of the wall. On the West side you had the perfect canvas, coupled with activists and a perfect topic to protest about. This has continued and there are real hot spots of both graffiti and street art with much of it changing daily. Jonathan showed us different forms of street art such as paste ups (prepared at home and pasted up), stencils, roll downs, as well as some work by known artists around the city.

Some of the artists gradually begin to make a living from their art by selling works, cards etc or by getting in partnership with a brand and doing t-shirts. This is seen as going a bit against the grain of the activism side of street art and the lifestyle. There have even been a few exhibits of street art in regular art galleries, which is particularly frowned upon by the hard core authentics.

In Berlin there has been one main graffiti group at the top of the hierarchy. 1up, or One United Power, are a large group that do amazing stunts to put their tag on the most visible places…mainly trains and tall buildings. You can see their videos on utube. More recently a newer group of seven, Berlin Boyz, have got a big following and have done some stuff with 1up. They are all parkour experts and do some amazing stunts parasailing down tall buildings and train surfing…again all on utube.

We visited a little alley with art shop, Haus Schwartzenburg, a bar plus a couple of museums. The walls are covered in all types of work, some by famous artists.

We caught a train to a more seedier side of town, this used to be in West Berlin and was surrounded on three sides by the wall, so this is where all the activists congregated. They squatted in old buildings, such as this old nurses quarters, known as Rauchaus, and after the wall came down the squat was made legal. They now have a 20 year lease. There are also other illegal squats around. Gradually, as Berlin becomes increasingly gentrified these may change.

We walked past the Tree House where in 1983, when the Berlin Wall was still standing, Osman Kalin decided to make use of a small strip of derelict land that lay directly beside it. He built this cottage, grew vegies and continued to live there after the wall came down. Authorities wanted to move him on but the locals protested and the church, whose land he is on, said he could stay. Unfortunately he died two weeks ago at the age of 94. As we were taking a photo a woman came and opened the door, she is his granddaughter, she was lovely and we chatted briefly.

Walking through the streets here Jonathon kept pointing out art works by vavarious people including a heap by Berlin Boyz.

We then headed across the river Spree to the Yaam. This Afro-Carribean complex has been moved down the river a bit because of development happening where they used to be. The city of Berlin is now recognising the importance of these area to Berlin and are working to preserve them. Yaam is Young African Arts market and they have food stalls, music including reggae and a true beach bar complete with sand. We finish the tour here, having a beer with a new gang.

After leaving, Jeremy and I check out the East German gallery, a one km length of intact wall that has authorised street art on on side and illegal graffiti on the other. The art work on the legal side has to be redone regularly because it fades, so it doesn’t really fit with the changing nature of the genre.

A final few snaps…of groovy lamps in the bar we had a beer, the retro tiled underground stations…

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