I spent 2 weeks visiting Berlin where I stayed in the neighborhood of Kreuzberg. I walked all over this neighborhood and got to know it very well. Walking around there, I couldn’t help but notice all of the amazing street art everywhere I looked. While I could admire the street art for what it was, I knew absolutely nothing about any of it. Who did it? Were they allowed to paint there or was it illegal? Is it valued by locals or seen as a defamation of property?

All of these questions and more were, thankfully, answered by going on a free (tip-based) walking tour with Alternative Berlin. This tour was perfect for getting an authentic, off-the-beaten path understanding of the Kreuzberg neighborhood and culture. Guided by an Australian turned Kreuzberger/Berliner, I learned so many stories about the counter-culture and community of Kreuzberg, including its street art, squatter settlements, neighborhood resistance against capitalism and authority, and much more. I gained so much respect for Berlin and its people as a result of the knowledge I gained from this tour. So I am very excited to finally get to share these stories now!

A semi-supported street art culture

The large part of the culture of street art is about exposure as an artist and earning street credit or a positive reputation among other artists for the craziest locations, most creative methods, and coolest designs or messages. The artist, Just, uses a fire extinguisher to write “just” high up onto the sides of buildings (see the pink writing in pictured below). A troupe of young street artists calling themselves Über Fresh use unusual calligraphy-style lettering to write phrases by abseiling or quickly belaying down the sides of buildings before the cops arrive. And Poet gets his street credit by having someone hold his ankles as he dangles down the side of a building with a paint roller. Each one of these artists get excellent exposure by marking buildings up high and in prominent places around Kreuzberg.

The city of Berlin considers any sort of graffiti illegal and, if caught, artists are arrested, docked, and fined. But their behavior is a kind of norm deviation meant to send a message to authorities—a “you can’t stop us!” attitude. Sometimes their work is meant to send direct, thought-provoking messages to the public. For example, some artists paste posters to buildings with politically-charged messages—like a couple who photoshop together prominent, opposing figures into the same photobooth with each other and post their image together (like Mark Zuckerberg and Edward Snowden pictured below).

These kinds of messages get great exposure by being located near commissioned pieces paid for by Kreuzberg. The Kreuzberg council recognizes the cultural value of street art to the neighborhood and sometimes commissions artists to come in and do a piece. For example, Victor Ash was paid to do his “Space man” piece and then other artists came in and claimed space below his to express their designs and messages. This location is a particular favorite of mine because the black smudges beneath Ash’s piece are the mark of Just’s work when he was in the experimental stages of using his fire extinguisher.

Note that nobody obstructed Victor Ash’s piece or even Just’s sloppy first attempt at his work. A rule among the street art community is never to go over another artists work. When it does happen, a friendly turf war begins. For instance, the artists 1up did a piece at the location behind where our tour guide is standing (pictured below) but had to do another one after a local artist painted over it. The guide told us Berlin street artists usually resolve their turf wars over a beer and a hand shake, unlike in other cities where turf wars between gangs can turn violent.

One artist demonstrated the model behavior for street art when he was commissioned by Kreuzberg to do a piece on a building wall which had a lot of classic street art from old artists on display. The city did not understand the rules, saying to just go for it and start painting, but he refused until he received the go-ahead from every artist who already had a piece there. Everyone accepted and he painted an awesome example of his work which expresses a dramatic anti-animal cruelty message.

Unfortunately for the city of Berlin (and fortunately for street art lovers like myself), they cannot do much about non-commissioned street art that pops up because the city is 6 billion euros in debt. They cannot afford to paint over or take down each artist’s piece every time it occurs. Certain businesses have begun taking matters into their own hands by using a special nanotech paint which makes the paint used by the artists easy to wash off. But the city as a whole seems a bit uncertain about how it truly feels about street art culture. On one hand, it’s illegal, and on the other hand, they have places set up to allow street artists to practice their craft legally. On Sundays in Mauerpark, artists can paint on the wall lining the top of the hill. The marks get painted over again each week, so something new is always being created, but the space demonstrates the city’s sort-of supportive mindset for this counter-cultural activity. Perhaps they are simply following the advice, “pick your battles.”

Community resistance for the win!

Along the lines of the street art mentality, I learned about a few more stories I just love. These stories are about the Kreuzberg community’s inspiring strength against authority and capitalist dogma. The first involves a little plot of land leftover by East Germany after the construction of the Berlin Wall. Turkish Emigrant, Osman Kalin, found the unused area and decided to plant a garden there. Liking the spot so much, he eventually built a little tree house on the plot and took up residence. He used only recycled materials to build the spot, making it a truly unique feat of human ingenuity. When the wall fell, authorities threatened building a road directly through his space. To resist, Osman cemented all of his furniture and other items to the floor and locals voiced their support for him to stay. The city eventually stepped back, handed the land over to Kreuzberg, and then Kreuzberg gave the deed to the land directly to Osman.

Osman, his garden, and his treehouse full of cemented-down furniture remain icons of Kreuzberg. To me, he represents the ability for humans to protest and win against authorities! To see it for yourself, you can take a tour of the place or you can even rent out his home during your stay in Berlin when Osman’s family is not spending time there. At 85 years old, Osman currently lives in an assisted living facility nearby, but he is often still seen sitting in front of the treehouse or walking around the area. He loves attention—so don’t be shy about approaching him. I was lucky enough to shake his hand and get a photo of him with a ray of sunlight beaming over his home in the background.

Bethanien is another example of human protest with a positive outcome in Kreuzberg. Once upon a time, Bethanien was the hospital where Berliners came to give birth. When hippies moved into the neighborhood, people trusted the hospital less and hesitated to have their babies there. This lead to its sudden closing. Still in perfect working order with beds and other conveniences, the old hospital became a favorite location for squatters. The city eventually tried to reclaim the building, but the community resisted. Human chains were formed around the building, music and art school projects started up, and it became too difficult for the city to evict everybody. After WWII, homelessness was a big problem leading to the creation of a law saying if you found somewhere to live and nobody claimed it, it became legally yours after a certain amount of time. The law remains today, so squatting remains and is tolerated. Thus, the city soon gave up and handed Bethanien over to Kreuzberg. Kreuzberg then gave the building to the small projects which had started up there. Now, the space is used as housing for the homeless, particularly those in between finding a suitable apartment in an increasingly gentrified city. People can apply for a bed, stay for a very small rent, and/or work on the projects in turn for accommodation—a wonderful alternative use of an otherwise unused space.

Speaking of the gentrification of Berlin, the planned “Mediaspree” construction along the Spree River has led to the recent construction of the O2 arena. This building and others are responsible for pushing great businesses out of the area, like the Young and African Arts Market or YAAM—an awesome sport and cultural center which doubles as a multi-cultural beach bar and club—which already had to move locations once as a result. We stopped there for a drink at the end of the tour.

The counter-culture responded to the O2 building with a clear message on the day of the O2 opening. A ship was set to sail down the Spree carrying all of the rich folk and organizers who had cut the deals and provided the resources to build the O2. Drinking champagne and eating their oysters, they sailed down the river ready to arrive at the O2 for a big lavish celebration. But a huge resistance met them in front of the O2. They threw everything that floats into the river to block the boat’s path (Note: The Spree is not exactly the cleanest river to begin with) and armed themselves with rotten vegetables and fruits. When the boat neared, the battle began. Picture rotten tomatoes dripping down Armani suits. The boat eventually had to turn around, admitting defeat. Although the people could not prevent the O2 from being built, their message rang clear. There’s something incredibly satisfying about their efforts in the grand scheme of class-based injustice.

And this is how I gained a huge amount of respect for Berlin and Berliners.