Berlin: Painting Over The Past

In the past century, Berlin has been defeated in two world wars, branded with history’s shame by the Nazis, segregated by the Socialists, and all the while steeped in perpetual financial crisis. A city built on marshland (Berlin literally translates to ‘Marsh’), Berlin’s unstable foundations have never been so apparent. 

Past atrocities have occurred because of the public’s inability to stand up to the government; a government which, time and time again, promised them the foundation they so desperately needed, but instead worsened the situation. Once, the German government employed the bullshit abstractions of political manifesto- ‘cleansing of the nation’- and sickening propaganda- ‘The genetically ill person will cost our people’s community’- to communicate with its people.

Now, modern day Berliners have decided to take back the reins, and express themselves with a voice that can’t be ignored. The street art culture that has arisen in Berlin provides this voice. It gives the individual a license to express themselves in a way that is bold, aesthetic, and popular. Described as the ‘graffiti Mecca of the urban art world’ by art critic Emilie Trice, Berlin has become central to the modern street art movement. Merely to look at the remaining piece of the Berlin Wall, now emblazoned with brightly-coloured designs and dubbed ‘The East Side Gallery’, is to acknowledge how far Berlin has come. 

Street art, in its highest calibre (and Berlin’s street art most definitely falls into this category) is an attractive and- I would argue- highly intellectualised arm form. Spreading like contagion across the walls, pavements and rooftops of the Europe’s most bombed city, the art pieces form a discourse about the social, political and economic issues of the past that continue to affect Berlin.

The pieces also tapped into contemporary issues. For instance, one particularly striking image was of an anguished female nude, heavily made up, which reminded me of a feminised version of Edward Munch’s iconic painting ‘The Scream’. It taps into one of the current issues in Berlin, and indeed worldwide: the increasing pressures of women to appear young and attractive in society. 

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The street art is also used to represent a prevailing attitude amongst the Berlin youth that increasing surveillance- ineffective from a safety perspective- is a shift towards a ‘Big Brother’ culture. This is a popular protest image against CCTV cameras:

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This notion is supported by various activist groups such as Berlin’s Camover, a group who smash Berlin’s CCTV cameras at night (whose slogan is ‘Freiheit sterbt kit Sicherheit’, which translates as ‘Freedom dies with security’.)

Without listening to the voice of the public, Germany is doomed: this is clear from the mistakes of history. And that is why I am excited about this growing movement. It is indicative of the drastic transformation of Berlin into somewhere increasingly tolerant and innovative.

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