The first graffiti I remember seeing was on the Berlin Wall as it was torn down. I knew little about its construction or its reputation or why my mother was crying tears of joy knowing that her German friends' families would be reunited. "You always knew which side of the Wall you were seeing because of the art," says Anne Mueller, tour guide at Berlin's Urban Nation Museum for Urban Contemporary Art. "The west side had a lot of graffiti but the east had nothing at all, because of the death strip."
While in other cities the twin horrors of war and then repressive communism might leave significant scarring, Berlin has thrived in the three decades since the wall was torn down on November 9, 1989. This is true economically, of course, but the city is also booming artistically. Mueller sees a direct link between this modern dedication to creativity and Berlin's challenging history.
"When the wall came down, initially people didn't want to be close to where it was," she explains, adding that the harrowing nature of the old barrier left people uneasy. "But there was a lot of cheap real estate and so artists moved in. Normally artists can only afford to live on the fringes, but here they could be based in the centre of the city."
Berlin's young Urban Nation Museum in the Schoeneberg neighbourhood was founded long after the wall came down, but today it has a collection featuring some of the world's most renowned graffiti artists. More than 30 pieces have been displayed in an inventive gallery – the outside having been brought in. They may not have had to take the risks of the activist artists of the 1980s, but there's no denying the beauty of their work.
Some of the painters here, such as Shepard Fairey, aka Obey, started with street art, but have since gone on to find international fame and fortune. Having once illegally sprayed walls, Obey was commissioned to create Barack Obama's now world-famous Hope campaign poster in 2008. Most of the artists now working out on the streets of Berlin will never attain a similar level of recognition, but they're still taking risks to present their guerrilla art. Despite murals and paintings adorning thousands of walls and derelict buildings, the city has surprisingly strict punishments for people spraying anywhere illegally.
“Initially, the people doing it in the city were punks and migrants,” explains Mueller as we move through the exhibition. “In the 1970s, Berlin still had a lot of war damage and people thought it might be nice to bring some colour back. Authorities weren’t very strict about it, but that’s changed now.”
One may argue that the punishments used to be far worse than a few months in jail. The remnants of the wall that survive today have been carefully chosen as a permanent reminder of the dangers of building such a barrier. At the Berlin Wall Memorial, there's a well-appointed museum that also details some of its more technical elements. It was always more than just a wall, of course, and towards the end it was two, with a string of watchtowers, fences and armed guards. An estimated 200 people died trying to cross it, but perhaps as many as 5,000 successfully escaped, some by digging, others by creative means such as zip-wiring.
Outside, original sections of the wall remain, colourful graffiti and all. History has literally not been whitewashed. On information boards in the accompanying gardens, the level of detail about the wall's construction, raison d'etre and those who died because of it, is forensic and affecting. Imposing metal sentinels offer testimony recorded by actors in English and German, each detailing the practicalities and dangers of living in its shadow. One recorded voice of a woman describes in gruesome detail what it was like to see victims of a grenade attack dragged back to the east side.
Creation being a natural response to destruction, it doesn't feel like much of a stretch to link the wall and the Second World War to Berlin's dedication to artistry. So much disruption in this surprising, cosmopolitan city has allowed not just for town planners to start afresh, but for art and artists to flourish.
Its film festival is one of the most revered on the competitive European circuit and its nightlife is legendary. Berghain, the famously selective techno club in the Friedrichshain neighbourhood, is one of the most famous anywhere on the continent, attracting some of the world’s best DJs and near endless queues of would-be clubbers.
But it would be wrong to characterise the city’s east as being a cultural wasteland prior to the Wall coming down – during the communist regime, East Germany had 68 theatres, one of the densest concentrations per capita anywhere in the world. “The war kind of opened up possibilities for people who came later – there were empty spots,” says Various, one half of Various and Gould, an artist couple based in the east of the city.
"Many undefined spaces," adds Gould, whose work has also been featured in the Urban Nation Museum. "After the wall came down, there were a lot of those close by. Now almost every gap feels filled up. It's like being at the dentist."
“It’s kind of sad, in a way,” concludes Various.
As a teenager, Gould only had two aims: art school and Berlin. Conveniently for him, the city already had several options; tutors told him to spread his bets across other institutions, but he insisted he had to be in Berlin. “I am not the first one, nor the last one to be like this,” he says. “Berlin has some legendary moments. Some of my favourite artists lived and worked here.”
Now Various and Gould are well established on the scene, with a number of large-scale works having popped up across Berlin over 15 years of creative partnership. The couple also have a child together. They work across mediums and despite the fluctuations in the city and the inevitability of gentrification in certain neighbourhoods, they can't imagine being anywhere else.
They explain that being street artists in such a congested field brings certain types of pressures. Once a piece is finished, it gets exposed to the elements or risks being painted over by developers. All of that creates a sense of vulnerability for the artist, although Gould insists that "in the worst case scenario, they might just be ignored".
His artistic partner feels a little differently about it, abdicating ownership of her art once it is sent out into the wider world. “For me it’s like raising kids – at some point you’re going to have to let them find their own way,” she explains. “Once they’re out there, they’re not mine any more. They belong to the public.”