Graffiti and Rebel Culture: A Personal Journey From Brooklyn to Berkeley to Caracas to the Former Soviet Union to Berlin and Back Again

For some time, I’ve been slightly ambivalent toward graffiti though the idealist in me has always believed that in the long-run, reclaiming the urban environment might encourage the rise of a more radical political consciousness.  As cities embrace gentrification and homogenization at an increasingly breakneck pace, the need to carve out more space for alternative, rebel culture has never been greater.  Of course, there is always a fine line between “graffiti” and what others might consider “vandalism.”  In contrast to merely spraying one’s tag on the wall, “street art” aspires to something more: at its best, the genre far surpasses graffiti aesthetically while attempting to convey an idea and hopefully bring about some type of thought-provoking change.

My ambivalent feelings toward graffiti go back to my time growing up in the “Funky Town” of 1970s and 80s New York.  On the one hand, some graffiti art covering the exterior of subway cars was undeniably memorable and frequently reminded me of street murals.  On the other hand, commuting to school on the subway between Manhattan and Brooklyn provided a constant assault on the senses, as every square inch within grimy subway cars was scrawled and plastered over in mindless graffiti and tags.  As a result of those earlier memories, I’ve always been a little skeptical of those who glorify and hark back to the supposedly more ideal pre-gentrification days of New York with its spiraling crime, grimy dirt and alarming homicide rates coupled with drug abuse.

But does the association between crime and graffiti really hold water?  The answer seems to be a little bit of yes and no, with a fine line separating outright vandalism from artistry.  Though graffiti was never political, the wider graffiti culture came out of the earlier civil rights movement.  Graffiti should also be seen against a wider cultural backdrop, with early artists working as mobile DJ’s mixing disco and funk records.  For many, breaking the law became second nature as graffiti got associated with a “brotherhood” of New York’s anti-establishment and minority youth.

New York’s Graffiti Subculture

Facing neglected urban blight, corruption and a dearth of after-school programs, such youth looked toward the city as a canvas.  One publisher of a bulletin dealing with graffiti objected to the mere word “graffiti.”  “We don’t use the G-word,” he told the New York Times, adding “It’s the authorities who call it graffiti.  They don’t care about abandoned buildings, the blight, the neglect.  They only care about their vision of the city, the corporate vision, not what the people want.”

Subway graffiti, declared Norman Mailer, constituted “the great art of the 1970s,” with artists creating a whole new “typographic language” of the streets, ranging from stylized signatures to “full-blown Technicolor dreamscapes.”  Though most people perceived graffiti as random vandalism, many artists were in fact writing their own names on walls.  A new sub-culture had emerged, equipped with its own vocabulary and aesthetics.  One urban art specialist has remarked that “Street art began in a place of rebellion, and speaks of spiritual survival. It was often the only tool of the poverty stricken, the disenfranchised, to communicate their stories, their sense of place. When you have nothing, being able to ‘claim’ a wall, marks your sense of ownership of your place, your town.  It’s a mark to claim humanness, and a marker for the future.”

On the other hand, do such rosy depictions actually hold up under scrutiny?  Reportedly, early graffiti “crews” later came to be known as “posses” and carried guns.  On any given night, posses would fight over turf or threaten others with death.  Some graffiti artists came to fear for their lives, which may have been connected to the proliferation of crack in the wider youth culture.  Not surprisingly, Ed Koch took advantage of public fears in 1978 and got elected Mayor by campaigning on a law and order, anti-graffiti platform.

Graffiti’s Legacy

What lessons can be drawn from the precipitous fall of New York’s graffiti scene?  Looking back in hindsight, one might ask whether graffiti artists might have tried to establish a different type of relationship with the public.  For minority youth, seeing one’s initials sprayed up on the wall surely provided a sense of self-respect.  To the wider public, however, artists came across as inconsiderate delinquents and narcissists.  Perhaps, if artists had just concentrated on the exterior of subway cars as opposed to merely scrawling their tags, the perception might have been different.  Of course, painting an entire mural is easier said than done when the police are always just around the corner.  Or maybe, if graffiti had been more political or thought-provoking in nature, the public reaction would have been less antagonistic.

Whatever the case, authorities capitalized on public disaffection by introducing a new security system at train yards featuring fences and dogs.  A former CIA agent no less was appointed chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority or MTA, which launched a successful campaign to get rid of graffiti.  In the span of a few short years, the city eradicated most of its graffiti by pushing a variety of methods ranging from removing graffiti quickly to restricting the sale of spray paint cans to minors to increasing the level of personal danger for artists to creating novel programs designed to provide artists with new pursuits.  By 1989, the subway system had become entirely graffiti-free.

From Funky Town to Berkeley      

            Just as the graffiti boom was winding down, I left New York to go to college at the University of California, Berkeley where I was once again vexed by the underlying politics of public art.  I had chosen to live in Barrington Hall, which formed part of the university’s cooperative association.  Though I’d already heard a lot about the place from a friend, nothing prepared me for the actual experience of living there.  By the time I got to Berkeley on my first day, I was feeling sick from my flight.  A manager placed me temporarily in a tiny room which was completely covered in black paint and seemed like a fitting place to die.

Though the experience of my first day at Barrington left something to be desired, I later moved to a different room and soon came to appreciate the cooperative’s historic wall murals which lined the building’s residential corridors.  The murals themselves displayed animal motifs, punk imagery, psychedelia, Japanese-influenced aesthetics and even a vintage 1968 yellow submarine ripped straight from the original animated Beatles movie, all interspersed with cryptic messages and graffiti.  I was less taken, however, with the dining hall which was painted purple, red, blue and pink and completely covered in graffiti.  Along one ceiling beam, someone had scrawled a philosophical message reading “The society which abolishes every kind of adventure makes its own abolition the only possible adventure.”  Above the entranceway to the cooperative, meanwhile, a sign read “An Oasis of Madness in a World Gone Sane.”

I quickly developed conflicting feelings about Barrington, just as I’d harbored ambivalent feelings toward 1970s and 80s New York.  On the one hand, I developed great friendships and appreciated participating in a housing cooperative where I performed a weekly cooking “work shift.”  Barrington had long been a hub of leftist political activity, and during my time there, during the twilight of the Reagan presidency, students organized against Washington’s many wars in Central America.  I also appreciated some of the funk bands which played at the house, though punk concerts thrilled me somewhat less so.  At one point, a contingent of naked students tried to take over snack time in the evening and thereby turn it into “nude snack.”

Counter-Culture’s Demise

Despite the dynamic social scene, other more unsavory and unseemly features of daily life began to take their psychological toll.  Barrington was grimy and stinky and dirty dishes frequently piled up in the kitchen, creating a colossal mess.  The semester before I had arrived, Barrington held an “acid punch party” which sent several students to the hospital, and the house had also experienced heroin overdoses with some residents reportedly wasting their lives and getting “chewed up by the dope culture.”  After one semester, disgusted by filth, I moved out of Barrington.

Shortly after, a 20-year old student fell to his death from the cooperative’s roof, which hardly helped the cooperative’s public image.  Barrington had already been plagued with complaints from neighbors, which obliged the cooperative association to fight costly and expensive lawsuits.  Legal troubles, in turn, led to rent increases on other houses in the system, prompting cooperative members to shut down Barrington in a referendum vote.  At the time, a couple of stragglers, including a close personal friend, decided to squat in the building but were eventually evicted.  Though I did not support the squat, nevertheless I felt a little ambivalent about what had happened at the cooperative.

Years later, I returned to Berkeley and stopped over at Barrington again.  Peering inside, I noticed that all the historic murals, including my favorite yellow submarine, had been removed.  A well-heeled resident remarked that the place was now home to a different breed of graduate student.  I wondered whether new residents had any awareness of Barrington’s radical past, and regretted how the “baby had been thrown out with the bathwater” amidst failure to label the murals as historic landmarks worthy of preservation.

Perhaps it would be an overstatement to claim there was some kind of “connection” between Barrington’s graffiti and the house’s predictable decline.  And yet, like New York in an earlier incarnation, Barrington’s graffiti went hand in hand with the drug culture and a general disregard for cleanliness.  Is it unrealistic to expect that a community might develop a vibrant art scene, while still maintaining basic levels of hygiene?  While this might not seem like such a tall order, the case of Barrington provides a fraught and cautionary tale about the limits of alternative rebel culture.

Caracas: Top Down Anti-Imperialist Art

            Years later, in 2006, I became familiar with a very different model of top-down political art while touring Venezuela.  The country was in the midst of political ferment under the guidance of Hugo Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution,” with authorities in Caracas giving their blessing to a new breed of street art designed to drum up support for the regime, which found itself at odds with the Bush administration in Washington.  Just four years earlier, Chávez had survived an unsuccessful coup attempt which may have been sanctioned by the White House.  Having thwarted the U.S.-sponsored opposition, Chávez was riding high by taking on Venezuela’s state-run oil company or PdVSA and re-distributing petroleum wealth to the under-privileged via government-run social programs or “missions.”

In order to boost public support for the Bolivarian Revolution, Chávez assembled government-financed graffiti brigades and muralists whose politicized work blanketed Caracas.  The Ministry of Communes created the brigades, including one outfit called Guerilla Communications.  Other groups such as the “Communications Liberation Army” worked autonomously from the government but received materials such as spray paint from authorities.  Not surprisingly, some murals left little to the imagination and featured, for example, a deathly Yankee imperialist skull wielding a dagger.

Other street murals were less overtly propagandistic though certainly reinforced many of Chávez’s political views.  While walking near downtown Caracas I came upon one such wall which seemed to take its cue from legendary Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.  Though the wall certainly failed to live up to Rivera on an aesthetic level, nevertheless the work conveyed an interesting view of Venezuelan history from a leftist perspective.  One section of wall featured an unflattering portrait of early twentieth century dictator, Juan Vicente Gómez, who opened up the oil sector to foreign oil companies. Another panel reflected Chávez’s interest in racial minorities, and juxtaposed affluent owners of cacao plantations on the one hand, and José Leonardo Chirino, a man of mixed race who led a failed colonial-era rebellion calling for the abolition of slavery, on the other.

Yet other murals in the Caracas district of Catia tended to glorify Chávez and his accomplishments while demonizing Washington.  Take, for example, one mural touting Misión Ribas, which provided adult education, and Misión Barrio Adentro or “Inside the Neighborhood Mission,” a program which deployed Cuban doctors to assist poor Venezuelan neighborhoods.  The wall mural, which featured official logos of Misión Ribas and Misión Barrio Adentro was juxtaposed with images of PdVSA and Chávez’s profile.

Ironies of Chávez’s Street Art

Though Barrio Adentro attended to many people who would not have otherwise received access to healthcare, the program began to fray at the edges over time, with some Cuban doctors seeking asylum in the United States.  While in Catia I also visited a so-called “Endogenous Center of Development” where women had set up a flourishing textile cooperative.  Another nearby mural extolled the virtues of Misión Vuelvan Caras, linked to the promotion of economic cooperatives.  Despite the much-vaulted cooperative program, many enterprises remained mired in corruption and the government never succeeded in paving the groundwork for true democratization of the economy.

Perhaps, Chávez’s wall murals and the like succeeded in shoring up some level of political support for the regime and its social programs.  Charismatic and populist leaders like Chávez are skillful at marshalling the masses to achieve short-term goals, and to that end the Caracas street art program seems to have fulfilled its purpose.  And yet, populists display an inherent aversion and fear of true revolutionary ferment, and those street artists who hitched their wagon to the likes of Chávez — whose regime might be considered more nationalistic as opposed to socialistic — risked being perceived as ephemeral and tied to the political vicissitudes of the moment.

Over time Chávez became increasingly authoritarian, and when he died in 2012 much of the Bolivarian Revolution died with him, leaving Venezuela to the whims of Nicolás Maduro.  Under the latter’s leadership, the country has descended into political chaos and a humanitarian disaster, to such a degree that now, some street artists are ranged against the regime rather than singing its praises.  Around Caracas, passers-by are now likely to take in street art depicting economic hardship, which is hardly surprising given that Venezuela’s financial crisis is felt by all including graffiti artists who have been affected by shortages, inflation and even the spiraling cost of spray paint.

From Venezuela to the Former Soviet Union

            If Caracas revealed the perils of a top-down model of street art, Russia was perhaps even more dispiriting.  In the age of Putin, the notion of promoting rebel culture, let alone “revolutionary art,” may seem fanciful or even downright risky, and when I lived in St. Petersburg last year I saw little evidence of street art despite the country’s earlier, Soviet-era legacy of avant-garde propaganda posters and futurist decorations of public space.  To the contrary, authorities have sought to “contain” street art within acceptable limits as a means of tamping down dissent.  Wary of public protest, let alone stoking any uncomfortable historical memories of political ferment, the Kremlin approached the centennial anniversary of the Russian revolution last year with a certain degree of trepidation.

On the outskirts of St. Petersburg, I checked out the Street Art Museum and “Brighter Days Are Coming,” an exhibit dealing with themes of revolution.  The show itself was multi-faceted, with large-scale wall installations accompanied by sculptures in open spaces.  Unfortunately, the space was located miles from any nearby metro stop and far away from the central tourist zone and the Hermitage museum.  Walking through the entrance of the museum, I was greeted with a huge placard upon which was inscribed a kind of manifesto reading “Revolutionary art has always played an integral role in mass political uprising…The need for radical change and a desire for breaking all ties with the past became the impetus for people to take political action into the public.”  The Street Art Museum, the manifesto continued, sought to “reflect on the phenomenon of revolution through art and to create a dialogue between modern artists from different countries.”

Did the Street Art Museum live up to its own manifesto?  One article in the Huffington Post argued that since one typically doesn’t see “AntiFa post-Soviet graffiti furiously scrawled” in the streets of St. Petersburg, which lacks its own “organic” street art scene, the Street Art Museum may serve as a “comfortable protected space for debate about theory and history.”  On the other hand, one of the exhibitors, French artist Kazy Usclef, didn’t seem particularly intimidated by Russia’s climate of political fear.  In his work, “Rebel Sex Love Resistance,” Usclef depicted two entwined female figures while one wears a balaclava, a not so subtle reference to Pussy Riot which famously sports such gear.  In another work, “Makazyhnovchtchina,” Usclef urged society to rip down barriers by proclaiming open borders.  It is perhaps telling, however, that the most memorable work at the Street Art Museum was crafted by a foreigner.

Open Borders mural

Kyiv’s Urban Art Boom

Recently, another part of the former Soviet Union has been rediscovering the lost world of political street art to very mixed political result.  Since the Maidan revolution of 2013-14, which toppled the pro-Putin regime of Viktor Yanukovych, not to mention Moscow’s subsequent secessionist-backed war in the Ukrainian east, Kyiv has witnessed the emergence of a spate of new public art which has cropped up all across the city.  Tearing down relics of the old Stalinist era, authorities have given the green light to a new style of patriotic street murals.

Whereas before, art had been funded by the Communist party, Kyiv’s new public face has been financed by non-governmental organizations (or NGO’s), charities or entities tied to the pro-western Petro Poroshenko government or those countries which support Ukraine’s pro-western aspirations to join the European Union.  Though many locals have crafted Kyiv murals, other commissioned artists hail from outside Ukraine.

The poster child — no pun intended — of Kyiv’s new street art is an outfit called “Art United Us,” which works in tandem with Vitali Klitschko, the city’s mayor.  One of the founders of the group, Geo Leros, has literally become “embedded” in the government and now serves as an adviser to Ukraine’s own Ministry of Information.  Some observers have argued that Leros would not have received such a warm reception if he had failed to echo the government’s pro-E.U. bent.  Leros has also launched the “City Art project,” which seeks to create an art district no less in Kyiv’s downtown, and the enterprising curator is trying to line up investors and international artists to help make his dream a reality.  Ambitiously, Leros hopes to paint scores of new murals in Kyiv which will add to the dozens already greeting passers-by.

Politics of Post-Maidan Street Murals

            Last year, I had the opportunity of taking in many of these new street murals during a visit to Kyiv.  The art, which ranges from kitschy to wacky to serious, is all over the map politically.  Take, for example, one mural depicting academic Mykhaylo Hrushevsky, a figure from the Russian revolutionary era who became a supporter of the Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries.  On the other hand, another mural depicted Pavlo Skoropadsky, who led a coup d’etat and overthrew the socialist government led by Hrushevsky.  A Czarist military general, Skoropadsky stood against land reform and stood at odds with the political milieu following the revolution of 1917.

When it comes to the politics of gender, the underlying message of street murals seemed similarly muddled.  Walking near downtown, I came upon one mural depicting a woman dressed in traditional attire.  The work was based upon a poem written by socialist Lesya Ukrainka (1871-1913), a noted feminist essayist, poet, critic and dramatist, not to mention a pioneer who turned people’s attention to women’s rights and voting suffrage.  A Marxist, Ukrainka opposed the Czarist regime and translated the Communist Manifesto into Ukrainian.  In many ways, Ukrainka was ahead of her time, yet other Kyiv murals seem to be turning back the clock.  Take, for example, Mata Ruda’s “Protectress,” located just a block away from Maidan square.  The mural depicts Berehynia, a Slavic female spirit who is popular among romantic Ukrainian nationalists.  In turning to Berehynia as a cult symbol, Ukrainians seem to be harking back to an ancient past that reinforces traditional views of women.

Berehynia mural

“Professional” Street Art vs. Graffiti

Leros claims that Kyiv residents support this odd hodgepodge of mythical Slavic subject matter mixed with Ukrainian patriotism.  Not far from the Stalinist Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one mural honors Serhiy Nigoyan, the first martyr to be shot during EuroMaidan protests.  Leros’ outfit, meanwhile, seeks to endear itself with Ukraine’s European backers by challenging Russia’s foreign aggression, and somewhat melodramatically the group has called for “the creation of an entirely new history…the mural is a tremendous weapon and art will save the world.”  For tourists, taking in Kyiv’s new street murals has become a must-see, while Mayor Klitschko has remarked, “The new art objects fit perfectly with the new, modern and European style of the city.”  Pro-western Radio Free Europe declares that Kyiv’s murals “reflect the youthful energy and national spirit that is unique to today’s Kyiv.”

Not everyone, however, is on board with such European cheerleading.  Kyiv is home to a thriving underground graffiti scene, whose members don’t make a living as professional artists.  Unlike Leros and his circle, graffiti artists aren’t sanctioned by the municipal authorities and their work dots the walls of abandoned buildings and underpasses.  It’s unclear, however, how many in the wider public might support such work, and certain graffiti artists hardly seem interested in promoting an alternative political agenda with wider appeal.

Take, for example, the “Save Ugly Crew,” whose tags appear throughout Kyiv: rather than seeking to move beyond outdated models from the past, these artists simply want to make things ugly.  The charitable interpretation of such work is that it strives to promote free expression as opposed to being informed by some kind of muddled Ukrainian political or social agenda.  Not surprisingly, however, graffiti artists have been subject to police repression and just like New York in the 1970s, it seems unlikely the masses will rally to the artists’ defense.

Friedrichshain: From Karl Marx to Bowie

            From New York to Berkeley to Caracas to St. Petersburg to Kyiv, rebel culture certainly has its pitfalls.  On the other hand, I’d long been curious about Berlin’s vibrant street art scene, and wondered whether the city had avoided many of the usual shortcomings I’d observed in other locales.  Fortunately, I recently had the opportunity to tour Berlin where I discussed aesthetic developments with local experts.  I purposefully chose to stay in Friedrichshain in East Berlin, home to youthful, party-going foreigners, radical anarchists and offbeat housing collectives.

Walking around the neighborhood, I noticed that a large portion of the area had been plastered in graffiti, particularly around Boxhaganer Platz which attracted a crowd of vegan-friendly hipsters.  At times, it was difficult to come across a single doorway that was not completely scrawled over in graffiti.  Normally I would be turned off by such displays, but for some reason Friedrichshain’s wacky, offbeat and downright eclectic graffiti milieu gradually got under my skin.  Though Boxhagener Platz was a little unseemly, the place wasn’t overly filthy and the air was relatively clean with comparatively few cars clogging the street.  I even saw a number of families riding bicycles in the area, which forced me to rethink my previous preconceptions and clichés about graffiti and its role in the urban fabric.  As if to underscore graffiti’s “coolness factor,” Friedrichshain also boasts spray painting stores where aspiring artists purchase their materials in the hope of honing their craft.

Boxhagener Platz

The fact that Friedrichshain’s graffiti setting was diverse and not just comprised of mere “tags” immediately made me more curious.  Near Boxhagener Platz, I came across a kooky wall full of vintage profiles of Jack Nicholson and David Bowie, interspersed with other political messages ranging from posters calling on Russia to release Crimean filmmaker Boris Sentsov, to anti-Nazi graffiti to cryptic depictions of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.  On another wall, none other than Karl Marx seemed to be calling attention to the plight of African refugees in the Spanish exclave of Melilla.  A couple blocks from Marx, Bowie and Nicholson, I came upon more 1980s-style hip-hop motifs, the Silver Surfer, and what looked like a Marvel comic strip about mutant cities, all surrounded by anti-rent banners hanging from building walls.

Mixed Housing Scene

            Though certainly impressive, I wondered whether Friedrichshain’s offbeat street art had actually encouraged the rise of real and lasting housing collectives as opposed to the usual unappealing dives which eventually succumb to internal pressures of one sort or another.  Judging from my walk around the neighborhood, Friedrichshain is a truly mixed bag: on the one hand, some housing collectives looked like they were in need of structural repairs — a fact which I am sure was not lost on potential new housing recruits.

I can’t say, for example, that I was tempted to go off and join the Liebig Collective, an anarcho-feminist housing collective, whose building looked decrepit.  On the other hand, even here I was struck by weird decorations on the exterior of the building, ranging from pseudo-Hindu motifs to balaclava-clad Zapatista rebels.  The entranceway of another nearby housing collective, which was strewn with posters, tags and graffiti, reminded me of Berkeley’s Barrington Hall.  Again, however, I could not help but feel impressed with the rebellious and internationalist streak on display, ranging from anti-fascist plaques to posters supporting the Kurdish revolution of Rojava in northern Syria.

Yellow Submarine House

The real coup de grace, however, came later as I came across perhaps the wildest and most memorable housing collective Friedrichshain had to offer.  The building sported political messaging ranging from support of the ZAD utopian squatter settlement in France to criticism of bull fighting to anti-fascist slogans.  The messaging, however, was accompanied by amusing and mysterious symbolism, proving that leftists can indeed cultivate a sense of humor.  On the façade of the building, residents had painted a variety of motifs, ranging from a Mexican skull reminiscent of Day of the Dead, to Nepalese-style Buddhist idols to gaily-colored dinosaurs to African flags hanging from the balcony.  In yet another echo of Barrington, a yellow submarine peaked out on top of a crazed and demonic-looking doctor.

Eager to hear more about this quirky, odd-looking place, I spoke to some house residents who were more than happy to share their experiences.  One woman, Bibi Glindemann, had been living in the collective since 1990.  The murals, she explained, had been painted by a group of friends.  “The facade really just represents the work of anyone who had spare time and wanted to do something funny,” she explained.  Glindemann is living proof that street art and radical housing can indeed work in tandem: for twenty seven years, she has lived with the same people who form her family.  Glindemann’s neighbor Marta Cuello, a Catalonian who migrated to Berlin in search of alternative-style politics, told me there was a very “familial” atmosphere in the house and a number of parents were even raising children there.

When I explained that in New York, many families had historically been fearful of graffiti, Cuello remarked that in Berlin it was a little different.  “I don’t know about the future,” she said, “and whether families will continue to want to live in these neighborhoods, but there is a lot of social mixing here and some folks think it’s ‘cool’ to live in a neighborhood with anarchists painting murals.”  Personally, Cuello thought Friedrichshain’s widespread graffiti represented an interesting sociological experiment, since it demonstrated how people could appropriate the city and drown out the usual humdrum, top-down style advertising which is prevalent in so many other major cities.  Urban art, she declared, “demonstrates that the streets are ours and people can make their own contribution.”

Kreuzberg: Welcome to Revolutionary Store

Leaving Friedrichshain, I headed to nearby Kreuzberg, a neighborhood whose graffiti tradition dates back to the days of the Cold War when the area contained miles of wall space with little police oversight.  Underneath a bridge, I took in a mural which looked like it had been ripped from a Marvel comic book, depicting a man wearing some kind of space helmet.  At another point, I came upon an empty lot where graffiti artists had left a colorful flourish by painting some construction logs which lay in a big pile on the ground.  Nearby, a huge Adidas mural adorned an abandoned wall which stood out discordantly against all the other underground graffiti.  There were yet other surprises in store along my route, including a large array of animal motifs, ranging from pandas to goats to colorful underwater fish to dragons.  Along one street, I glanced a building adorned with a ferocious shark, interspersed with images of people reclaiming the streets.

As I entered Kreuzberg, a man approached me hoping to sell drugs which in New York can indicate crime, though I did not feel personally threatened.  Nearby, I came upon a kind of “revolutionary store” selling clothing, books and other items.  Along the exterior of the store, I glanced more offbeat art including an owl and other birds colored in blue, purple and pink, once again interspersed with political messaging, in this case mocking consumerism.  As if to underscore the point, a big, broken down red carriage with flat tires was parked right outside the store, and the vehicle had been decorated with yet more revolutionary slogans.  Passers-by didn’t seem to think the store was anything out of the ordinary, however, and the place seemed to blend in seamlessly with its surroundings as runners jogged by.

Funky Town Déjà Vu

In New York, the mere appearance of graffiti has historically prompted calls of alarm from residents fearing the worst.  To many, graffiti came to be associated with poverty, urban blight and poor immigrants as demonstrated by the example of Manhattan’s Lower East Side and East Village.  Kreuzberg, however, seemed to break the mould, since the area is considered desirable and trendy but also boasts refugee centers and an ethnically and culturally diverse population with a substantial Turkish community.  In Kreuzberg, graffiti blended in with the overall atmosphere including Turkish cafes, trendy bookstores and anarchists who leave their mark — literally — on many doorways, painting their trademark red and black colors.  On a certain level, Kreuzberg gave me an uncanny sense of déjà vu, as if I was transported back in time to East Village Funky Town, circa 1986.

Urban utopia cannot be said to exist, but as I walked around Kreuzberg I began to reflect that I could certainly live in the neighborhood and feel perfectly happy and fulfilled since the area combines many essential qualities that I value in my living environment.  And yet, all is not well in the land of radical utopia, since a growing tech bubble has sought to appropriate radical chic and Kreuzberg’s edgy graffiti style.  As I strolled around, I came upon “Kreuzberg Factory,” a trendy industrial warehouse housing youthful startups.  Outside the building, the owners had parked a trailer which had been covered in black and white graffiti.  Kreuzberg residents have been waging a David vs. Goliath, guerrilla-style battle against tech giants which are thought to prompt an increase in the cost of living, and anti-Google graffiti and banners dot the entire neighborhood.  Some banners were loony looking, like one which hung from the rafters sporting Pac-Man who was crunching through and devouring affordable housing.

Berlin Wall “Canvas”

With Kreuzberg’s rebel culture under threat from the rising cost of rent, perhaps it’s helpful to reflect on local graffiti history so as to develop a perspective on where the neighborhood might be headed in future.  With that in mind, I met up with Katia Hermann, an independent art historian, curator and writer who recently put together a photo exhibit dealing with Berlin’s graffiti past.  The city’s graffiti milieu, she remarked, had little to do with any cultural influence linked to the east or former Soviet Union, but rather traced its roots back to New York, Paris and Amsterdam.

Graffiti arrived in Berlin in the 1970s, which at the time was literally and figuratively an island in the midst of East Germany.  In an effort to protest Communist authorities and divisions within the city, artists focused all their energy on the Berlin Wall, which became “a big canvas” where everyone could paint.  The new generation of graffiti artists was in turn linked to an earlier tradition of leftists which had adorned building walls with their own political messaging.  At this early point, graffiti artists ran a considerably greater risk of getting into trouble on the east side of the wall as opposed to the western side, which lay within the American-occupied sector.  In the latter, graffiti was permitted but on the opposite side, much feared Stasi police maintained constant vigilance over the so-called grey area of wall known as the “death strip.”

From Punks to Turks to Draft Resisters

The graffiti milieu, which was inspired by the extreme left and the punk backdrop, began to take on on a familiar complexion reminiscent of New York and became associated with the hip-hop movement, rap, DJing and break dancing.  With its own unique character, Berlin attracted a certain type of idiosyncratic crowd.  In West Germany, military service was compulsory for men over eighteen but by living in Berlin one could become exempt from the draft.  As a result, Berlin attracted draft dodgers, but also people drawn to the city’s infamous Bohemian lifestyle and universities.

Ironically then, the impulse to “write” on the wall came not from Berliners themselves but rather from a diverse array of outsiders ranging from draft resisters, anarchists, punks and children of U.S. servicemen.  And “on top of that,” Hermann added, “you had Turks and a strong multi-cultural scene, as well as squatters because there were a lot of abandoned buildings in the area.”  Though Turks didn’t participate substantially in the graffiti movement, a few artists rose to prominence in the 1980s.

On a purely political level, the early graffiti spectacle in Berlin was relatively basic and, like New York in the 1970s, hardly rose to sophisticated new heights, preferring instead to popularize simple slogans such as “tear down this wall.”  Viktor Ash, a prominent graffiti artist of the era, has remarked, “I never really did anything political on the wall because it was not really interesting for me to think that way…It was not in my mind to make political graffiti because we are a movement that’s outside of the system.  We were kind of anarchists anyway…For me, it was just like a wall that was there.  That’s it.”

Another noted artist of the day, Thierry Noir, defended the early graffiti movement, declaring that the work was inherently rebellious, “so in a way it was a revolutionary act.”  Thierry recalled that local Berliners criticized the largely foreign graffiti artist community on the grounds that the work constituted mere decoration.  Noir, however, retorted that he wasn’t pursuing aesthetics and in any case, “You can’t make the wall beautiful because it is a deadly border.  Even if you put thousands of kilos of colors on the wall, this wall will never be beautiful.”

Street Art Proliferates

            Today, visitors can visit the East Side Gallery, the last remnant of the original wall. I wondered, however, whether tourists flocking to the site had much historical awareness of the original graffiti artists and what motivated their rebellious consciousness.  On an ironic note, I noticed that across the street from East Side Gallery, a big street mural had been painted on a wall advertising trendy yerba maté tea from South America.  In a further ironic twist, elsewhere in the city I came across a store front, upon which was painted a fleeing couple attempting to cross the wall.  In actuality, the painting was an advertisement for a futuristic video game in which participants put on virtual reality glasses that transport players back in time to the grim era of the Berlin Wall.

Without getting too nostalgic about the inevitable passing of 1970s-80s graffiti, perhaps we should look to new experiments in the urban landscape.  Berlin’s current “street art” phenomenon has evolved significantly since the fall of the wall in 1989, which is not too surprising given the many abandoned buildings which became a playground for artists after the Cold War.  Though there was a graffiti movement in East Berlin prior to the fall of the wall, artists were hindered by the lack of spray cans, which made people turn to whatever improvised materials they could find including shoe spray no less.

But as the wall came down, and vast new neighborhoods such as Friedrichshain were opened up, artists from East and West Berlin began a creative dialogue.  It wasn’t long before the district of Lichtenberg in East Berlin, for example, developed its own “Graffiti Galerie” located underneath a local highway bridge.  On one day toward the end of my stay in Berlin, I toured the area and took in a gigantic mural depicting a peacock as well as other animal motifs off to the side of the road.  In another ironic and offbeat sign of the times, I spotted a decrepit mural honoring the Sandinistas, whose face had begun to fleck off with paint.

Graffiti “Cool Factor”

            Walking around Berlin, one might wonder why the authorities have apparently been so slow to eradicate graffiti and rebel culture, as opposed to other cities where street art isn’t nearly as pronounced.  To be sure, Berlin has a special anti-graffiti task force which targets graffiti as a crime.  However, the squad is reportedly “ineffectual” and the city only processes approximately fifteen arrests a week while leveling relatively low-level fines.  On the other hand, though it is illegal to spray graffiti on buildings without owners’ permission, the city has introduced measures which help artists carry out their work legally.

Indeed, the authorities have sought to turn street art into an industry, with some local businesses and officials commissioning artists to paint murals on the facades of their buildings.  When UNESCO named Berlin as a City of Design in 2006, few doubted that Berlin’s booming street art had played a role in the decision.  Rebel culture has been allowed to thrive in Berlin because of such unusual paradoxes, not to mention the authorities’ ambivalent attitude toward graffiti.  While street art isn’t entirely legal, the UNESCO designation has deterred officials from really cracking down.

Ambivalent Authorities

According to Hermann, foreign tourists are responsible for fifty percent of Berlin’s street art.  “It’s a global phenomenon,” she said, adding “the artists move from town to town and leave their traces behind.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that the street art carried out by tourists is necessarily bad.”  In Bohemian Kreuzberg, where foreigners congregate, no one really cares if graffiti goes up, though to be sure the authorities do their utmost to clean up sprayed trains or walls lying adjacent to government buildings.

The curator added that municipal authorities, as well as private building owners, don’t have a lot of money to keep on cleaning up graffiti.  “The owners started cleaning it up at one time,” Hermann remarked, “but inevitably the graffiti just reappeared, so at a certain point they just got so fed up with the situation that they simply decided to leave it all in place.”

Not everyone is thrilled with Berlin’s climate of permissiveness.  Take, for example, the city’s anti-graffiti task force, which claims that tagging crews are linked to gangs.  In an echo of New York at the height of the city’s gritty graffiti heyday of the 1970s and 80s, officials claim that some crews are starting to carry firearms.  While such reports are worrying, should one again simply “throw out the baby with the bathwater?”  The relative absence of Big Brother, Hermann told me, encourages a sense of freedom and as a result “artists go out on the streets and the art is carried out for everyone without the city being able to do much about it.”

From Turkish Community to Women

            As an outsider in Berlin, I was intrigued by the intermingling of street art and multi-culturalism.  According to Hermann, Turks living in Kreuzberg have actually grown to appreciate graffiti.  Even more surprisingly perhaps, many kids from the community romp in school playgrounds adorned with graffiti.  Hermann, however, wasn’t sure if the Turks had become politicized by radical messaging associated with Berlin graffiti.  On the one hand, the curator told me, the Turks “live here in the city amidst all this freedom,” but on the other hand many voted for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan via absentee ballot in the recent presidential election, suggesting a rather split and contradictory identity.

Given Erdoğan’s authoritarian and pro-Islamist politics, one also wonders what long-time Turkish residents make of Berlin’s feminist graffiti.  Take, for example, XOOOOX, a graffiti artist known for black and white stencils of young women and bubble-like x’s and o’s.  XOOOOX’s work, which serves as a commentary on superficial and commercial beauty, depicts slender women who seem to have been pulled from fashion ads.  Another Italian-based artist, AliCé, has sought to counter hyper-sexualized stereotypes of women which are common in the media.

On the other hand, feminist murals and messaging which I encountered around Friedrichshain tended to be clunky and rather unmemorable.  In addition, Hermann told me that historically, graffiti artists tended to be young or teenage men.  Though there were some women too, the latter tended to stay away because one had to be athletic and willing to go out in the middle of the night in crews while keeping a watch out for the police.  To be sure, some women participated in the graffiti movement starting in the 1980s and continuing up to the present day, though they typically work in tandem with their boyfriends and “you can count the number of women graffiti artists on two hands.”

Street Art and Gentrification

Technically, Hermann explained, the “street art phenomenon” only emerged after the year 2000, whereas prior to that point it was merely artists carrying out graffiti or painting on the Berlin wall.  Street art, she added, consists of “paste-ups,” slogans and the transformation of public space on doors and walls.  The Goethe Institute, meanwhile, points out that street murals, many of which have been legally commissioned, have now entered the mix and “are held in high esteem by a broad public.”  However, the earlier illegal milieu continues to thrive, for example atop rooftops where graffiti artists embrace the usual, predictable anarchist rhetoric including “fuck,” and “fuck the system” which lacks something to be desired.

Nevertheless, political messaging can raise awareness about day-to-day problems such as rising rents.  Perhaps more than any other single issue, street art in Berlin has come to be defined by the struggle against increased cost of living and gentrification.  During the 1990s, there was an abundance of cheap space for artists, but more recently the city has been flooded with tourists and investors, while local authorities sell off space at bargain prices.  As a result, artists don’t have access to nearly as much affordable housing as before.

Though many street artists have dealt with gentrification, Hermann’s personal favorite on this score is a Frenchman known as SP38.   The artist himself lived through a previous wave of gentrification in the neighborhood of Mitte, and his work has dealt with his own personal experiences.  In one paste-up, SP38 painted the word “Erased” next to buildings which had been gentrified.  In another piece, “Evicted with Love,” the artist drew attention to residents who had been dislodged along Hermann’s own street.  Other graffiti artists such as Blu have literally painted over their own murals rather than submit to the destruction of their work at the hands of inevitable gentrification.

In the midst of Kreuzberg’s tech bubble and trendy warehouses like “Kreuzberg Factory,” neighborhood activists have sought to prevent Google from opening up its own local “campus.”  In 2014, several graffiti collectives crafted a wall painting reminiscent of a Monopoly board which urged the adoption of anti-gentrification tactics ranging from rent protests to squatting to blockading of local evictions.  Hermann, however, is skeptical that such efforts will halt gentrification.  “I don’t think it’s very effective,” she said.  “To be sure,” she added, “such messaging makes us think about issues which are really important, but in the end I’m not sure whether people will really change their lifestyle or consuming habits.

“Co-opting” Of Rebellious Culture?

            Another crucial question is whether street art is being robbed of its rebellious roots as others seek to “co-opt” the genre for their own ends.  Ironically, street art has become a big cash cow for Berlin since it attracts tourists and brings in money to a city which has been deeply mired in debt.  Today, artist squats feature expensive trendy bars while graffiti artists have become internationally known in their own right.  What’s more, some shop owners have even commissioned graffiti artists to decorate the facades of their businesses.  With interest surging, Berlin’s street art scene has become an industry unto itself and there’s been an effort to “institutionalize what was once known as a free-spirited movement.”

I had the opportunity of taking in Berlin’s more “institutionalized” street art spectacle during a visit to Urban Nation Museum.  There, curators exhibited the work of international as well as local graffiti artists, and organizers have even put up wall murals which adorn surrounding streets.  Though I appreciated the latter, somehow Urban Nation left me cold and so I went over to the center of town to see the Haus Schwarzenberg graffiti alleyway which occupies a kind of middle ground between institutionalized art and the rebel culture of Friedrichshain and featured similar wacky animal motifs mixed in with other random weirdness.

According to Hermann, artists occupied the area as far back as 1997, at which point the area wasn’t gentrified at all.  “Organizers kept the building and court yard as it was right after the wall came down,” she explained, “and as such, Haus Schwarzenberg represents the only authentic spirit of the 90’s left in that area.”            And yet, I could not bring myself to embrace Haus Schwarzenberg wholeheartedly since the place is lined with bars and more rampant consumerism which to me interfered with the underlying spirit of graffiti.  Predictably enough, the growing wave of graffiti institutionalization has spurred a backlash from tagging crews.  As self-styled keepers of the flame, the crews argue that “street art derives its power from being on the margins of society; only from the outside can they address problems within it.”

Now that graffiti art has become big business and internationally recognized, which Berlin artists are still pushing the political envelope?  To be sure, Banksy has left his mark on the city with his stenciled rat in a police uniform which greets onlookers in the Mitte neighborhood.  And recently, a new generation represented by Berlin Kidz has conducted spectacular, acrobatic stunts which hark back to graffiti’s upstart origins.  In Kreuzberg and elsewhere, the group has crafted massive illegal paintings and murals adorning walls.  “They’re real young,” Hermann noted, adding “though it’s not real deep, their work reflects a rebellious attitude, like ‘fuck the system.’”

From Berlin to Brooklyn

            It is only fitting that I end my cross-cultural travels by heading back to New York, the original home of graffiti.  Ironically, even though the urban counter-culture got its start here, New York has strayed from its roots to such an extent that it pales in comparison to the Berlin scene.  That’s not too surprising, however, when you consider all of the tectonic political and economic changes which have transformed the city and made it much more difficult for rebel culture to succeed and thrive.

To begin with, unlike Berlin where authorities wink and turn a slight blind eye to graffiti, New York has clamped down.  Take for example Mayor Giuliani, who capitalized on prevailing anti-graffiti public sentiment by pushing his so-called “broken windows” policy.  According to this line of thought, a mere broken window, drug abuse or signs of graffiti could pave the way for more serious crime.  Together with his police commissioner William Bratton, Giuliani sent hundreds of cops into the subways to crack down on vandals.  Joining in for good measure, Parks Commissioner Henry Stern declared that “the 60s are over,” while labeling graffiti “a metaphor for urban decay perhaps best shown in A Clockwork Orange.”  Under Giuliani, authorities initiated a decades-long battle to rid the city of its 1970s and 80s graffiti, a policy which was continued under Michael Bloomberg, who pushed his own GHOST squad (Graffiti Habitual Offender Suppression Team).

More recently, Bill de Blasio has touted himself as a “progressive Democrat,” though the mayor has gone into overdrive in an effort to emulate his Republican predecessors’ anti-graffiti positions.  Afraid of being tarnished as weak on crime, and sensitive to complaints about deteriorating “quality of life,” de Blasio has promoted his own “Graffiti-Free NYC” program so as to mollify critics.  “New Yorkers in every borough deserve safe and clean streets,” de Blasio has remarked, adding “as we continue to focus on crime and increasing quality of life across the five boroughs, removing graffiti from homes and store fronts helps keep neighborhoods vibrant and healthy for everyone.”

De Blasio Cracks Down

Taking a stand against graffiti has become a political imperative for de Blasio, who has gotten trounced in the rightwing tabloid press for not doing enough to combat the supposed urban scourge.  Even the Transport Workers Union has taken aim at the mayor by running an ad in the Daily News and elsewhere, blasting de Blasio’s supposed reluctance to fund the MTA which technically does not even fall under the purview of the city but rather New York State.

De Blasio blasted the ad, which depicted the mayor as the conductor of a subway car plastered with graffiti with a caption reading, “Where are you taking us?”  The ad went on to say that, “Mayor de Blasio risks taking us back to the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s, when graffiti-covered subway trains regularly broke down and rickety buses sputtered from stop to stop.”  In a nod to the establishment, de Blasio reappointed William Bratton as police commissioner, an official who promptly increased arrests for graffiti and graffiti-related crimes.

Most famously, however, the city seemed to turn a blind eye to the whitewashing of 5Pointz, a graffiti mecca located in Long Island City, Queens.  Since 1993, graffiti artists were allowed to spray on site without fear of arrest, and the place actually wound up attracting tourists.  Though local building owners carried out the whitewashing, curators believe the action may have been sanctioned or at least witnessed by the NYPD, which subsequently arrested 5Pointz graffiti artists.

Voyage to Bushwick

In addition to simple police repression, rebel forces face other obstacles in New York.  Unlike Friedrichshain, where the cost of living is still dirt cheap and one can buy a massive falafel baguette for a paltry 4 euros, gentrification has made it that much harder for the alternative backdrop to survive and thrive.  Such gentrification has pushed out rebel culture farther and farther to the margins, such that now the alternative arts and political milieu has migrated from the East Village all the way to Bushwick, Brooklyn.  Recently, I took a swing through the neighborhood to see how it stacked up against Germany’s rebel underground.  Getting off the L train in Bushwick, you can’t miss the dynamic youth culture, wall murals and graffiti.  Though the work isn’t political, Bushwick provides a refreshing change from the relentless hyper-driven capitalism common to Manhattan and much of the rest of Brooklyn.

Bushwick mural

Leading the charge is Bushwick Collective, an outfit which aims to spread vibrant graffiti art in the neighborhood.  Artists hail from New York and around the world, and their temporary work stays around for twelve months with new murals going up periodically.  Bushwick Collective’s enterprising founder has managed to wrangle the necessary permits for his artists, who put up their work legally.  However, in addition to Bushwick Collective, there are plenty of other, illegal and unsanctioned posters, stencils and stickers on walls and doorways throughout the neighborhood.  Naturally, such work doesn’t last nearly as long as the collective’s official aerosol murals.  Bushwick’s new street art has put the neighborhood “on the map” in recent years, with a spate of new walking tours cropping up in the area.

Brooklyn: From Multi-Culturalism to Radicals

In the midst of the Trump era, which arguably displays many ominous traits aligning the administration with fascism, there’s never been a greater need for authentic rebel underground.  To what extent can New York revive or re-imagine its urban artistic past for the twenty first century?  In certain respects, Bushwick seems to display characteristics which lend themselves to a likely counter-culture.  Like Berlin, where hipsters and Turks live cheek by jowl, Bushwick is also home to minorities, specifically Central Americans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans.

Though it certainly doesn’t compare to Friedrichshain’s cultural milieu, Bushwick sports leftist political centers and local Starr Bar where one can order anti-fascist cocktails.  Glancing up from my drink on one occasion, I saw an anti-rent banner, though I wondered whether local activists could halt gentrification, which has proceeded at a ferocious pace.  Only time will tell whether Latinos and radicals will see eye to eye, and put together a viable political coalition with overlapping interests.  On another occasion, I attended a panel discussion at Starr Bar dealing with leftist politics in Barcelona, Spain.  When organizers asked the audience — which to my eye looked pretty white — how many patrons were actually from the neighborhood, only a few people raised their hands.

In an echo of my days at Barrington in Berkeley, some former members of Occupy Wall Street have set up “co-housing” farther out from Bushwick in Ridgewood, Queens, where they engage in so-called libertine “polyamory.”  But unlike Berlin, where families have found a home in housing collectives, Ridgewood radicals are all young, leaving open the question of what will happen to their small activist hub once people decide to get married or have children.

New York’s Lost Rebel Culture

There’s also the lingering danger that, like Berlin, street art might get corralled or co-opted into the mainstream where it could lose its oppositional character.  In Bushwick, I came upon a refashioned lot where hipsters were drinking craft beer, surrounded by wall murals.  The sight reminded me of Haus Schwarzenberg, which also seemed a little removed and devoid of politics.  Meanwhile, trendy new real estate development going up in the midst of Bushwick’s “post-industrial” landscape has adopted wall murals as a badge of coolness.  When wealthy tenants aren’t taking in their wall art, they can head to a fitness center and game room or even leave their dogs at a local spa no less.

There’s always the concern that Bushwick’s current wave of street art will paradoxically wind up encouraging gentrification a la Kreuzberg or Friedrichshain, neighborhoods which are also perceived as “cool.”  Has street art come full circle by linking up with advance guard white hipsters as opposed to poorer residents who pre-date whatever the latest fads and trends happen to be?   In a sign of the times, perhaps, ultra-capitalist Forbes magazine has sat up and taken notice, penning articles about real estate developers who commission street artists to paint over unsightly graffiti along the facades of local Bushwick apartment buildings.

“Now that street art no longer is considered sign of urban blight and has been designated the new cool kid on the block,” asks bk reader, “how much of its presence can be tied to the acceleration of the area’s gentrification?  Or is it tied at all?”  The publication notes that some Bushwick developers are now going out of their way to court “creative professionals,” while marketing the neighborhood as the “new creative epicenter” displaying “photogenic, graffitied streets.”  Meanwhile, advertisers and trendy brands sought to ride the gravy train by attending a recent Bushwick Collective block party, where firms sought visibility for their products.

Searching for Street Art Utopia

During my world-wide travels, I’ve seen and observed many different approaches to street art and graffiti.  For me, it is perhaps easier to state which models should be avoided as opposed to charting some kind of winning “road map” of success.  At one end of the spectrum, few would regard Russia, which has banished rebel culture to remote museums on the outskirts of town, as a desirable showcase.  My trips to Caracas and Kyiv, meanwhile, highlight the downside of street artists getting too cozy with populist or nationalist governments.

For better or worse, Berlin impressed me most for at least allowing the spirit of rebel culture to emerge, though to be sure street art faces many challenges in the city.  Without political and economic support from local authorities, who can modify or keep gentrification in check, rebel culture will always be under threat.  But even without such external threats, the underground can also implode as a result of its own mistakes or by failing to attract much public support.  As New York seeks to renovate its own alternative political scene, perhaps artists should ponder the Berlin experience by adopting what seems to have worked, while paying close heed to rebel culture’s missteps.

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