Berlin street art culture started with the wall. But since reunification, it has radiated outwards to encompass the whole city in a grand, sloppy spray of graffiti, murals, stickers, paste-ups and mixed media mash-ups. Berlin’s graffiti is everywhere and it’s impossible to see it all. But there are five distinct neighborhoods worth exploring because they show a characteristic range from edgy to political to the sublime.
Berlin’s Street Art History and Culture
It all started with the wall.
When it began going up in the 1960’s, the Berlin wall caused the East to start shrinking back from the West. With subsequent enlargements and deadly fortifications, the deal was sealed. The eastern side of the wall became a grey concrete no man’s land enforced by guns and STASI paranoia. The western side of the wall became a canvas.
According to The World Atlas of Street Art, during the 1970’s, the western side of the wall “functioned as a sort of guest book for visitors to leave comments.” During that time, New York’s graffiti movement became an export product and graffiti started turning up on the wall. Visiting artists like Keith Haring began doing larger murals, turning the concrete into a more formal artist canvas.
Wall graffiti took on a decidedly more political tone in 1986 when five former GDR citizens (who had been imprisoned and deported for painting graffiti), made a pointed statement by painting a four kilometer white stripe along the wall.
The wall may have come down in 1989, but it has certainly not been relegated to the Germany’s historic dustbin. Chunks of it keep a colorful watch, a vigilant reminder of Berlin’s cold war past.
With reunification, came a flood of cheap and free dilapidated housing stock, which provided a home for disaffected drop-outs, punks and starving artists.
That freedom of spirit combined with scruffy pre-gentrified working class neighborhoods are always a combustible mix for street art. Shoreditch London, San Francisco’s Mission District and Melbourne’s Fitzroy neighborhood all fit that bill. And like Berlin, they all have a robust street art scene.
Fast forward to today and street art in Berlin is still going strong. Not everyone is happy about it however. Berlin officials still consider graffiti illegal, although since it drives a sizable chunk of the city’s tourism economy, they don’t bother much about it. This means that well-respected guerrilla works will stay up longer than in cities that are more diligent about enforcement.
The artists themselves are concerned about rising costs and hipsterism fueled by gentrification, particularly in the Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain districts. Large-scale commissioned murals are becoming more common and there is even a museum dedicated to street art in Berlin.
“This zombification is threatening to turn Berlin into a museal city of veneers, the “art scene” preserved as an amusement park for those who can afford the rising rents.”Lutz Henke, co-creator of the Kreuzberg murals
“Berlin is dirty”, said my street art guide Ben. He’s a transplant from New Zealand and a graffiti artist himself. He wasn’t dissing Berlin. But rather, he likes that the walls are a messy college of art and vandalism and he thinks that Berlin is richer for it.
Let’s take a look.
Berlin Street Art Map
This Berlin street art map identifies five neighborhoods with a high concentration of works. I’ve noted some specific, popular murals and also indicated streets for you to stroll so that you can discover works on your own.
5 Places to Spot Street Art in Berlin
You don’t need to seek out graffiti to find it in Berlin. Just walk out the door and swivel your head. But, if you want to be a student of street art, then you may want to focus on just a few specific neighborhoods. That way you can take the time to really absorb the works.
East Side Wall and Friedrichschain
The East Side Wall is an open air gallery painted on a 1.5 kilometer section of intact Berlin Wall. It opened in 1990 with works from 118 artists from 22 countries. Many of the murals feature themes of freedom of expression or celebrate Berlin itself.
The East Side Gallery is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city, but I wouldn’t say that it offers the best examples of Berlin street art. Many of the murals seem to have been painted by artists not familiar with traditional street art techniques. The gallery is worth visiting because of the historical significance of the wall. And it’s fun to take a selfie in front of Dmitri Vrubel’s Fraternal Kiss.
But don’t stop there. Spend some time wandering the western side of the wall, which is covered in tags and wild style graffiti.
Just north of the East Side Gallery, you’ll find a series of murals tucked into the courtyards just west of Holzmarktstrasse (between the World Trash Center and YAAM).
Now, go a bit further east and check out the blocks just east of the Warschauer Strasse S-Bahn station. At the center of the action is Urban Spree. They curate urban art exhibitions and murals, and they host music events. Their courtyard is a melange of curated murals and guerrilla graffiti. The alleyways just east of Urban Nation feature a delightfully messy mix of murals, paste-ups and stickers.
This MTO mural is entitled “Publicity”. He skillfully incorporated his street art figure into a wall with existing ads. It’s a statement on consumerism and he is concerned about the gentrification in Berlin.
“It is well known that large-scale “street-art” muralism has generated an increasing interest from city councils and real estate investors all over the world, as the practice now plays integral part in the gentrification process.”Berlin street artist MTO
Sobr has pasted up his dancing figures all over Berlin, and there are quite a few near Urban Spree. He photographed these very real people while out clubbing. He then did his magic on them by transforming the images into paste-ups.
Kreuzberg is one cool neighborhood. The gentrification that MTO was worried about has hit Kreuzberg hard. But this also means that there are ethnic restaurants, parks and beer gardens in the area. In fact simply hanging out in the neighborhood is one of the coolest things to do in Berlin.
The neighborhood has an interesting mix of large scale murals and gritty guerrilla works.
Os Gemeos is a Brazilian partnership between two identical twins. They often feature yellow-skinned characters who are attempting to navigate their landscape. Down the left, you’ll also see a set of hieroglyphic-looking characters which is a signature move by Berlin Kidz. a prolific Berlin crew.
Hackescher Markt in Mitte
Most of the Hackescher Markt features pretty little shops and cafes with tree lined courtyards and shady benches. But tuck into the alley near the Anne Frank Zentrum and you’ll get a much grittier experience.
On your way over, take time to poke around under the nearby U-Bahn rail tracks and you’ll find a lot of graffiti. Then head over to the alley.
This L-shaped space has a mix of graffiti and commissioned murals along the east wall. You can also visit the Neuro Titan gallery, which curates urban art. The stairway up to the gallery is sticker-central and be sure to poke your head out the gallery window for a good look at some murals in the courtyard below.
While there, make time for the Monsterkabinett. It’s a strange performance exhibit with animatronic monsters with an improbable story-line. It’s goofy and totally worth it.
Shöneberg and Urban Nation
If you are more a fan of big pretty murals from world class international artists, then be sure to hit up Shöneberg. The center of street art action in the neighborhood is the Urban Nation museum. The museum opened in 2013 and has a mission to transform Berlin’s facades into a giant outdoor gallery.
They do work all over the city (and even helped to get a street art movement started in Reykjavik). However, their biggest impact has been in the area right around the museum.
Stop into the museum first to get some eye candy from their resident artists and permanent exhibits. Then head out into the streets. There is a cluster of murals between the Nollendorfplatz and Bülowstrasse U-Bahn stations, and also down the surrounding streets.
This facade features four skinny murals that all share a similar color palette. These two guys have been busy. I’ve also seen D*Face pop up in in Paris and Shepard Fairey has been making the rounds at street art festivals. They both have street art books out and this sort of large scale exposure is good for their marketability.
Like Berlin Kidz, 1UP is another famous Berlin crew. They are fearless about scaling up (or repelling down) buildings to spray their gigantic tags. They don’t do pretty portraits, but you have to admire them for their ballsy location choices.
The artist 1010 specializes in trippy three dimensional murals. They are a stylized form of a black hole. Maybe these are the rabbit holes referenced in the Alice in Wonderland poster above.
Portuguese artist Vhils is all about texture. He uses no paint at all, but rather adds plaster to existing surfaces. He then chisels away the plaster to reveal a portrait underneath. In this case, it’s a representation of a local club bouncer.
This beautiful polar bear is worth noting for both its message and its medium. He used a mixed medium of advertising inserts, glue and paint to make the a point that “over consumption is killing us”.
Teufelsberg Listening Station
Take a half day to visit Teufelsberg. It’s an old listening and broadcasting post used by the US during the cold war. They used the station to listen in on Eastern European signals and also broadcast US propaganda into the east. It was abandoned by the Americans when the cold war ended.
Teufelsberg been unofficially taken over by a collective of street artists, URBEX fanatics and entrepreneurs. You pay a small fee to enter and you can wander freely around the site. They even have a little barbecue joint where you can get food and drink.
You can’t currently climb the large white tower, but some of the buildings are open and you can walk the entire site.
Plan for a 35 minute train ride into the suburbs and then a 30 minute walk through the woods to the site. Give yourself at least two hours once there.
Take a Berlin Graffiti and Street Art Tour
You can see all of this Berlin street art on your own…but you’ll learn more on a tour. I took several different tours with Alternative Berlin. They have actual street artists leading the tours and they even offer a stenciling session in their studio.
Book the Alternative Berlin tour here.
Galleries Featuring Urban Art and Berlin Graffiti Artists
- Neurotitan Gallery: Features installed works and outdoor murals by international artists. Located in Mitte.
- Urban Spree: Murals, graffiti, exhibitions and music concerts. Located in Friedrichshain.
- Museum of Stickers: A street art supply store that also features an expanding array of stickers. Located in Friedrichshain.
- Let it Bleed Gallery: An art print shop featuring local artists. In Kreuzberg.
When I took a recent street art tour in Melbourne, my tour guide proclaimed that “street art in Berlin is dead”. Clearly, he hasn’t been to Berlin lately. The scene there is very much alive and it’s spreading like a spilled can of paint, oozing into the cracks all over Berlin.
Find More Great Global Street Art
Study great street art in other cities by checking out my guides to:
Top Street Art Cities in the World | Books About Street Art|Street Art Festivals | Buenos Aires | Bogota | San Diego | San Francisco | Los Angeles |Nashville | Chicago | New York | Havana | London | Reykjavik | Belfast | Bristol | Berlin | Paris | Estonia | Rural Australia | Melbourne
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