January 20, 2011

Street Art: From Berlin to Brooklyn

By Julia Ferrante

On a building close to the former Berlin Wall, a mural stretching more than four stories shows two masked men, one upended and forming an "E" with his fingers and the other displaying a "W" with his hand.

The mural, painted by Italian graffiti artist Blu during the 2007 Urban Grassroots: Planet Prozess exhibition, presumably represents the reunification of East and West Berlin.

"The two Germanys are trying to take each other's masks off," explained Bastian Heinsohn, an assistant professor of German at Bucknell University who studies graffiti, or street art, in Berlin and other cities in the midst of revitalization. "They are looking at one another, maybe trying to get to know each other."

Street art is an integral part of the landscape in Germany's capital city, which has undergone a dramatic urban transformation since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the formal reunification of East and West in 1990, Heinsohn said. The mural by Blu, which stands in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, also is indicative of both legal and illegal art that speaks against globalization and gentrification. Kreuzberg is one of several areas of Berlin where modest housing and traditional corner bars are being displaced by stark, high-rise office buildings, townhouses and sushi bars.

"My approach to street art is to read it as text and to examine what it means in the context of urban space," Heinsohn said. "The street is a public gallery for creative work where everybody can express their voice, but it is not static. It might be gone the next day. It shows how you can perceive your urban environment in a different way."

Endless canvas
Graffiti and street art as commentary on redevelopment is not just happening in Berlin. The phenomenon also is occurring in parts of Rio de Janeiro; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Brooklyn, N.Y.; and other areas that teeter between redevelopment and gentrification, Heinsohn said. The blank walls of abandoned and half-deconstructed buildings in Berlin, however, provide seemingly endless canvas for both sanctioned and illegal art. The art comes in forms ranging from large murals to sprayed stencils, scratched graffiti, paste-ups, cut-outs, stickers and slogans such as "Reclaim your city" and "Diese Stadt ist gekauft," which means "This city is bought."

During the 20 years since its reunification, Berlin had to catch up, Heinsohn noted, and the rebuilding of the city has come with growing pains. Heinsohn plans to present his research findings in a talk, "Critical Voices from the Underground: Street Art and Urban Transformation in Berlin," at the Ninth International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities in June in Granada, Spain. He also is writing a book tentatively entitled "The Language of the Urban Street in German Cinema."

"The massive changes and transformations in the urban landscape have been answered by politicized forms of street art," he said. "My project is less about reading and interpreting the individual pieces rather than seeing them in the context of social commentary and as response to that urban transformation.

"Street art can even be considered an individual attempt at urban beautification in a city, especially in districts such as Kreuzberg, which is famous for its avant-garde, edgy and artsy flair," he said. "That area is increasingly becoming a space of large-scale projects, commercial and corporate buildings, urban renewal and gentrification."

The street in film
Heinsohn's study of street art is an extension of his research on urban streetscapes in German film. He is writing a book about the cinematic representation of Berlin from the 1920s to the present. The book in part will discuss how the street and street art defines or codes cities in film.

"If you want to find out the condition of a country at this moment, you have to look at the street," he said. "You express yourself in the street, and you see things in the street."

The portrayal of the street in German film has evolved with significant historical events, Heinsohn noted. Before the Berlin Wall, films showed East and West with transient borders. In the 1960s, urban streets largely disappeared from German film and instead were replaced with bucolic scenes, an apparent avoidance of the guilt and trauma of war. The street often sets the tone of a film. The view of a street from above can denote a period in history, the time of day or the mood of a city. The juxtaposition of images of torn and traumatized urban space with new buildings can suggest conflict with redevelopment.

A 'conversation' in the street
Street art can serve as part of a living commentary and conversation about what is happening in a city, especially a city in transformation, Heinsohn said. In the Greenpoint and Williamsburg sections of Brooklyn, N.Y., for instance, where abandoned warehouses sit next to new, nondescript loft apartments and offices, graffiti artists have painted elaborate and colorful murals.

"Warehouses that are about to be demolished are the perfect location for street art because the location is temporary and may be gone the next day," Heinsohn said. "This street art is not political. It is more a phenomenon that needs to be seen as the artist's giving his own expression to an area that is looking more and more plain with high-rise and glass-covered buildings. The new buildings are neat and clean and almost seem out of place. The old buildings are remnants of a past that is soon to be forgotten."

'City of Design'
In Berlin, as much as street art is an expression of the underground and anti-establishment, it is a tool for marketers to portray the city as gritty, edgy and modern. In fact, street art tours are offered in the city. And the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization named Berlin a "City of Design" because of its focus on the arts and design.

"There is no question that you will see street art in Berlin, because it's omnipresent," Heinsohn said. "Street and urban art are part of what makes Berlin Berlin, and it is part of the way the city markets itself. The image that the city is dirty or edgy sells better than the image of glass facades and skyscrapers. There is a creative look to the city but also a voice against what the city has turned into. Street art is a critical commentary on aspects of globalization and gentrification."

The blending of illegal and legal art is prevalent in Berlin, and enforcement against illegal art is inconsistent, especially in revitalized areas such as Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, Heinsohn said. The Blu mural, a legal piece, partially obscures an unsanctioned message commonly seen in Berlin: "Reclaim your city." The slogan "Clean is boring," painted on a new townhouse, may be removed or painted over, while a stencil of an intriguing female by the artist XOOOOX, with his signature assortment of X's and O's, may be preserved. XOOOOX critically comments on the fashion world in his work.

Underground goes mainstream
Organized events such as "Planet Prozess," in which 40 graffiti artists from around the world left their mark in the capital city, contribute to an irony that as street art has become more common and graffiti artists well-known, it has become trendy, Heinsohn said.

The street art world claims a number of well-known artists whose work on the street may be recognized through distinctive styles or signature tags. Probably the best-known among them is the British artist Banksy, who is famous for his politically charged stencil art, such as a piece on a wall in Palestine showing a young girl elevated by a bunch of helium-filled balloons, as if she will be lifted above the wall. The identity of Banksy, whose story was told in the movie "Exit Through the Gift Shop," is not known, but his work has been exhibited in The Tate Gallery in London among other prominent venues.

A renowned Parisian artist, JR, also conceals his identity but has won awards for his dramatic portrayal of the faces of poverty, painted on the closely stacked structures of the Favelas, the poorest residential area of Rio de Janeiro. His work also has been exhibited in galleries and sold for tens of thousands of dollars.

"There are definitely limits to street art," Heinsohn said. "In a way, they have to stay anonymous. What is the statement? It is not always radical or political in that it wants to change something but more an expression and adding something to the space. It is using public space as your own and giving new insight into the environment, examining things and questioning things and not taking things for granted."

Contact: Division of Communications

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