For Berlin’s latest and coolest attraction, head for The Haus. In a derelict building that used to house a bank, 80 former offices have been given over to 170 street artists from 17 countries. A stairwell is emblazoned with a peace dove, its feathers crafted from thin strips of tape. On the adjoining wall, a spray-painted wolf leaps toward the bird. Downstairs are graffiti paintings of aliens; a neighboring room is wallpapered with moss. Crowds of visitors wander from room to room, taking in the art and chatting with its creators. Sic transit Gloria mundi. In July, only a few weeks after it first opened its doors, The Haus will be closed and the entire building torn down.
Gritty, quirky, ephemeral – The Haus is a perfect metaphor for Berlin and its vibrant urban art scene. Visitors snake around the block to see the exhibition, organized by graffiti artists Marco Bollenbach, Jörn Reiners and Kimo von Rekowski. Renting the temporary space from the developer who owns the building, the trio wanted to create a tribute to Berlin’s status as a mecca for street artists from around the world. But if The Haus is doomed, so too, is Berlin’s role as a honeypot for the poor but imaginative. The city is growing by leaps and bounds, construction projects are filling in the empty lots and gentrification is advancing into every nook and cranny. Murals are whitewashed or disappear behind newly erected buildings, and the abandoned buildings that serve as street artist’s canvases fall victim to the wrecking ball.
But what a glorious era it was. It all started with a bang in 1961, the year the communist authorities in East Berlin built the infamous wall that slashed through the heart of the city. Soon, the wall’s western side became the world’s most famous graffiti canvas, drawing an international who’s who of artists who came to the city to create iconic works, beautifying a uniquely hideous landmark. And unlike in other cities, the local authorities let the sprayers be. (Only the western side of the wall was painted. The eastern side was a heavily-guarded death strip, where East German border guards had orders to shoot anyone approaching the wall on sight.) Painters included greats like Keith Haring and Jim Avignon, artists whose work adorned alfresco walls but also hung in museums.
And that was just the beginning. When the Wall came down in 1989, the entire eastern half of the city suddenly became a canvas. Urban blight, crumbling buildings, ruins untouched since World War II – the post-communist East became irresistible for sprayers. They scaled the walls to create their images, or crept into subway tunnels to paint their tags on trains. Vivid murals spread across houses, bridges and subway tunnels. The scene recalled New York’s exuberance during the troubled but creative 1980s. Artists and adventurers from all corners of the earth flocked to Berlin, drawn by the empty spaces and cheap rents, as well as by the raw energy that suffused the city. In the words of the city’s former mayor, Klaus Wowereit, Berlin was “poor, but sexy.”
But it’s a charm fading fast. Similar to New York, post-Wall Berlin is gradually falling victim to its own success. A decade-long building boom is filling in the empty spaces. One iconic wall mural – an elaborate set of political cartoons admired daily by thousands of rail commuters approaching Zoo station – is disappearing behind a seven-story hotel. Spiraling rents, up more than 50 percent since 2004, have squeezed out the artists as gentrification spreads across district after district. Berlin’s street art now features in standard guided tours, as much a monument to a lost counterculture as evidence of a cutting-edge art scene.
Not that artists are taking the slow destruction of their habitat without a fight. Along with some politicians, they are pressing for UNESCO to protect the so-called East Side Gallery – a richly graffitied 1.3-kilometer stretch of the Wall, now crumbling fast and endangered by souvenir hunters. In a dramatic gesture three years ago, artist Lutz Henke, one of the creators of a famous set of murals in Berlin’s rapidly gentrifying Kreuzberg district, helped to paint over his own work. It was a protest, he says, against the “zombification” of a city where street art is “preserved as an amusement for those who can afford the rising rents.” The images, Henke says, represent a fading era in Berlin’s history. It was time for them to “vanish.”
If Berlin wants to keep something of its old creative throb, it no longer has space – real or figurative – for many of the artists who once lent the city its gritty energy and character. When The Haus closes to visitors in July, the site will be rebuilt as luxury apartments and modish shops. A new era has begun.
Allison Williams writes for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org