“This is actually the street art capital of the world,” a walking tour guide casually mentions. As she gestures to samples of Berlin graffiti covering houses, office buildings, bridges, and nearly every piece of concrete in the city.
It’s hard not to notice all the graffiti in Berlin, and it’s easy to believe the tour guide’s claim.
From the remnants of the wall that once divided the city in half to the gigantic murals on the sides of buildings, graffiti artists have had their way with Berlin. For street artists, this is a Graffiti Mecca.
For the young traveler, it’s a new world of experimental art.
Why is There so Much Graffiti in Berlin?
Part of the beauty behind the graffiti in Berlin is that it’s helping to save the city. Berlin is deeply in debt, and while the street art isn’t technically legal, it does draw tourists, boosting the local economy.
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Sure, the street art might be a crime, but it’s not a top priority for Berlin law enforcement. The rise of street art in Berlin can be — at least partially — attributed to the small police task force.
A police task force assigned to public defacement crimes in comparison to the hundred of artists who live in or visit the city every day.
Maybe it’s not a state-sponsored crime, but it’s one that Berliners more or less wink and smile at.
Berlin Wall Graffiti
Graffiti artists have been heavily “bombing” the city since 1961, when the Soviet Union laid the Berlin Wall across Germany’s capital city. The wall was a symbol of division that frustrated both West and East Berliners, but while East Berliners could never get very close to the wall, in West Berlin, a passerby could walk up and touch it — and sometimes those passersby had paint.
By the 1970s, impassioned artists had plastered the western side of the wall with impassioned messages of frustration and a longing for resolve.
After the wall fell, pieces of it remained, and 118 international artists made their mark together on what was once a symbol of division. Berlin Wall graffiti is another reason for the insane amount of urban art in the city; graffiti is in the city’s blood.
The wall has been and continues to be repainted, but some pieces of art have become famous and remain intact. East Side Gallery, the longest remaining stretch of the wall, contains fantastic pieces you’re likely to see in postcards and on travel sites. Art covers both sides of the wall at East Side Gallery.
Famous Berlin Graffiti
Berlin Street Art – Cosmonaut
Thought by many to be the largest stencil in the world, French artist Victor Ash’s Cosmonaut has bounded through space towards pedestrians since 2003. In the Kreuzburg district, it’s a landmark visible from far off and synonymous with the Berlin graffiti scene.
After Ash initially painted the Cosmonaut, more experimental artists added a sort of “moondust” to the bottom left corner of the building that serves as the canvas. A different approach to graffiti, this airbrush style is achieved through filling a fire extinguisher with paint and re-pressuring it. Yes, it’s dangerous. Yes, it’s pretty badass.
Berlin Street Graffiti – Yellow Man
Created by twins Otavo and Gustavo Pandolfo, this man with yellow skin stands several stories high. Known for their oddly-proportioned human figures, the brothers have left their mark on several cities, from their home in Sao Paulo, Brazil, to New York City, to Berlin.
Berlin Graffiti Works by Blu
A contemporary of celebrated street artist Banksy, Italian artist Blu’s work can be found in many places throughout Berlin. In Friedrichshain, you can see a large human figure comprised of several smaller pink, naked figures.
At previous border checkpoints, you can see “Brothers,” two figures trying to remove each other’s masks and holding up their fingers in gestures of “E” for East and “W” for west.
Next to the brothers, Blu created a wall mural of a man with two gold watches chained together like handcuffs.
ROA Berlin Graffiti mural
Belgian-born artist ROA is famous for his use of gray color palettes and animal carcasses. In Kreuzburg, he has created a mural featuring the dead bodies of a rabbit, bird, deer, and ram. This detailed mural is striking, provocative, and hard to miss.
Bonus: Heaven Spotting
On the same building as ROA’s mural, you can see famous Heaven spotting work “Love Art Hate Cops”. Kreuzburg was the scene of riots in the late 1980s, and tensions between the artist community and the police force run high. Heaven spotters created this piece after the death of a local artist. Heaven spotting is the process of writing graffiti on the eaves of buildings and involves two people. One holds the other’s ankles and they dangle from the roof, wielding a paint roller gaff-taped to a stick to write graffiti. As you might imagine, this can sometimes be dangerous — even fatal — thus the name.
Berlin Graffiti Tours
If you’re interested in seeing the graffiti in Berlin for yourself, alternative walking tours are easy to find, and several even begin at hostels. The guides are not only knowledgeable about the graffiti in Berlin but are also artists themselves. If you’re trying to immerse yourself in the Berlin art community, these tours are a good place to start. They are also a good way to appreciate the rest of the city of Berlin.
A Berlin graffiti tour will highlight points of interest to the counter-culture in Berlin, and for a traveler more interested in learning what it’s like to be a local in city, an alternative tour like this is a good place to start. Find a tour here.
A friend of mine compared Berlin to the quiet kid in high school who sits in the back of class, wears all black, and has tattoos. You don’t know their whole story, but you know this kid has seen a lot. Berlin has seen a lot, and the graffiti tattooed on most of the buildings helps a city that has witnessed the best and worst of humanity to tell its stories. It’s worth an afternoon to walk around and experience.