Berlin's graffiti-art underbelly

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This is no ordinary romp through Berlin. A transplanted Californian called Summer Banks, a stand-up comic by night and city tour guide by day, leads curious and slightly adventuresome tourists on a search for the finer examples of graffiti art and alternative living in the squats of the trendy and, in some ways, still-divided German capital.

Summer's stand-up routine is called "Comedy Gone Wild" and she's making them laugh every third Saturday at the Comedy Club Kookaburra. After a five-minute introduction there is little doubt that her tour will also be pretty wild. Her show's brochure says the comedy will be "uncensored." Ditto her tour commentary.

A fine arts graduate, Summer is on a mission in her adopted city. She sees herself as a defender of the quirky underground arts crowd that gravitates to various European capitals dubbed "cool" by their peers. Berlin is currently in the cool category.

The 3 ½-hour tour costs 12 euros (10 for students). That's about $15 to "delve into the city's amazing history from the darkest hours to the brightest moments," says the tour company website. Highlights include "Street art and graffiti, back streets and abandoned ruins, corporate expansion vs. counter-culture, urban conflict zones."

Summer's job is to show us "the side of Berlin you won't find in guidebooks." That means slipping quietly into the subculture that gave West Berlin its cult status before reunification. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it spread to the east where you can now "explore the gritty, grungy underground of the city that Berliners love." But where once a wall divided the city, Summer will show us that the division continues on other cultural levels.

Our first stop is a former squat called Tacheles which now is a semi-legitimized home and workplace to various street artists. Here you can buy graffiti art on posters, postcards and even in sculpture form. The halls and stairwells are covered in comic book-style images such as Lucy the cat decapitator. One artist in the former department store sat amidst his favourite and possibly his only sculpture subject, female genitalia. It's definitely underground but a far cry from Banksy, the British graffiti artist who has gained international fame for his politically inspired work.

At the next stop, City Cinema, we saw examples of tags, stickers, stencils and adbusters as well as some nifty metal sculptures, one of a giant dragon that flaps its wings if you insert a Euro. The number ‘6' appeared on a nearby wall outside. "That's Sixman," Summer explained. "No one knows who he is or where he lives but he paints the number '6' everywhere he goes. Some say he's a fat and balding middle-aged businessman who gets his kicks with six."

Summer cautioned us not to take photographs at the next stop "out of respect for their privacy." Down a narrow back street sat an abandoned building with foul language spray-painted on it. "It will soon be torn down and replaced with a modern building," she lamented, and the squatters will move on to their next derelict home.

After that we hopped on a bus, then strolled the rest of the way to the next stop, passing a fast-food stand that announced itself with an American flag flying atop a giant papier-mâché hotdog. Its kitsch not art, but somehow it fit the mood on this bright summer day in what was once a colourless and repressed East Germany.

There are plenty of other forms of kitsch out on the street near tourist-infested Checkpoint Charlie where the crowds are accosted by vendors selling Russian fur hats and Soviet memorabilia. Men in East German military uniforms will pose for photos at two Euros a shot. Close by is a remaining section of the wall and beside it a photo gallery called the "Topography of Terror" offers a horrifying glimpse of what the murderous Nazi Gestapo and SS did from 1933 to 1945 during Hitler's Third Reich.

There's also the Berlin Wall itself. Fragments of it stand here and there as reminders of the Cold War and how close it came to being a hot war at times. You can even buy a piece of the wall inserted into a colourful postcard or view some of the artwork that embellished the western side while the east side remained solid white. Graffiti artists and their squats were verboten in the former East Berlin.

The hotdog stand beckoned to some of us since it promised to provide a sampling of the most fiercely competitive fast-food item in the city and possibly the country, currywurst. They may not be selling ‘billions and billions' quite yet but street vendors of the popular snack -- a single sausage covered in tomato sauce and sprinkled with curry powder -- are giving American junk food outlets like McDonald's a run for their euros these days. The culinary phenomenon now is being celebrated - and promoted - with its own museum.

Summer hustled us off to where we could see a rooftop adorned with a slogan similar to ‘make art not war' that had been painted high enough to avoid being over-painted for a time. Graffiti art has a short life-span, she said. Artists paint over top of previous works and "crews" of graffiti artists sabotage the work of other gangs. It's a subculture on a mission but its goal is unclear other than to get noticed by shocking passersby or lashing out at The Man.

At one stop we were told that a rich man had bought the building and wiped out all the graffiti art that once adorned it. Summer blasted this desecration. Freedom is the message she wants the art to convey and to her its removal represented a corporate attack. Her website biography says she "fell madly in love with the city's crazy brew of art, architecture and angst."

We went by metro to the last stop on the tour. Kreuzberg, a community with a strong Turkish element, is also home to a young alternative crowd, one that has been known to shun too much westernization including the arrival of a McDonald's. Here the sidewalk cafes seem to outnumber the tourists at times and the food smells enticingly good.

After viewing some riverbank sculptures and observing a huge new stadium sitting alone on the east side of the river, Summer sat us down for a final lesson in the appreciation of Berlin's alternative art scene. In fact it was a lecture on the politics behind the art. The spot has been carefully chosen. It is in a working-class area of the former East Berlin. The stadium strikes a pose as the epitome of corporate modernization and Summer couldn't hide her disdain for what she sees as a community-destroying force.

"If you only take one thing away from today," she said wiggling her toes in the sand at an outdoor volleyball court on the east bank of the Spree River. "Remember that these artists are asking us to make a choice between corporate communities and people ones." This is the corporate vs. counter-culture part of the tour. This is an element of the New Berlin divided not be a concrete wall but by competing philosophies about what it should become.

"We have a choice to make," she said. "We either want a human community where people are free to share their art and their lives or we want that." She pointed to the austere stadium as an example of what she abhors. "Totally uncool."

Not far away are the former headquarters of the notorious Stazi, the secret police who terrorized people during the Soviet era. Maybe the bold graffiti and street art we've seen are a response to those repressive years. Maybe it is a way of exorcising the collective guilt that must infest the German psyche.

Nearby, a group of hostellers climb aboard one of two hostels floating on the Spree. One is dubbed 'East' and the other 'West'. Tourists probably don't notice the graffiti all around them. If they did, it might strike them as art in a city bulging with classic specimens of traditional art some of it by renowned local artist Kathe Kollwitz. For Summer it represents a new world and new freedom in an old city that is 'cool' for the moment.

Ron Verzuh is a Vancouver writer and historian. He visited Berlin in August 2010.

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