There is a chap, I am told, who wanders around Berlin by bicycle painting the number six everywhere he can. He has been doing this for a very long time. When questioned, at length, and the layers of slight madness are peeled back, a reason for his number painting is given. It is, apparently, to improve the working of the internet.
This was just one of the facts I learnt on the tour I took on my first full day in Berlin, which promised to show me the alternative parts of the city. Some would suggest that I should see the non-alternative parts of the city first before moving on to artists squats and bombed out train stations, but there we are.
Anyway. The day dawned fabulously, one of those clear and cold autumnal days where you can see your breath and the colours are almost forcing themselves into the back of your eyeballs against a staggeringly blue sky. The sort of day you would hope to have when wandering a new city.
I met my guide, and fellow guidees, underneath the giant radio tower which can be seen from pretty much everywhere in the city. Given that it is the tallest structure in Germany, this is not a huge surprise. I am not really one who usually does tours - normally I prefer to just wander a city by myself with a guide book at my own pace, taking shots as I go, and not feeling hurried along or as if I am missing things. I am absolutely delighted I didn’t follow this policy for my alternative tour of Berlin.
The tour started promisingly. Our dreadlocked Kiwi guide Ben had lived in the city for three years, and had a serious passion for street art. Add this to the fact that there were only six of us on the tour, and the whole thing felt like we were a group of friends out for a wander in a new city where one of us happened to be more knowledgeable than the rest.
Our tour took us from Alexanderplatz and out towards the North of the city, to a small alleyway called the Hoff. Sadly no imagery of the man himself appeared to be present. Along the way our guide talked to us about the various street artists and “crews” who worked the city. I haven’t mentioned this before, but street art (or graffiti, the line is blurry), is a big thing in Germany. It is literally everywhere, ranging from the basic tags through to highly detailed and complex murals. And Berlin, it turns out, is the epicentre of this art form.
The Hoff was a small, fairly dark alley, lined from wall to wall with pretty amazing art. Our guide explained the different techniques that were used, from stencils to pasting, and then let us goggle for a while.
There was plenty to goggle at. I am far from an expert on art, how art is defined, and the various skill levels involved, however I’m pretty sure nearly everything we were looking at was pretty amazing. Which was good.
After the Hoff we headed on, past the new Synagogue and to a giant, seemingly derelict building called Tacheles. Contrary to appearance, this building is alive and well, housing a number of artists within it’s colourfully painted walls.
There is an outdoor beach bar (Berlin seems big on beach bars despite not being near the sea) as well as five floors of art. Every square inch of wall space is covered in paint. It would take forever to look at all the imagery. Sadly we didn’t have forever, so after a while wandering around, mouths still largely agape, we moved on.
Our tour then took us through parts of Berlin that even a decade ago would have been seriously dangerous. We were shown the positive effects of street art, with one high rise building complex featuring an art project with over fifty faces painted around it’s base area. This, we were informed, had really helped turn a dodgy area around, and now it was as safe to wander as the rest of Berlin. Impressive stuff. Almost as impressive as the faces that were drawn. One in particular stood out, of an Asian boy. His eyes literally drilled out of the brickwork and into my soul. Haunting stuff.
Again, we moved on. We caught one of Berlin’s overground trains, which took us past massive murals which covered the entire sides of buildings. One of an astronaut, done to look like a stencil, particularly stood out.
When we got off the train, in the eastern end of the city, we were led to an old train depot and station. This had been a point of critical wartime importance and as a result had been largely bombed into nothing by the allies. What remains now are the hollowed out shells of buildings.
Amazingly, instead of just a giant derelict lot, this space has again been transformed by the community. Originally the site of illegal dance parties, where the only access was through a trapdoor of the toilets in the nearby kebab house, it now hosts a huge skatepark, art spaces, a climbing wall, bars and clubs. Quite wonderful stuff, with amazing street art all around again.
Our last part of the tour took us to the worlds only sticker museum, where we were given free tea, and the tour ended. I thanked, and tipped (the tour is free, tips are optional and are how the guide makes his money) Ben, our wonderful guide, gawked at the immense sticker collection for a while, before heading back into Berlin for a general wander, including a look at the East Side Gallery, the site of a part of the former Berlin Wall, now given over to, you guessed it, street art.
If you enjoyed this post, you may want to look at the rest of the posts from my trip to Berlin, where I take in the classic sites, including the Brandenberg Gate and the Holocaust memorial.
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