I am staying in former East Berlin and street art is everywhere. It’s not something that I know much about, as the trend hasn’t reached the far lands of Vancouver. I’m not sure that my Vancouver neighbours would agree that it can be as striking as our ocean and mountain scenery.
It used to be called graffiti, but that term is now only used to describe art that vandalizes property. (It’s probably still called graffiti by those who hate it.) Street art varies quite a bit – from a small drawing to a picture that covers the side of an entire building. I stumbled upon an area in Friedrichshain that is a mecca for street artists. The area used to be a railway yard, and covers about 3 or 4 square blocks. There are maybe 20 ramshackle buildings there, and all are bars and clubs that come alive late at night when I’m already tucked in bed. Every inch of every building is covered in art. It’s a colourful and delicious blur to the eye, especially in such an otherwise drab setting.
I happened upon a young man, “Falkland”, who was painting the side of a building the size of a warehouse. I stopped to chat while he was taking a break from work. He was creating a black and white painting of a cowboy who had been shot, and falling backwards. It was an impressive image – detailed and in perfect perspective. Hard to do, I would think, with a 40 ft tall canvas. He was painting with a large brush at the time, but had a bucket full of supplies like spray paint, paint cans, and various brushes.
I had just read an article, Wild West Germany, in a recent issue of the New Yorker. Had I not read that article, I would have been puzzled at Falkland’s choice of subject. Apparently Germans have had a long-standing love affair with cowboys of the Wild West. In fact, some would say they are somewhat obsessed with it. It started with the novels of Karl May from the late 19th century. Over 300 million of his novels have been sold and they are better known to the Germans than the works of Thomas Mann. Every year in northern Germany there is a Karl May festival visited by over 300,000 people. I asked Falkland if he had read Karl May’s novels as a child, and he admitted (somewhat sheepishly) that he had.
Falkland hopes to become famous some day. He is studying communications at school, but likes to take a break from tedious computer work. He had been commissioned to paint the building, and was honoured to have been offered the work. It was an acknowledgement that he stood out among the hundreds of other street artists in Berlin. No fee had been mentioned in the negotiations, but he hoped that he would be paid for his time. I got the impression that the exposure and recognition was far more important to him than the money. His ultimate fantasy is to be invited around the world just to paint buildings. It would be enough if his expenses were paid, as that would allow him to travel the world and do what he loves to do. He had recently been to Cuba and did some street painting there. He was not asked to do it, but says the residents loved his work and encouraged him to paint whatever he wanted in their neighbourhood.
Given the prevalence and tendencies of Berlin street artists, I asked Falkland if he was concerned that his work might be defaced. He knows that it will be defaced with graffiti as soon as he’s finished. However, he thinks it will be restricted to the landscape, which is closer to the ground. When I asked why anyone would do that to another artist’s work, he said it’s because they are sending him a message: he has sold out by doing a commissioned work. I asked how he would feel when that happened, and he had quite a philosophical view of it all. He knows that nothing lasts forever. His work is just there until it disintegrates with the weather or until someone else obliterates it. I suggested that it was kind of like a Buddhist sand painting. He gave me a miniscule smile in response – the first in our long conversation.