It was about half noon or so that I walked into Murphy’s Irish Pub on Friedrichstrasse. It was warm, mild and slightly overcast on my first day in Berlin. I realised I’d succumbed to being one of those tourists I hate that flock towards familiarity. Here I was, sitting on a table overlooking the Spree River and the hustle and bustle of the city centre sipping on Irish red ale.
I quickly forgave myself upon considering my journey so far. My flight the night before had been delayed by three hours; my prebooked transfer didn’t bother to check my flight situation so I was left stranded in a strange city at 1:30am. Luckily taxis were readily available from the terminal and I had a lovely driver pointing out what sites he could in the dark as he drove to my hotel.
A short sleep later, exhausted, excited and a little nervous I had set out on foot with a pocket map and wide eyed intentions on my first solo holiday experience. I’d chosen Berlin because I’ve wanted to go for years and knew with the history of the city there would be plenty to see and do. I’d spent my first morning visiting the Topography of Terror, followed by the Memorial to Murdered Jews and the Brandenburg Gate before navigating my way into the centre of town.
I had a tour booked in the afternoon and the meeting point was behind a train station so I got to the area super early in case I got lost (since I bare the sarcastic title of “Captain Sense of Direction” this was highly likely) and found where I was meant to meet the guide and my fellow tourists. Until then I was content to nurse a pint and do some people watching. (There were loads of bees flying around so questioned my decision to sit outside)
Finding my group, our guide Greg, herded us all to the station since we’d be taking a train to the start of our walking tour in the area of Kreuzberg. The focus of the tour was street art which is an ever changing subject since some of the pieces are commissioned, but many are not and therefore illegal and subject to being painted over or defaced.
The first artwork our band of 20 or so were shown was named by Greg as the Putin Angel; an illegal work which impressively appeared overnight on the side of an apartment building. Since then it has had tags appear near it as well as what looks like paint balls shot at it.
Greg spoke about street art developing out of hip hop culture in America and first being classed as vandalism. He said he couldn’t point out where the crossover happened for it to become political and social commentary and now considered (by some) as an art form. As we walked to our next site I asked Greg if he knew Samo, and mentioned in my humble opinion that was a point where graffiti was taken to another level of expression by the phrases and provocative thoughts painted on dilapidated environments in New York.
Venturing deeper in the area we stopped on a little traffic island next to a canal where Greg told us that the wall had existed immediately next to that spot. Due to the existing canal and difficulties drawing an actual border, the traffic island on which we were standing became a kind of no man’s land, belonging to East Germany, but technically situated in West Berlin. In 1983 a man named Osman Kalin came along and claimed it for himself and started a garden in the space. He then collected scrap materials and built a small dwelling under the watchful eye of the East German guards. The dwelling grew into a hut and then a house which wrapped around a tree, and what stands there today is known as the Treehouse on the Wall. This quaint building still belongs to the Kalin family and is a landmark in the area.
We made a pit stop at a local shop to buy a beer, since drinking in the street was condoned, if not encouraged, and paused near the SO36 club. This small club is a sort of ‘rite of passage’ music venue and has played host to many famous bands including some of my favourites, Rammstein and Einstürzende Neubauten .
A banner had been draped across the outside of a building behind us of the word ‘Google’ crossed through, telling us exactly the anti-corporate vibe of the area. I started to feel right at home, especially with a Pilsner in my hand. The art work we were due to see at that point – Jack Nicholson peering out of the wall reminiscent of that famous still from The Shining – had actually been painted over so we moved on to see some commissioned works.
It was at this point the rain started to come down, and while only a shower, I was glad I was prepared with an umbrella. As we made our way between works by various artists, one of whom was ROA who’s work I had seen in London, our guide said a work had appeared that was debated as to whether or not it belonged to Banksy. It was a little walk from where we were standing so we did our best to keep up and keep together.
I could hear music at one point and thought it was coming out of a window somewhere. We turned a corner and walked straight into a parade. Vehicles were surrounded by thousands of revelers processing down the street – thumping out loud and bass heavy house music. The parade, as explained by Greg, was about Love and I considered leaving the tour and just joining the procession since it reminded me so much of Pride. The atmosphere was wonderful and wild.
I don’t recall much of Greg’s art explanations after that, other than we’d stopped by walls that had once been painted by French artist Blu, but he had subsequently painted over them himself. I was distracted by the festivities surrounding us, but I do recall the last work we were guided to, known as The Leviathan.
A haunting work that could be interpreted in many subjective ways, it certainly had an affect on me. Considering the nationalist political vibe in Europe that scarily seems to be gaining momentum; a depiction of singling out ‘the other’ and separating them, scapegoating and sacrificing them and the masses remaining ignorant seemed poignant. Those were my immediate thoughts at least, and I pondered how amazing the afternoon had been as we made our way to our end point, the famous East End Gallery.
Deciding not to walk the kilometre or so of remaining wall that had been painted by artists’ that afternoon and save it for another day, I made my way to a station and headed back to my hotel. Considering I’d walked over 12km on about 5 hours sleep my aching feet wanted a rest and I wanted a shower, some dinner and an early night. I also needed some time to digest a thoroughly wonderful, emotional and thought provoking day. I wasn’t sure I would be able to beat it, but I was going to try.