Berlin is the home of street art and creative graffiti. If you’ve been following my posts, you’ll already have glimpsed the East Side Gallery: though that is planned and curated.
Away from the city centre, street art is so much a part of Berlin life that walking tour companies vie with each other to show visitors the edgiest and grittiest current manifestations of this vibrant art form. Even big companies climb on the band wagon. Back in the early years of this century, Nike paid for this piece.
Somehow, global companies making use of a movement powered from the bottom up seems slightly to be missing the point.
Quite suddenly and unexpectedly, one night in 1961, Berlin became a divided city. At first there was merely barbed wire fencing, then a wall. It was all done in such a hurry that mistakes were made. One tiny part of Kreuzberg that belonged to the Eastern sector got isolated in the West. The Americans – for it was in their zone – could do nothing about this unremarkable patch. It became an unloved and unlovely rubbish dump.
Then along came Osman Kalin, an immigrant Turk. He wanted a vegetable patch. He cleared the land and started to plant seeds. As his patch became productive, he gave vegetables to schools, to the local church, to anyone in need. He cobbled together a rather ramshackle tree house. He became something of a local hero.
Initially, the East didn’t mind. But when East Berliners successfully started to tunnel under his patch and escape he came under suspicion. The authorities came to interrogate him, and he welcomed them in his usual hospitable way. They gave up and left him alone.
In 1989, the Wall fell. A newly united Berlin City Council began to see Osman’s ramshackle domain as an embarrassment. They gave him notice to quit. The local and wider community was horrified. 25,000 people signed a petition demanding he be allowed to go on growing his vegetables.
He stayed. He’s 95 now, and doesn’t work so much on his vegetable patch, though his son does. He lives in a flat nearby rather than in the tree house. He’s still a much-loved local hero.
I heard this story on a walking tour offered by Alternative Berlin Tours, led by the remarkable and endlessly interesting Dave. Very highly recommended.
Here we are in Berlin. Before we arrived, I imagined that even some thirty years after the fall of the wall dividing east from West Berlin, we’d be able to tell which zone we were in. The east would still be full of Stalinist architecture, and look, well, shabbier, surely?
The Plus Hotel, once a school of textile design.
No. Not at all. We’re staying in a cracking looking hotel and hostel that used to be a textile school. We learnt that we were along the road from the East Side Gallery. An art gallery? That’s nice.
You’ll find your way to the ‘gallery’ by following the stencilled signs on the pavement.
But this is a gallery like no other. The canvas on which the invited artists worked is the wall, the actual Berlin Wall. Walk along the streets which line the route of what’s left of the wall and you’ll see painting after commissioned painting with the artist’s own thoughts provoked by the wall and its demise. It’s angry, gritty, colourful, and provokes conversation among passers by. We plan to return tomorrow for a more considered visit.