Walking through Berlin, I felt like I was transported into a surreal live-action, pop-up textbook. Everywhere I turned, history confronted me. Right in front of me was the symbol of French architectural opulence, the Brandenburg Gate. On the left of it was the famous Adlon Hotel, made popular by that famous moment in pop history where Michael Jackson dangled his child of the balcony. Just around the corner was the thought-provoking Holocaust Memorial that at once sunk me into depths of despair and awakened in me the kind of empathy that you seldom get to practice in these divisive times. A stone’s throw away was the last remaining freestanding remnant of the Berlin Wall, the contradictory symbol of division and then, of sheer human will. (Fun Fact: The song ‘Heroes’ was written by David Bowie, inspired by his long residence in West Berlin at that time.)
However, there is no greater symbol of Berlin’s historic past than the art it has helped inspire – be it the hastily scribbled graffiti on the side of the trains, the large in-your-face murals that give voice to the marginalised, the political statements that come from its art squats and street art. Here are a few pieces that made Berlin the unforgettable life lesson that it was for me.
The East Side Gallery
I couldn’t help but feel confronted by the presence of the Berlin Wall. It was not just a reminder of the depths to which we sank as human beings, but also a reminder of how we rose together as one unit, claiming our freedom back. Some of the most moving artwork is on one such section of the wall. From the pained etchings of separated families and lovers to more modern-day reminders of life and love and freedom, the East Side Gallery is a living and ever-changing collection of art that is rich with emotion and political will. One of the paintings that took hold of me immediately was the iconic ‘Fraternal Kiss’ by Dmitri Vrubel. The graffiti painting was titled ‘My God, Help Me Survive This Deadly Love’ and showcases the then Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev and the East German President Honecker locked in a kiss, and how their marriage of politics cause so much strife in the immediate aftermath of World War II.
As I was lost in thought, walking through the streets of Berlin, I came across the Leviathan, popularly known as The Pink Man. I thought it was a giant pink eyeless monster but a closer look left me horrified. Created by the Italian artist BLU, the pink man is a monstrosity created by indistinguishable masses of humans interlocked together to form a giant man that was examining a white human body. My first thought was that this larger than life piece of art was a social comment on how as a collective whole, we become a society of people who not only strive to be homogeneous but also go out of our way to punish those who are different. I learnt through conversation with locals later on that the artist wanted the imagery to be left open to interpretation. BLU’s only intention was to move and to get us thinking.
Reich Air Ministry Propaganda Tableau
In one of my walks through Berlin, I ran into an imposing building that is currently the home of the German Finance Ministry. Apparently, this massive monolith of a building was formerly the Nazi HQ, the Reich’s Air Ministry, the Soviet Military’s headquarters, and the home of East German Socialism. The scattered bullet holes throughout the building are the least impressive part of this Cold War remnant. The most striking aspect is its hand-painted 18-metre Socialist propaganda tableau. Healthy and happy humans paint you a picture of a fantasy life under communism rather than how history remembers that period. In 1953, 25,000 East German workers protested at this building site before they were suppressed. They say that this is where the flames of the East German Uprising were first fanned. While most countries try to forget its questionable pasts, glossing over the most troublesome memories where possible, Berlin is one city that embraces it wholeheartedly and urges us to have an open conversation about who we are as humans.
Maybe it was the lovely weather that made me stop to look at the blue skies, or maybe I was exhausted with all the walking. Whatever the reason, I ran into the Cosmonaut, dangling carefree off the side of an old building. Standing there, I discovered that while it looked like a large stencil piece of street art, a closer inspection reveals that it was painstakingly painted grid by grid. The black paint drops gave that away. At the right time of day, a nearby flagpole casts a shadow that lands in the Cosmonaut’s hand, appearing as if he claimed the city in the name of his country. A stark reminder of the Cold War politics from our not so distant past, especially the heated Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States of America.
Dead Chicken Alley
I almost missed this tucked away alley and one of the last remnants of what used to be East Berlin, but I’m glad it caught my attention. Nestled in between the high streets of rebranded Berlin (re: gentrified), the Dead Chicken Alley is an art squat that was the home of underground revolutionaries who fought against the regime and later, communism. Walking this alley was a feast for the eyes, the walls were dotted with a myriad of heart-wrenching graffiti, pop art, and an underground show of must-see scrap metal robotic monstrosities. What I found most captivating was the small museum situated around the corner from a life-size painting of Anne Frank. Dedicated to a man who employed blind Jews during WWII to create fake ids to smuggle people out or keep them safe, the alley itself is a stark reminder of that terrible episode of our history. It is still considered an artists’ haven and is a living piece of art. You can be sure that the art that decorates the walls never stays the same, giving you a chance to discover different history and stories every time you visit.
I came across RAW by accident while riding up and down the Berlin city trains, a remnant of its divided past. RAW is an old Soviet railway complex has been turned into the RAW subculture compound featuring bizarre street art, WWII nuclear bunkers turned to rock climbing practice spots, and even the world’s tiniest disco and a bar exclusively for the living dead. Yep, zombies! RAW is mostly outdoors and definitely not on most conventional tourist guides. You could spend hours here exploring the story of Berlin and its revival as displayed through its art movements.
Stolperstein – The Stumbling Stones
One of the most profound memorials in modern art history, the Stolperstein, or stumbling stone, is the largest art project in the world. I walked across several cobblestone-sized golden hued cubes in my walks across Berlin, I only really paid attention when I walked across a couple of them in one small spot. I stood near a collection and started reading the inscription. On it were names, occupations and life and death dates of Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Easily my favourite work of art, the project is the brainchild of the German artist Gunter Demnig, and in my eyes is the most fitting homage to the people who gave up their lives during World War II. While these Stolpersteine dot 610 places in Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands and many other countries, Berlin is home to a shocking 3000 of them.
Berlin is a testament to the messy nature of humanity – our collective empathy, our rage, our blindness, our uniqueness, our resilience and our power. The next time you’re looking to get out of your comfort zone, to rediscover yourself, to get away from it all, to be part of something bigger than yourself, pick Berlin. The city did all of that for me and so much more.