Muhammed Y. Idris
The Berlin Wall was a physical border/barrier erected 1961 by the German Democratic Republic (GDR). It’s purpose was simple, to separate two different ideologies, capitalism and communism. During its erection, existence, and demolition (in 1989) this physical barrier molded a unique identity for each Berliner independent of his fellow Berliners. There have been numerous studies of how the Berlin wall itself has influenced identity but the focus of this study is to examine the expression of this new found identity. I will refer to this expression of identity as “culture.” Culture can be expressed through distinct styles, behaviors, and interests. For the purpose of this study I am focusing on the expression of identity through urban art. This paper is to culminate my research on artistic expression influenced by the Berlin Wall and also serve as a reflection of my personal experience and growth brought upon by a once in a lifetime opportunity.
“Culture” can be defined as meaning systems, modes of expression or lifestyles developed by groups in subordinate structural. Its study often consists of the study of the symbolism attached to clothing, music, and other visible affections by members of the culture and also the ways in which these same symbols are interpreted by members of the dominant culture.
Culture can be expressed through distinct styles, behaviors, and interests. According to culture theorists, members of a culture often signal their membership by making distinctive and symbolic tangible choices in, for example, clothing styles, hairstyles and footwear. From punk rockers to cardigan loving artists, these tangible choices described above can be found throughout Berlin. However, intangible elements, such as common interests, dialects and slang, music genres, and art can also be an important factor.
In Berlin throughout the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even part of the 90s, the Berlin Wall was the impetus for a new culture. Aggravation, frustration, and sentiments of hate and sorrow took many forms of expression. In my opinion, the most relevant form of expression is artistic expression. Berlin has long been known for its artistic expression and the Berlin Wall has played a huge role in shaping this connotation. From visual to performing arts, opera to Turkish hip-hop, from stencil and stickers to graffiti art, artistic expression can be found virtually anywhere in Berlin. For the purpose of this research study I am focusing on urban art as defined as, illegal non-contemporary works of art, found in urban spaces, and have no monetary value.
The new culture expressed through urban art offers participants an identity outside of that ascribed by social institutions such as family, work, home and school. Anywhere else in the world social class, gender and ethncity can be important in relation to cultures, but not in Berlin. In Berlin, these barriers of class, gender, and ethnicity have been broken down in the artistic realm. The love and appreciation of art is all that is needed to be accepted. I myself am not in any way shape or form an artist, but my curiosity and appreciation for art allowed me “behind the scene “access to artists and their works. Although a very important accomplishment, Berlin’s artistic world is no utopia. Berlin, an artistic and historic capital of the world, has found itself in a never-ending battle between capitalism and preservation. A war between the capitalists who see potential for profit and artists who in some cases fight for the preservation of art; art which visually dictates Berlins history.
This topic of expression of identity is important because an individual’s ability to express his or her uniqueness is not only healthy in their emotional and mental growth but also paramount in ones ability to not only recognize and embrace diversity. Yes it is true that artistic expression is only one of the many ways of expressing identity but artistic expression is the most prevalent form of expression in Berlin and has also played an immeasurable part in preserving Berlin’s history.
2. The Research
Methods of Investigation: The investigation methods of my study were quite simple and empirical. All of my research was conducted through conversations with artists and observations of their works. Through our scheduled program I was able to meet members of a local Urban Art gallery and speak with them about the work they do. Through the Urban Art Photography gallery, I was able to meet Jürgen Große, a seasoned professional in urban art and ask him specific questions behind the intentions of unknown urban artists that he knew quite well. Also, through one of our program coordinators, the Oh So Wonderful Manuela Gould, an artist in her own right, I was able to meet artists from each side of the Berlin Wall. Artists who seemed to answer all of my questions with questions which resulted in quite phenomenal analysis.
Problems: I did not encounter many problems with my research. Berlin is scattered with artists and once they saw my interest especially as a foreigner they were more than inclined to share with me their experiences, ideology, and works.
3. The Analysis
What is identity without expression? Nothing. Nothing truly exists in reality if there is no one to see it. And no one can see it unless there is some form of visual representation. The visual representation of identity is expression. The question then arises how can one express his or her identity? Berliners have chosen artistic expression.
To first understand the artistic expression of identity throughout Berlin, we must first understand why Berlin attracted so many artists. The first condition is real estate. Pre 1985 squatting reigned popular amongst artists. After World War II many buildings were disserted with no real intention of reconstruction. These buildings were prime locations for squatting. Prime locations plus the lack of police enforcement provided key opportunities for poor artists to find shelter. After the fall of the Wall of Berlin in 1989 the communist regime of the GDR fell to capitalism. Although East Berlin now could flourish economically under capitalism, real estate remained cheap. As such there was a period within the 1990s, which artists refer to as the revitalization of art spaces. Artists could find spaces , such as Tacheles, where artists could work worry-free of financial obstacles such as rent. The second condition is a salary. It was no secret that under the GDR, artists were in fact acknowledged and appreciated. This was quite transparent because under the GDR artists actually received a salary. This salary paid out to artists by the government also attracted many artists.
Urban artists find their passion in rebellion. Their ability to express themselves through illegal yet fascinating works is derived from a unique identity. To understand this identity and its expression we must first distinguish between the technicality and ideology of urban art. Anyone can shoot steel arrows into the side of a building, but what makes that work of art so captivating is its ideological meaning, what it represents. Painting itself is not an expression, it is a technicality. Anyone can draw a circle but urban artists have an ability to express their liberal ideology against the powers of capitalism and conservatism. This ideological background shared by urban artists had not changed before, during, and after the fall of the wall. This is quite surprising taking into consideration the affects the wall itself had on the identity of Berliners.
Urban art itself is an expression. It is through their art that urban artists have the ability to express a sense of “self conscious- confidence,” though, which their individualistic characteristics are revealed. Their identities are synonymous with their ideologies, their liberal ideologies against capitalism and conservatism, not the technicalities of their works.
4. The Personal Experience
Every morning I would look out my window and down at the same old man chalking white lines along a dirt tennis court in a way not unlike the Great Gatsby himself fixed after Daisy Buchanan; my longing to find myself, however, did not manifest itself in a human being, but in my experiences. If there is anything inherently human, it is not love, hate, or some profound, nameless emotion; it is our ability to discover ourselves and express our identities in the midst of this world’s chaos. Leaving Seattle on Lufthansa flight LH599, I was an African American Muslim born and raised in the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries, in a country whose culture is a contradiction of my ideals and principles my personal morals and values are that of a complex nature. My personal morals were a product of where my religion, ideals, customs, and culture traversed with a Western, secular world.
Arriving at Berlin/Tegel at 1:00 pm, and walking through the airport I thought to myself, “what did I get myself into?” Berlin was my first truly independent experience in a land where people did not look like me nor did they utter a word of English, at least anything I could understand. Not only was the first carton of milk I bought expired but also the cereal I so longed to indulge in was quite disappointing. Not a good first impression of Berlin. It took me two weeks of trips through the famous Berlin U-Bahn, endless adventures deep within the craziness of Berlin nightlife, and a unforgettable trip to Istanbul, Turkey to fully appreciate a place I can now call home, Berlin. My experiences, my “stories,” in both Berlin and Istanbul are interconnected in that they not only had the same academic focus but also in that an experience in one city, exuberantly shaped my “story” of the other. My experiences in Istanbul shaped my “story” of Berlin. Istanbul was magical with its horizons scattered with domes and minarets. We even had the opportunity to watch the sunrise over the Bosporus, an experience I describe in this blog post:
5:30 am finally came and after a long awaited rest I turn to my left to see Robert fast asleep. His loss. I’m cranky. Joe’s tired. Daniel is wide-awake, humming with excitement. And John, he’s just happy old’ John. As the elevator doors open we are welcomed by a sweeping cold breeze and black sky; a reminder that sunrise is quite a ways away. I could smell, feel, and taste the excitement in the air. The hookah bars are closed but the everlasting smell of hookah fills the air. At the Polis (Police) station next door, the same guard is standing in the same place we left him hours ago, slouching from the weight of the MP5 automatic machine gun on his right shoulder. I smirk and in between puffs of his cigarette he smiles. We continue to walk into the darkness. The night sky, a blanket over Istanbul, was scattered with stars. The moon was nowhere insight, hidden by the towering buildings on either side of us. We walk through dark alleys and side streets but I am not afraid. I know that these men walking beside will be there for me. My thoughts of companionship are interrupted by the sky slowly starting to light up. Sunrise isn’t too far away now. As we make a left into yet another alley I notice a silhouette of a body lying on a bench. I stare harder into the darkness only to find that the silhouette is a boy cuddled up in his T-shirt. The boy was 15 years old at the most. He is just a kid; another reminder of the ever-present vast social divide in Istanbul. Thoughts start to race through my head. How is it possible that a boy can be forgotten, left to fend for himself on the streets? My face starts to burn and my eyes start to water. Only the sight of mosques, with their pillars lit, reaching for the sky instills some sort of hope within me. The Athan, the call to prayer, playing from numerous mosques echoes through the air and seeps through my ears into my being. I am at that moment reminded that with no hope there can never be progress. That if I never have hope for that boy lying on that bench, he will always be on that bench. We finally reach the bridge and we are greeted by the smell of raw fish, which is indicative of the fisherman preparing their rods, bait, and themselves for a long day of fishing. Upon arrival to our vantage point we are greeted by a thunderous lightening storm off to the SE of the horizon. A quick flash of lightening followed by deafening cracks of thunder. A captivating lightening storm whose ruby read clouds swirled with the wind. John hobbles with his camera in an attempt to capture a flash of lightening. After a few attempts he gives up with a grunt, only to find the moon ever so pure hovering above us. The sky was only slightly lit but the moon stood so vivid and distinct. To the east a mixture of yellow and orange peaked from behind the horizon. Dawn had broke. Against the brightly colored sky buildings, mosques, power lines, and rooftops were like shadows. The sky turned as pink as sea of cotton candy. We stood there admiring what only Istanbul could offer. We took pictures, danced, and fooled around. It was the end of a perfect night. It was Daniels birthday and I hope he enjoyed it. By the time we left, pink had become a pale yellow mixed with blue. Just like Magic.
But by the end of our 4 day stay in Istanbul, I was ready to go home. The culture shock had become a bit too much for me too handle. In the day Istanbul was like another tourist destination, streets scattered with stores and restaurants and bazaars filled with jewelry and souvenir stands, but the night life was another story. As if a blanket of darkness had fallen over the consciousness of Turkish men, the females of our group were routinely poked and prodded, some even physically touched, by drunken Turkish men. The full extent of this harassment I cannot describe with the letters of this page, but I have two little sisters at home and I can’t fathom the idea of either of them being harassed in any shape or form.
I understand that one experience can never lead to the over generalization of a group of people or a place but I don’t think I will be able to travel to Istanbul for a while. This one experience of harassment that made me appreciate the quiet Berliners who respected personal space. What I had once mistaken for rudeness in empty seat a Berliner would leave between himself and I on the U-Bahn, had now turned into a sense of respect of private space. At that point my memories of isolation and estrangement in Berlin, turned to nostalgic memories of the U-bahn and the old man chalking the white lines across the dirt tennis courts across the street.
My “story” of Berlin, similar to the story of my father’s small village in Massawa, Eritrea, is an everlasting emotional battle between friend and foe, between hate and love, between home and away. My first impression of Berlin, was that of any other inexperienced, ignorant, yet innocent child but my experiences in Istanbul transformed this impression into a vivid memory of home. It was these memories and experiences that allowed me to learn more about myself. I came to Berlin an African American Muslim born and raised in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, in a country whose culture is a contradiction of my ideals and principles my personal morals and values are that of a complex nature.
Through my research and experiences, I left Berlin with the same African American Muslim but with two additional realizations: 1) Identity can never be fully defined, our daily experiences both academically and socially continuously shape us. 2) I am not just what I had thought I was, an African American Muslim, but just a small part of a very big puzzle; it sounds cliché I know, but I now know that I have to transform my sense of innocence and curiosity into conscious action, finding and expressing myself in a very big world.