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The Heritage Of Berlin Street Art And Graffiti Scene

Art critic Emilie Trice has called Berlin “the graffiti Mecca of the urban art world.” While few people would argue with her, the Berlin street scene is not as radical as her statement suggests. Street art in Berlin is a big industry. It’s not exactly legal, but the city’s title of UNESCO’s City of Design has kept local authorities from doing much to change what observers call the most “bombed” city in Europe. From the authorities’ point of view, the graffiti attracts tourists, and the tourists bring money to a city deep in debt.

This article looks at the development of the Berlin street art scene, from its beginnings as a minor West Berlin movement in the late ’70s to its current status: the heritage of a now unified city.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

The Development Of The Berlin Graffiti Scene Link

After the few East Germans who crossed the Berlin Wall in the ’80s blinked and pinched themselves, what do you think was the first thing they saw?

They saw big bubbly letters, spelling out words in German, English and French. They saw political slogans, either carved indelibly into the concrete or sprayed temporarily onto surfaces, commenting not only on the situation in Germany, but on the whole political world: “God Ble$$,” “Concrete Makes You Happy,” “Death to Tyrants.” As far as they could see, covering every inch of wall, was layer upon layer of zest, life and color.


If they’d crossed in the ’60s, however, they’d have been tempted to jump straight back. Abandoned buildings, derelict streets, piles of rubble — the immediate areas around the wall were reminiscent of World War II, and it would take another 10 years for the first communities to settle there.

Even then, those early settlers weren’t “real” Berliners, but outsiders: draft resisters, anarchist punks and Turkish migrants. They either opened businesses or formed squats and, with no resistance from the West German government, began turning walls into monuments to their own thoughts and beliefs.

By the end of the ’70s, a new wave of graffiti artists, arriving with innovations such as stencils and spray cans, were contributing genuine works of art. Our East German friends would have been staring not just at the defacement of Communist property, but at what graffiti artists had by then claimed as their Mecca.

After The Wall Link

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the graffiti artists marched straight into East Germany. Mitte, Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg — all of the areas that the military had occupied became a new playground for the Western artists and became a new world for the Eastern artists who joined them. Few doubted that the East Germans’ work was weightier. It wasn’t that they were better artists, but that they could express — with authority — the one concept close to the hearts of all people now living in the city: what it meant to be free.

A street in the East Berlin area of Friedrichshain a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

One East Berliner to make an impact during this period was “Tower.” With his name printed in a variety of colors and fonts on what looked like car stickers, people must have initially mistaken his work for advertising. But the more they saw it — on lamp posts, on post boxes, on trash cans, on fences — the more they understood what he was trying to communicate: Tower, as in the communist TV tower; Tower, as in the skyscrapers that dominated the skyline of almost every major city — built not for the people who lived there, but for the egos of the people who ran them. Tower’s aim was to reclaim the word as a symbol of strength and, in doing so, proclaim that the majority, not the minority, should be shaping the public space.


A Case Study: Linda’s Ex Link

In the summer of 2003, posters of a boy bemoaning the loss of his ex-girlfriend, Linda, began to appear on walls and fences in the Friedrichshain district. Sometimes he looked like a boy ready to kill himself; sometimes he looked like a man ready to kill. Whichever way the artist drew him, his sad eyes always asked passersby the same question: “Where’s Linda?”


At first, people either ignored the posters or were mildly curious. But as both the pictures and messages increased in intensity, they had no choice but to take notice. On one poster, Linda’s ex told his estranged lover that he would be waiting to speak to her at a certain bar every Saturday and Tuesday night. People were starting to believe that his suffering was real. And if his suffering was real, then they did not doubt that he needed help.


“He loves you, Linda” one person wrote in a newspaper ad.


A caller to a radio show wasn’t so kind. “He’s a cad,” the person said to Linda. “Don’t go back.”


Everyone seemed to have a point of view, and the more they expressed it, the more posters appeared.



Finally, a year later, Linda’s Ex, the alias of artist Roland Brueckner, faced the public. There was no Linda, he confessed. The whole campaign had been a hoax.

The New Artists Link

Linda’s Ex was successful because he communicated with and responded to his audience almost every day. If he had stopped, even for a month, the public’s interest would have dissipated.

The critiques below examine the artwork of three Berlin street artists working today — maybe at this very moment. Like Linda’s Ex, XOOOX, Alias and Mein Lieber Prost make certain that their work remains in the public eye, constantly.


Berlin has the typical street art spots… but I like more the classical writing scene, with the huge street bombings and the masses of tags.

To most people, the letters xoooox represent hugs and kisses. To XOOOOX, they represent symmetry and strength, for no matter how much he rearranges them, they remain a powerful signature that could belong to no one but him.

This tells XOOOOX’s public as much about him as they need to know: what you see is what you get. For instance, many people would like to believe that his black and white stencils are an ironic, anti-capitalist statement. But as the artist claims himself, they are a straight homage to the fashion world.

His fascination with fashion began when he discovered a pile of his parent’s old fashion magazines in the cellar. He would cut out parts of the pictures, mix them up and stick them on the walls of his room.

Collage still fascinates him, but he says that on the street, stencils are far more practical. At home, he creates a stencil from one of his fashion magazines — including everything from Harper’s to Vogue — and then, armed with his spray paint and stencil, he replicates the image on the streets.

Sample of XOOOOX’s Work Link




Analysis of XOOOOX’s work Link

People enjoy XOOOOX’s approach because of his objective treatment of his subjects, presenting each model as neither happy nor sad, neither warm nor cold. He even draws one model urinating on the ground; while some might interpret the piece as a sign of arrogance, XOOOOX’s signature, flowing from her head like a thought bubble, persuades sensitive observers to judge her on a more humane level. She is, he suggests, just like everyone else.

What sets her apart is her beauty. The artist highlights this by always spraying her image on the grayest and ugliest of concrete walls, amidst the most innocuous of graffiti scrawls. Like the pretty girl sitting alone in a bar, passersby rarely walk past without giving her a second glance.

Overall, XOOOOX’s images show an artist with a genuine appreciation of conventional beauty. In a scene that likes to subvert conventions, this must make XOOOOX the most unconventional artist working on Berlin’s streets today.

Alias Link

My motives are often introverted and emotional, but… they brand… themselves on the memory of people passing. They are supposed to inspire people to interpret the motives on their own.

Judging from the number of his pieces, Alias must rarely sleep. His artwork certainly suggests someone at odds with society: black and white pictures of hooded skater types staring at the ground, and young kids unknowingly sitting on live bombs. One senses that something is very wrong with Alias’ world.

Alias left school early and moved to Hamburg, a city with its own impressive array of street artists. Developing his skill there to an advanced level, he moved on to Berlin, where people soon recognized his work as among the best in the city.

Sample of Alias’s work Link




Analysis of Alias’s Work Link

Alias’ dark and somber images make him the city’s most serious artist. He stencils each of his pictures with great care, and always places them in a spot that best communicates his message. His picture of a man asking people to keep his identity a secret is stuck not on the wall of a busy thoroughfare, but at the bottom edge of a staircase. It gives the impression that, beyond the playfulness, he genuinely wants to keep his identity a secret.

Alias’ signature then is essential to understanding his work. The picture of a hooded teenager with a blank face communicates a need to give outsiders a voice. The irony is that the one person humane enough to give them that voice, a street artist, has to remain anonymous. That, Alias suggests, is his reward for daring to question society.

Mein Lieber Prost Link

All that’s come out is a result of my happiness, my courage, my fantasies or my disappointments. All great artists are great not for their technique, but their passion.

Most people will walk by graffiti without even noticing it. It hides in the corners of doorways and blends in with its surroundings. Prost’s characters, however, point and laugh directly at passersby. The characters are often a simple black outline. On occasion, Prost takes the time to fill the characters in with red, white and black. Whatever the method, he places his artwork in just about any free spot he can find: side streets, high streets, advertisements, doorways, signs. Nowhere in the city is safe.

And yet the public knows little about the artist himself. For legal reasons, he safeguards his identity. At a more artistic level, the anonymity enables him to present the smiley faces, and not himself, as the essence of his work.

Sample of Mein Lieber Prost’s Work Link




Analysis of Mein Lieber Prost’s Work Link

It’s easy to miss the point of Prost’s smiley faces. On the surface, they look like the simple one-minute doodles of a high-school student. And the artist probably drew them in half that time. But that simplicity is what makes Prost’s faces so interesting, for two reasons.

First, it allows Prost to put his images in places that few other artists would dare to go. Alias, for example, needs time to place and spray his images and, therefore, works in more secluded spots to decrease the chances of getting caught. Prost has only to draw a quick outline, and then he’s finished. In fact, he has now drawn so many that he no longer needs to leave his signature: his work, rather than his name, has become his identity.

Secondly, the artist positions his characters to look like they are taking in their surroundings, laughing aloud at something happening right at that moment. It is natural, then, on seeing Prost’s characters pointing at them, for people to wonder what the joke is, asking themselves: is it me? Each character forces passersby to question their surroundings and (hopefully, if they don’t want to leave paranoid) to find a satisfactory answer.

Moving Into The Mainstream Link

Visitors to Berlin tend to ask the same question: is the street art legal? It is a difficult question for Berliners to answer. In central parts of the city at least, there is variously so much and so little criticism directed at it that no one quite knows. Head of the anti-graffiti team, Chief Detective Marko Moritz, insists, however, that the city views graffiti as a crime.

In an interview with The Local newspaper, he states that his team’s main goal is to catch the tagging crews whose work has its roots not in art, but in gang culture. In what he calls bombings, crews will spray whole trains and sometimes buildings with their signatures and colors. But Moritz is concerned not only with the defacement of public property; some crews, he claims, are starting to carry firearms.


Their behavior, while disturbing, is a byproduct of the authorities’ attempt to turn the street art scene into an industry. When UNESCO named Berlin as a City of Design, few people doubted that the thriving street art scene was partly responsible. Local businesses and even local authorities hired artists to paint murals on the fronts of their buildings. Most famously, on a wall in Kreuzberg, the artist Blu painted two men trying to rip each other’s masks off — symbolizing, he claims, Berlin’s struggles during its first few years of reunification.

Today, such work has made the street art a tourist attraction. Kunsthaus Tacheles, once an artists’ squat and still a focal point of the scene, holds disco nights downstairs and sells urban art books upstairs — its bar is as expensive as anywhere in the city. Artists such as XOOOOX, Mein Lieber Prost and Alias have started to exhibit and sell in galleries. They still work on the street, but they are no longer impoverished artists — if they ever were. They can afford to travel and work in countries across the world.


While these artists believe that street art needs to appeal to a wider audience, the local, more traditional artists, such as the tagging crews, disagree. They argue that street art derives its power from being on the margins of society; only from the outside can they address problems within it. That difference of opinion is opening a space in the scene that can be filled only by the mainstream. In the next few years, street art has the potential to become a social movement as inclusive as anything from the ’50s and ’60s.


Footnotes Link

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  1. 1

    Mauro Mandracchia

    July 13, 2011 7:17 am

    I love graffiti. But my favorite artist is M3.

  2. 2

    I was in Berlin in late May/early June and was lucky enough to have a Berliner show me around the art dist of Mitte. Unfortunately I did not have my DSLR on me, but I was able to snap some shots w/ my iPhone. I would love to find out the artists behind some of these:

    • 3

      You really like this? It looks like slum from future world. Brrr – horrendous.

  3. 4

    99% of graffiti is complete garbage. It also makes the city look like a run down slum. These “artists” have no respect for other peoples property. I wonder how one of these guys would feel if I went to his house and painted a bunch of my “art” all over his house without his permission.

    • 5

      Well aren’t you a little Debbie Downer. I think it’s inspiring. I would love to live in a city or area that allowed this kind of thing on a certain level. The scenery would always be fresh! :D

    • 6

      Graffiti scene is the most creative and prolific art movement since mid 90’s. It has no rules (so put your private property where I think), no limit. Only some code and techniques, but not accepted by all artists. Actually, the main common law more or less agreed by all street artists and graffiti artist is : “we don’t give a shit of your laws”. Period.
      If you don’t understand art and just want it put in a museum for the elite (come on ! 20 bucks for a museum ???), just go f yourself.

      And to answer your last sentence, yeah man, come on and show me what you can do with a spraycan. And if this is crappy, I’ll cover it up after kickin ya a$s.

      • 7

        What a tough guy you are, on the internet… Probably some little punk teenager. Bullshit that you would be happy if someone sprayed a bunch of paint all over your possessions that you would be ok with it. All talk. Sure it can be creative, but what gives you the right to ruin someones home you little selfish, inconsiderate piece of shit.

        • 8

          WTF are you talking about ? Where are your aguments ? I only can see insults in your post, so who’s the f’in punk teenager ?

          Actually, If by any chance you’re in Toronto, let’s meet and have a nice pacific chat instead of insulting each other on the internet. Come and try to paint my house if you can do something else than photoshopin’. If it’s good, I’ll leave it, if it’s shitty I’ll kick ya and paint over it.

          This is ridiculous complaining about “bad graffiti” and putting Banksy at an “acceptable” place. Even Banksy started with a spraycan doing bullshit. Every graffiti artists that you think are valuable enough to be in an art gallery started doing street taggin and street graffit. Deny it and live with sh!t in your eyes if you want.

          And JJT, accept it or not (I dont give a flyin d~ick in ya a$s), Graffiti artist just don’t care about what you think. It’s raw, it’s wild, and it makes a huge sens that it hurts your miserable bourgeois and reactionary feelings.

          [And sorry for my bad english, not my mother tongue]

          • 9

            None of the posted is graffiti accept the differences in the art form of graffiti and street art.

            Graffiti consists of lettering much like typography and uses much more skill in the use of a spray cans and markers as to the petty stencil art that has been portrayed in above post.

            Know difference.

    • 10

      If I could vote more than one time your comment, I would.

    • 11

      I completely agree with that.

      I’ve lived for 22 years in Berlin and it makes me sad to see it going down like that…

    • 12

      You just said all the topics about graffiti in 4 lines like a old crappy right hand political guy. You don’t have any idea about what are you talking about. Thanks for nothing Mike!

    • 13

      graf is a totaly different thing to street art, now every failed looser graphic desgner and illustrator mistakenly thinks he or she is at the forefront of the art world, most of it is poorly done and has no philosophy behind it and is born from foolish consumerism, hense most of it has no ability to make the observer experience anythng emotional. I dont want to knock anyones art, who am i. The thing that annoys me most are the people bigging them selves up and selling prints that are worth about a pound to un suspesting fans who think they are getting something of value when its straight off a commercial printer, it’s fraudulent.

  4. 14

    I love Berlin – it is really great city and compare to London – fresh and clean. But 90% of graffiti are drunken idiots without any respect. Be honest – very often some really ugly pictures from drunken (or under drugs) honky-tonky-woodenhorse are really to kill. Only Bristol Bansky is exceptional.

  5. 15

    Graffitti artists would not graffitti on a Frank Gehry building,
    or on the beautiful old and stunning new buildings around the world.
    And that’s might point, it belongs in the ghetto, and doesnt make it any better.
    Most Graffitti is crap, and it is all so much the same, nothing stands out.
    Make real art not crappy spray paint that is stuck in love with it’s self.

  6. 16

    this is not graffiti and major parts of berlin graffiti history are missing.

    • 17

      Vitaly Friedman

      July 13, 2011 7:54 am

      Could you please be more specific?

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      • 19

        Graffiti is: Leaving your mark/sing: means to tag where ever you go. Make Pieces/Bombs/Throwups/Scratches on all kind of surfaces. It is about typography, shapes, characters and colors in exact the same order. You do it with spraypaint and markers. You keep on refining your style each and every day, year for year and in some cases for more than a few decades. You develop a unique handstyle and you are proud of what you did and achieved.

        Graffiti in a gallery is no graffiti anymore. Only because the mainstream dislike it, because they do not understand it, it doesn’t mean it has no right to exist. The artists from above are good streetartists but that doesn’t make em to writers….

        Pure Graffiti is raw and unpleasant, like the truth that most people don’t wanna hear ;)

  7. 20

    good story

  8. 21

    Joost Kiens

    July 13, 2011 7:36 pm

    streetArt != graffiti
    graffiti != streetArt

  9. 22

    Most lame post here on SM. I always thought this was about development, or am I missing the point here?

    And yes, you missed pretty much everything the above is about. Hint: Except for the train, the photos show “Street Art”, not “Graffiti”…

  10. 23

    Clean walls are so boring.

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  12. 25

    Unfortunately the author misses to cover the major part of berlin graffiti history. The streetart-movement in Berlin is relatively young whereas its graffiti-movement is one of the oldest in Germany. So whats missing is at least one mention of the famous crews like GHS or graffiti-writers like Odem ( , who started in the mid-eighties and did a fantastic job in developing graffiti all over Germany.
    This is were “Street-Art” came from. The author should have called the article “A brief history of Berlin-Streetart” but not even this would be right. Because here again many artists are missing.
    Even for the internet, where information seems to be more and more summarized, this is too weak and leaves major points out but the approach is just fine, so keep on doing this, but a little more precise.

  13. 26

    I like to see Berlin. Design wall.. You can’t be bore… :)

  14. 27

    Johnny Postmodern

    July 13, 2011 9:35 pm

    I love it. And it’s OK to hate it, but I hope the haters can explain to us what true art is without taking an art history class and learning the significance of what Berlin’s influences are to modern art! Please be creative.

  15. 28

    This post is more of Street Art not Graffiti. The only thing i like is the Design on the Train.. that was impressive and looks really good.

  16. 29

    Very beautifully written. I just went to Germany last month. It was amazing.
    Sadly I missed out the trip to Berlin. Anyway, this really fulfill my experience in Germany.

    Definitely the city of design. Something where many cities in Asia are missing.

    Thanks for writing this great article.

  17. 30

    Jyotika Purwar

    July 13, 2011 10:47 pm

    I think Berlin and all its graffiti is gorgeous. I wish I had read this article before i went there. I would have looked out for these specific artists. What a great city that allows to live and let live. My sense with the Berliners was they loved their graffiti. Its characteristically theirs. Do check my blog on Berlin and my food adventures there.

  18. 31

    I really like this new direction Smashing Mag is taking – not only design and web but also culture and not only culture but also something I think is the peak of the arts today – street art!
    One side note – many of the artist have blogs or websites – and they are usually marvellous – next time include them as well.
    THANKS! for this great post, keep surprising us with articles like these. :)

  19. 32

    Jez Make Hay

    July 13, 2011 11:25 pm

    This post is excellent – thanks for taking the time to put this together, personally I would like to see more posts like this on Smashing Magazine.

  20. 33

    You could do also an analysis of the Exarchia, Athens, Greece street art and graffiti scene. One of the best + upcoming.

  21. 34

    Don’t like graffiti. If it helps to cover an ugly wall and if it’s made good it’s Ok. Most of the time graffiti are just property damage.

  22. 35

    Atelier de création libertaire

    July 14, 2011 12:51 am

    We are living in a small district in the center of Lyon called “la Croix-Rousse”. We are publishing a blog with about 14 000 pictures and a lot of graffitis ( And also a lot of that we call in this blog “graffitis papier” (paper graffitis) made by street artists.(
    Do not hesitate to take a look to this blog.

  23. 36


    July 14, 2011 2:41 am

    the first example with alias is not alias, but an alias portrait by MTO.

  24. 37

    Excellent post, thanks a lot!

  25. 38

    David Lindes

    July 14, 2011 8:42 am

    Wow, lots of guys here up in arms. I thought it was a great little article. Probably best filed under “inspiration”.

  26. 39

    If you visit any Berlin bookshop and flick through a couple of popular street art titles you are well on your way to find the artists descibed above. Does that tell the whole story? No. Does it give an impression of a selection of artists who have spread their work in different ways in Berlin’s streets over the last couple of years? Yes.
    Hopefully it inspires and leads to new ways of perceiving the neighborhood, by many inhabitants/visitors of the city.
    One thing for sure; these artists inspired me (amongst many other Berlin artists – and Banksy – to cut a stencil, do some spraying, and paste it to places that I find relevant once and a while..

  27. 40

    Thank you for the interesting reading.

  28. 41

    I miss the g+ button.

  29. 43

    Cool article, but the first picture under the ALIAS section isnt from ALIAS.. its from MTO from his series of portraits of Berliner street artists..

    Its is a portrait of ALIAS from another street artist..

  30. 44

    Nice piece. Love the story of Linda’s Ex.

    As for commenters who don’t like graffiti, I think some may be confusing graffiti with tagging. When I lived in Prague, there was little thoughtful graffiti or street art, but loads of spray painted tags. What I’ve seen in Berlin strikes me as something quite different.

    As for other examples, I love the human faces of the world “exhibit” at the ground floor of an apartment building near Halleshes Tor:

  31. 45

    Taniya Varshney

    July 17, 2011 12:56 pm

    I think graffiti is a great research subject. It talks about the character, time, politics, art, culture and vibe of a place/town. It is definitely wrong to be destructive and vandalize property, but just plain art is not just a visual treat, it is a much greater expression.

    From the old cave man days, we have been noticing drawings and forms of art/visuals on the walls which surrounded. They bring our history to life.

    Good Article. Would have loved to see more pictures.

  32. 46

    I enjoyed this article, and I don’t really understand why people are being such pedantic dicks with regards to the “difference” between street art and graffiti. The authorities view them the same and try to wipe out the vibrance both can bring an urban landscape.

    Stop whining that the article’s author mislabeled something and enjoy the art.

  33. 47

    Walls are for shooting artists, not graffiti.

  34. 48

    graffitiwriting is the mother of streetart and without all these great writers in berlin streetart would have never gotten that big here.
    and who are you guys to judge what is art and what´s not. just take your time and check out all the different tags and handstyles and learn to read the city. you´ll see and learn that graffiti is not just vandalism. it´s individual expression.
    and beeing an individual, free spirit is what bothers authorities most these days..

  35. 49

    The best projection surface ever for graffiti was the Berlin Wall. The inhumanity of that wall was at least a little bit more to bear when looking at it as a piece of art.

  36. 50
  37. 51

    Milena Churak

    June 1, 2012 12:40 pm

    Graffiti is one of my passions !
    I want to submit something i did with the crew. My works has been published here:

  38. 52


    August 8, 2013 12:46 am

    I created this photobook:

    to celebrate wall art in Berlin. Not only The Berlin Wall graffiti art, but also the urban and street art I’ve noticed all over the city, mainly in Mitte (Scheunenviertel area), Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg in June 2013. Enjoy, Albert

  39. 53

    Jonathan Gumps

    August 16, 2013 3:04 am

    Another great resource on that topic is as they feature very much historical material regarding graffiti in Berlin. In video and still image.

  40. 54

    I live in London, just visited Berlin. What a shit hole!

    The whole place is covered in tagging. And bad, really bad OLD FASHIONED tagging. I hardly saw any real street art.

    You Berliners should be ashamed of yourselves to let your city get into such a state. There’s not one tenth of one percent this much graffiti in London, not even in say Hackney or Brixton.

    We realise graffiti gives the impression of a lawless street and heralds crime and inner city decay.

    If we catch a tagger round our building he gets his pen or can rammed down his throat through his teeth. You Berliners should grow some balls and do the same before your city looks as bad as it smells.


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