It’s 11am at the Michelberger Hotel, a contemporary space developed by a group of friends on the east side of Berlin. Low cream-coloured couches and stacked vintage suitcases observe the silent, white russian-fueled hijinks of The Big Lebowski as it plays on constant loop on wall-mounted screens throughout the halls. The dude abides.
“Wats good. Alternative underground, innit?” The inflection indicates a question, but having recently arrived on a redeye flight from Vancouver, I stand rumpled and blinking, the outline of a pillow seam engraved in my cheek. “I’m sorry, I don’t speak German,” I fumble, searching my napping brain for phrases diligently practiced en route. “Lucky I’m speakin’ English then.” So he is.
Our Alternative Berlin underground guide, a baby-faced denim clad punk with a thick Brixton accent, checks our metro passes as we move from the hotel lobby into the street. We’re a group of nine, with the tour serving as my inaugural introduction to the local squats, subcultures, and a bounty of graffiti and street art – a layered mass of wheat paste and paint, political viewpoints, sardonic musings, and illustrations of the triumphs and shortcomings of humankind.
While unauthorized public art is illegal in Berlin, the general approach to this ever-evolving canvas is one that has embraced a designation of UNESCO City of Design, as a progressive venue that promotes and supports creativity and the freedom of expression. These attributes consistently attract visitors in droves, and with that, an influx of income to a formerly debt-ridden city. With Berlin having been characterized as poor, but sexy, by the formergoverning mayor, Klaus Wowereit, booming tourism, along with varied business and start-up ventures, have helped to form a brighter financial future, albeit coupled with rapid gentrification.
Moving through the Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg, Mitte and Kreuzberg districts via metro stations and back alleys, enveloped in the afternoon air – a derelict perfume of dirt, hotdogs and urine, our guide points through fingerless gloves, and presents a flurry of information with an artful flourish. Cheshire cat grins emerge whenever acts of anarchy are referenced and highlights include Spike Lee by MTO, an ongoing series by El Bocho featuring the murderous Little Lucy and her invincible cat, intricate depictions of enormous wildlife by ROA, a gloriously decrepit abandoned warehouse near the Skalitzers Contemporary Art gallery, and a Cosmonaut piece by Victor Ash, which features a massive astronaut who is strategically graced with the projected shadow of a fluttering flag in the evening hours from a nearby car lot.
We convene at YAAM, a sandy outdoor space, fueled by reggae music and easy conversation, to download our day over a pint and a Jamaican patty. Sliding a handful of tips into the back pocket of his jeans, our guide turns towards an Australian backpacker to offer advice on a request for a published guide to Berlin street art and graffiti. Given the impermanence of these works, the best guide, he notes, is to wander and document the city on foot, knowing that your time with a piece may very well be your last.
A solid reminder to enjoy life in the now, innit.
Words and photos ©Ehren Seeland