The calm streets of Lichtenberg can give anyone the impression of not being the most exciting part of Berlin. Located a good 30-minute ride from the city centre the area – which carries loads of history from the German-Soviet war – is mostly about shopping and museums (Berlin49). What some people might not know though, is that a group of street artists have their headquarters in Lichtenberg. The group do street art tours where visitors get the chance to try graffiti themselves in the Black Market Collective workshop. I spoke to Robert Smith, who told me everything about why graffitti and street art is such an important part of Berlin.
The artists from Black Market Collective take turns in hosting tours across the city as well as having workshops where people can try to make their own street art. The Lichtenberg workshop is located in an old margarine factory. The inside is covered in various, colorful grafitti pieces and the many tables, which are surrounded by clusters of students practising their first graffiti, are covered with spray cans.
After the fall of the Berlin wall, people expected the city to go back to being the industrial centre of Europe. Instead – it lost almost 70% of its manufacturing jobs. Today, the city is considered to be the European capital of creative people. The low rents and cheap space is a big reason to why young, creative people leave cities like New York and London for Berlin (Notjustalabel). The cheap rents are much to do with the rental control law which was introduced in 2015. The law states that new rental contracts can not exceed over 10 percent of the price of an apartment. This has had a positive effect on Berlin as a creative city since the artists can afford to stay in the city, express their form of art and inspire eachother. (Thelocal).
Robert Smith, who moved here from Australia, works with Black Market Collective.
”Berlin was central and cheap. Honestly, you’re well connected, you’re in the centre of Europe, and you can afford to rent an apartment for 300 euros a month. Get fucked. That’s awesome!”
Robert speaks with great enthusiasm while he tells me all I need to know about what makes Berlin special for him. Back in Australia, he worked 45 hours a week. Even though he earned a lot, he never had time to use his studio space. In Berlin however, he could work two days a week, get enough money to pay for food and rent and spend the rest of the time being creative. For any struggling artist, this type of lifestyle is a luxury.
There are plenty of cities similar to Berlin. San Fransisco, London and New York have being praised by artists as great places to live in and explore, but they’ve all ended up being to expensive for them to stay in. This has forced many artists to move to other cities. According to Robert though, this is not the case yet in Berlin. The city is still famous for being dominated by young, creative people who all have the freedom and space to express their form of art. People with an art degree are considered as ”professional artists”, and can therefore receive benefits from the German state. Secondly, artists are covered by the Künstlersozialkasse, which give them a 50 percent reduction in healthcare insurance fees. Berliners also have many opportunities to exhibit their art because of the many museums, art galleries and travelling exhibitions available (Young Germany).
Robert started with graffiti when he was 12 years old, and the fact that he gets to work with this passion is one reason to why he, and many others, think Berlin is worth it’s weight in gold.
”Berlin I think has always walked the beat of its own drum, its always been a place that has kind of rejected its overseers. If you look at this city, I mean try and tell Berlin that they have a leader. In 100 years they’ve had the imperials, the weimar republic, the nazis and then the east and west Government. The only thing that has remained steady for the people of Berlin is the people of Berlin.
One peculiar fact that most people are unaware of is that graffiti actually is illegal in Germany. A few years ago, the Anti-graffitti unit in the Berlin police force was a team of 20 people. In a city of 3.5 million people, where hundreds of thousands of people are out on the street doing graffitti every week, it’s simply not enough. Robert also thinks the Berliners don’t feel like they actually own the buildings in which they reside, much because of the postwar period which consisted of a lot of poverty and no proper structure of the ownership of buildings. Street art can therefore flourish in most areas. (Prudential Investment Management 2015).
”The fine for that is 10 euros. I get in more trouble for smoking a cigarette in the train platform, that I would do for doing a paystop. It just counts as littering. Because they can clean it off easily it’s not a true vandalism charge.”
Black Market Collective’s vision to inspire and educate visitors to create a bigger understanding of street art, feels more important than ever when Robert starts talking about the history of Berlin.
Friedrichain and Kreuzberg, two of the areas with most street art, used to be in the outskirts of West and East Berlin when the wall was still standing. People who lived there were usually poor people, immigrants, artists, musicians or political activists. After the fall of the wall, Kreuzberg and Friedrichain were suddenly in the middle of Berlin and because of this, the prices eventually started rising and artists were forced to move to other areas. This is one reason to why Black Market Collective is located in Lichtenberg, and also a reason to why grafitti and street art is so spread out. Because it’s such a big feature of Berlin it makes young people more engaged in art, which is amazing, according to Robert.
”You point to an average person under the age of 25 and say ’name me five currently living artists’, and they can. Go back 20 years, it is not as possible. People are interested in visual arts again, in a way that’s not necessarily commersial which is really nice, and so I think that’s one of it’s big contributions.”