Cities and their public spaces have gone from once being tagged by vandals & misfits to inviting renowned artists to make use of their walls as canvasses. Just as cities are in a constant state of change, so does the art that fills it. Of course, graffiti and other forms of street art can (and should) be controversial, but can also be a voice of social change, protest, or expressions of community aspiration.
Urban art does not exist in a vacuum. The built fabric of cities provides the canvas on which street artists exhibit their sentiments, undistinguishably linking it to its physical environment. The relationship between such art and the physicality of its condition brings it into a unique artistic realm for everyone to experience, where it is visible in the public sphere as opposed to the exclusive walls of a gallery, and as such, is unequivocally affected by the architecture that acts as its backdrop.
A widespread intention of most, if not all street art, is that adapting graphic forms of artwork into formats that make use and manipulate public space allows artists who may otherwise feel marginalized to reach a much broader audience than traditional artwork, galleries & museums normally allow.
Architecturally speaking, Berlin’s newfound urban identity reflects its history and may be interpreted as a physical manifestation of its development as a European immigrant hub. The birth of Berlin’s street art scene can be traced back to 1961 when the Soviet Union erected the Berlin wall, separating East and West Germany. Due to the symbolic significance of the wall as a medium of division, it became the obvious place for the people of Berlin to express their frustrations on a whole range of social and political issues.
Artists have since challenged art by positioning it in contrasting contexts. It is usually not the intention to change the definition of an artwork, but rather to question the state of an existing environment through the various personal interpretations and motivations of the artists themselves. ‘Street’ artists attempt to have their work communicate with everyday people in ways that are informed by subjectively driven aesthetic values, unlike those as set out by architects and city planners.
There is a strong current of activism and intention for destabilization with urban art in Berlin. Murals and posters act as powerful platforms for reaching the public and a potent form of political expression for the oppressed, people with little resources to create change, or for those with overt opinions of intolerance and rampage.
For street artists, the influence of the physical or social environment by which they are constantly surrounded is irrefutable. The process is not merely about finding an empty space to occupy, but about consciously merging art and architecture to elevate the relationship between the two. The association between a wall and art is built on establishing a visual lexicon that references the mural, the background and the wider context of both. Whether intended to make a political or social statement or to merely create a dialogue between old and new; responsibly contextualising the artist’s respective works in situ to achieve a harmonious synthesis between the work and the wall, in my mind, is what makes urban art successful.