Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Graffiti in reference to wall murals in Berlin by Heinz J. Kuzdas



                                 Heinz J. Kuzdas at his exhibition in Kreuzberg 2011

Graffiti in Berlin is practically a carry over from the wall murals which were painted on the West side of the Berlin wall, and which Heinz J. Kuzdas documented from 1981 until 1989. After that 'wall murals' continued in various forms on other walls, and this time in both parts of Berlin.

However, it should not be forgotten what tremendous art sprang into action during the squatter movement around 1980-82, the time of a great transition with regards to use of free space but also what was happening to the housing stock in Berlin. Along came IBEA, the international building exhibition, which attempted to correct mistakes which had been made by architects in the past. All those experiences were pushed aside once it was decided after the fall of the wall that Berlin should become again capital of Germany. A building boom started with ever more free land encroached upon.

Heinz J. Kuzdas observed while doing his photo documentation of the changing images along the Berlin wall this as an influx of those times. For the wall murals constituted in his mind an 'anarchistic structure'. Not only were they "repeatedly painted over, with thousand resounding voices, (and thus became a) colourful playground for public opinion declarations...(but it was) as matter of fact specific for the atmosphere found in West Berlin." (1)

In other words, the wall was treated as a 'free legal space'. That is of great importance for all graffiti artists. What Heinz J. Kuzdas observed over time was an alternating playfulness along one of the most dangerous borders. Moreover to his surprise, the wall murals showed "another perspective of the 'frontier city'" Berlin had been until the wall came down in 1989. This graffiti art had become an elongated wall art which climbed literally over that hindrance to the eye, namely the wall. It did so by empowering the imagination to climb or even fly over, in order to reach out to those people who lived on the other side of the wall and therefore in East Berlin. It was overcoming not simply a wall but even more so a sharp border which had been drawn to keep East and West separate during the Cold War. Many symbolic connotations interplayed with reality so the images along the wall took on not only an artistic but equally a political meaning.

Not forgotten are the words of John F. Kennedy: "Ich bin ein Berliner". It amounted to an identification with a common cause which empowered many of these expressions.

What Heinz J. Kuzdas found also surprising was that most of the expressions painted onto the wall were "free of nostalgia, sometimes idyllic" while not ignoring the paradox since they were not accessible from the other side due to the wall being an insurmountable obstacle for those living on the other side. Out of this paradox resulted, so he believes, 'the myth of Berlin'.

Crucial in the observations of Heinz J. Kuzdas is that he makes by means of photography noticable what changes took place within the new space found for graffiti art along the Berlin Wall. All graffiti artists engaged in this claimed their act to be 'legal' because the wall was deemed to be public and equally something more than this since a historical emblem of a cruel paradox.

Usually space used by graffiti is subject to many kinds of disputes. Once house walls are used, the graffiti artist confronts the property rights of the owners. Here ends then playfulness and instead the very act of expression enters into a conflict with Rights ascribed to private ownership. Once freedom of expression as a Right is invoked, the fight about using or not a surface for purpose of artistic expressions becomes a complicated legal-aesthetical-social matter with 'use of space' in the city still another, indeed extra dimension.

For instance, graffiti artists may argue that when the house wall looks onto the street, it can be claimed to be as well a public space. Only the difference to the space along the Berlin Wall is that the house owner is responsible for the colour of the facade while the Berlin wall itself was constructed by the DDR or East German state whose legal existence was disputed by the state under the rule of the Four Powers as was the case of West Berlin status and from where the graffiti artists agitated from. Given such a political difference in what designated that special space along the Berlin Wall, it makes all the more evident how important it is what legal and political authorities claim to be the case and law they seek to impose in case of violations thereof. 

Law applied to a specific space is justified by the wish and need to uphold a certain public order. As such it made the Berlin Wall into a special test case for graffiti artists. And once it started and became a public art display, this recognition empowered it all the more as it could be claimed to being done as a cause for freedom.

Once this link was made, the art along the Berlin Wall gained all the more recognition, since it was deemed to be in opposition as to what the DDR state wished to uphold and to impose as its interpretation of reality. The latter was underlined by watch towers and death strips running along the other side of the wall, so that no one could dare to approach that side to leave a mark of any kind. The guards were ordered to shoot if necessary to kill if anyone tried to escape over the wall to the other side. The East German regime provoked even more so the perception of the wall as it claimed to have build it not to prevent more East German citizens from fleeing to the West for the sake of a better life, but that it was a protective wall against Fascism which ruled apparently still in the West despite as to what happened in 1945. Clearly that revealed all the more the paradox due to the sharp contrast between East and West with regards to not only freedom of expression but also of movement.

Naturally when it comes to use clearly defined private spaces as if equally of public value, one way to resolve the legal dispute around graffiti forms of expressions is to collaborate with the house owner and to conceive this to be no longer merely a work of graffiti but a wall mural brought about by acquiring the legal right to paint the entire facade. 

As such the documentation by Heinz J. Kuzdas captures the twists and turns of various art and protest movements within Berlin. Thus it is worthwhile to dwell on the wall murals in relation to what altered the graffiti scene in Berlin.

Alterations in living space especially in West Berlin while the Berlin wall was still standing

When living in a city like Berlin, the sense of space is defined by what people are confined to. The wall was emblematic for an overall limitation but equally the type of housing available in Berlin was an odd mixture between confinement and emptiness. After the war most of the industry had left. Other areas were bombed out. Things did not really start to pick up until 1981 and thereafter when houses were either occupied by squatters or else there was started a first wave of renovation.

Berlin has always been an ordered city which reflects the history of administration with regards to city planning and further going regulations. Things are, therefore, tighly regulated. When Berlin was created around 1871, that is after the first unification of Germany due to Bismarck using war as means to frighten provinces like Baveria into the common fold under Prussian control, things had to go fast. Consequently most of the houses are all build in the same way due to administrative regulations. They ended up all with the same typical front house and then at the back court yard the side wings along with the garden house wing. They ended up having four floors prompting the philosopher Ernst Bloch to say everything has the same height as far as the dust can go: 'Staub Hoch Vier'.

Simply said, all doors, staircases, even the lay out of the apartments were everywhere the same. Robert Musil can be quoted here as observing the only chance to break out of conformity is when everyone goes to sleep at the same time by slipping into a similar bed standing at the same spot as everyone else has it below or above in the same apartment cut, then instead of going to bed it is wise to climb atop the tile stove or cup board in order to obtain another observation of the world.

At the corner between the front and the side wing, there was located the 'Berliner Zimmer': the Berlin room is the largest one in the flat. It serves both for gatherings but also as a go through room since it connects the front part of the apartment with the rooms found along the corridor of the side wing. This was the case as long as it was one apartment. After the war, due to the bombardments of Berlin having destroyed many houses and the need for living space huge, these apartments were subdivided to create one apartment up front and another one on the side wing. Only with modernisation were some of them reconnected to resume the former tradition of having apartments which go around the entire inner court yard.

Looking back on how Berlin created these spacious apartments, it brought about a massive confirmity of housing estates. As said already they all had the same cut, the same Berliner room (the largest one), the same stair cases and the same problems of tension. For light was coming only from one direction especially since the Berliner room had but one large window to look out into the inner court yard. That meant many apartments especially on the ground floor or first floor were quite dark. 

It is said that a lot was done in the post war period to correct the mistakes made by architects who constructed on a massive and planned way. That was even worse in East Berlin with the Socialist ideology embracing Le Corbusier's idea of serial homes or 'Wohnmachines' - machines to live in. Out of this resulted a tension field which includes missing nature.

From the Berlin wall murals to house wall murals


        House facade

Heinz J. Kuzdas followed this development by documenting after 1989 more and more not wall but facade murals. It meant for him not only photographing, but organizing as well graffiti artists to paint entire surfaces.

In German, they are called 'Brandmauern': walls to protect against possible fires. However, there is another angle to these kinds of walls. Since houses stood side by side with no space in-between, these walls meant for the apartments behind them no open window to look outside on this side.

Naturally once one house was destroyed, and there were many during the bombardment of Berlin towards the end of Second World War, these empty spaces were ideal for such gigantic expressions.

It led to a development called in German 'Fassadenmalerei' or facade painting. Since surfaces easily viewed from the street, they underwent themselves changes over time, and with it came the new expressions of what it meant to live in a city like Berlin. For instance, in the fifties a lot of architects and others were convinced like Le Corbusier that the decorative elements should be removed to let simple lines speak. As a result a lot of houses lost their exterior elements. Then came the phase of renovation in West Berlin once Richard von Weizsäcker was elected as mayor of Berlin West in 1981. Once in office he countered the squatters' movement which had started already with large portraits and wall murals by supporting house owners insofar as subsidies were made available to renovate their houses. When referring to houses, it could entail a house up front along with the apartments at the back, and therefore entail up to 80 or more housing units. It all depends whether or not they were left as one big unit or subdivided into smaller ones. Before 1989, IBEA had a tremenous influence and after 1989 and the rebuilding of Berlin as Capital of Germany, there was another construction boom. By now things settle in but again houses are transformed into having a special signature like the hotel on Grolmannstreet with its facade a clear indication that it is dedicated to Magritte, the Surrealist painter.

Heinz J. Kuzdas followed his own pattern of actions and projects for wall murals  entailed with time huge engagements till he finally was working with teams doing an international village. The size of the wall is best indicated by just one example.



    Wall mural in dialogue with graffiti at the bottom



Two important observations can be made at first hand about this specific wall mural. In the upper image there can be seen graffiti entering the picture. It can be a sign of having been provoked by the over towering image with men on bicycle heading towards the open mouth of the giant figure. The interesting aspect is that this one figure is made up of many. The image showing details of the face close up evokes memories of horror, for countless bodies were piled up in concentration camps.

Such were the memories and thoughts affecting many after Second World War. Even passing by a basement could make suddenly audible the screams when the Gestapo had entered that Jazz club steps below to take Jews away. Yet the post war period meant as well an urge to create and to live even if not sure what next step to take. The graffiti at the bottom uses two stark colours to make a visible contrast between red and yellow. Most telling is, however, the written text within the yellow letters: "I am unknown". This suggests a dialogue is taken up or at least a comment is made as to what is felt when not so much oppressed but impressed by the overall wall mural. 

There are throughout Berlin to be spotted some spectacular wall murals such as the one at Schlesisches Tor in Kreuzberg. It used to be during the time when the wall stood a dead end or the closed gate to the frontier with the East. Now that place is still full of memories as to what used to divide East from West Berlin but it has transformed Kreuzberg from being a col de sac into a turning point reflecting the history of Berlin.


   Wall mural at Schlesisches Tor

Again there is to be noted the playful addition of graffiti in the lower left corner. While the blue image resembles an elephant holding up one foot as if a hand giving with the fingers a clear signal, the other is a funny tank turned into a near like elephant to greet with an elongated noosle the writing on the wall. To interpret properly the graffiti within the overall wall mural would require, therefore, to do justice to this kind of playfullness which has continued to set the tone in Berlin even after the Berlin Wall has come down.

Naturally Heinz J. Kuzdas became interested as photographer as to what graffiti continued to be on display in Berlin. For it can easily happen while walking past an entrance door leading to a backcourt yard, that someone had used a specific surface to make a comment or display some other aspect of this playful wondering about the myth of Berlin.


        Girl skipping rope in Ackerstreet


Serial Graffiti

Graffiti came into its own once serial notions were developed while seeking to make a difference to purely commerical forms of advertisements. That distinction is still important with regards to distinguishing art forms from clever designs since they all try to capture public attention.

Club 25







A practical serie is interwoven with the wish to tell a certain story. The location matters since every place is denoted by special meanings. They reflect what emotions have been stock piled there as people try to root themselves in urban life. Often they end up missing the emotional bondage linked to a feeling of belonging to a certain society with a continuity of life allowing for a vision. Thus the mixture of enduring and working towards a change allows for the in between daily and metaphysical levels of expressions. Of interest in this case of serial graffiti is that while people dressed in a typical way have animal heads to underline a turn to allegories and satire as form of expression of the typical at another level of meaning. The latter is captured best in the version of a fable. This happens when other literary forms seem to have failed in expressing both the desire of a change in life and what is the fate of those who succumb to patterns of mere determination.

In an indirect sense, it evokes associations with Orwell's 'Animal Farm' but adds another version due to having lived in Berlin during various phases of upheavals and attempts to lead an alternative life to what the parents and older generations have failed to do by submission. That latter aspect is drawn out especially by some of the characters wearing sunglasses. As protection against too much light, it can evoke as well the wish not to look the other way but not to be detected oneself when looking straight ahead.


Interior graffiti



     Tach inside



Graffiti is displayed naturally not only on outside walls. Once in the past squatter houses were entered, or even nowadays places which have been occupied, restored and come under use by different parties, the walls tell a part of that history as well. Here it may well be that another kind of freedom but also obligation is felt when seeking not to decorate or design walls, but to plaster them over with graffiti. Implied is to replace the old fashioned form of tapestry or wall paper used commonly in the past. Once these houses were re-entered and used, these wall papers were scrapped off and consequently layers of history were discovered.

One reason for wishing to scrape free the walls is because some of the newspapers used as wall paper and for purpose of insulating against moisture dated back to 1933 or else around that time. It evoked historical consciousness as an immediate evidence of a troublesome past while revealing in an archaeological sense how people lived back then and during those troublesome and highly problematic times, politically speaking. It made especially Berlin into a search for a new identity which would not be entangled with the mistakes made in the past. That leads automatically to an examination of the human being out of many different angles, including the anthropological and ethnological ones.

Heinz J. Kuzdas evokes another self understanding by making visible this transgression from murals along the Berlin wall vis wall murals on house facades to graffiti pure to be seen both inside and outside. It is a way to show how the 'myth of Berlin' lives on.

Text by Hatto Fischer 24.12.2013

Photos by Heinz . Kuzdas

1. Source of quotes: Berliner LeseZeichen (Berlin Reading Signs) - Angela Fische. 10th edition. Espresso Verlag. ISBN 3-88520-634-X)


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