I’ve been thinking about graffiti lately. In Berlin, that means I’ve also been walking past it and leaning on it and using it to navigate neighborhood streets. At home in Brooklyn, often-tagged blocks or subway stations are the ones I avoid when I’m alone at night because they’re obviously a bit desolate. Here, graffiti is the wallpaper of the city, a colorful backdrop of identities and egos and urban layers, not nearly as rough- or degenerate-looking as it was probably intended to be.
There’s an exhibition of contemporary art called based in Berlin showing now in several venues. Over eighty “emerging” artists contributed work, and while the quality of work varies greatly, the entire show oozes with joie de vivre. The premise of the show is a political one, part of an ongoing conversation about whether the city needs another Kunsthalle. Outside the exhibition’s Atalierhaus in Montbijoupark, a haphazard vertical maze of metal scaffolding (the ‘canvas’ for Oliver Laric’s work) lets viewers glimpse over the park to the Berliner Dom and the Bode-Museum. Like a metal nest above the trees, the whole structure sways as the wind blows and people plod across it.
The catalog entry that caught my eye, however, was that of Vietnamese graffiti artist, Akim. His work “underlines the impossibility and absurdity of representing graffiti culture within an exhibition.” His exhibition space is not in Montbijoupark but in the Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof, a museum of contemporary art housed in an old train station, so Matt and I made the trek especially to see his work. (Of course I paid a quick tribute to Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis in the permanent collection). I had high hopes for the kind of energetic work that would require a remote location and embody the culture clash of public museum and outsider art. Drama! Intrigue! Splashy display! (I was pumped). After a bit of searching, I located the artist’s label on a bare wood column on which a small TV showed footage of groups of people spraying subway cars. Hurried, sneaking (was it playing in fast-forward?), the figures with covered faces (to hide their identities or to block out fumes?) painted over windows and ads, often with two spray cans at a time. The room was bare except for the TV and a fire extinguisher. It made me uneasy. Whoever thought of graffiti as a group activity? How could something produced so hastily be a craft? That its spartan set-up underscored the unease and conflict inherent in the relationship of graffiti and “high” art was brilliant.
Graffiti feels more at home on the walls of Kunsthaus Tacheles. This former department store, Nazi prison, cinema, and artists’ squat is a metaphor for the city, unabashedly reinventing itself and continuing to evolve. Since the Wall came down, artists have lived, worked, sold art, and commingled there, facing down eviction as recently as last April and looking toward an uncertain future even now. You can enter from Oranienburger Straße any time, step around a few strategically piled chunks of concrete, and wander into a number of open studios. Last week I hesitated to take pictures, but a box labeled “photo ops” was stashed in a corner so I dropped in a coin and snapped a few. The prints for sale, bar, and obvious commercial elements in Tacheles would be easy to criticize as somehow compromising the ‘pure’ creative element of a studio practice, but I’m impressed they’ve used the space to make a viable living. Also, I regret not buying one of those prints.
My favorite part is actually the stairwell that winds up through the reaches of the vast concrete. The grimy, spray-painted panes of glass in the dim hallway reveal gemstone colors in spots, with black lines crossing them. The stories of past visitors and residents play out like a stained-glass backdrop in this cathedral to urban decay and redemption.
As a medievalist, I often have the luxury (or laziness) to ignore issues of contemporary artists and the context in which we view art. These encounters have recharged my awareness of the continuities that face art historians of any time and place. For instance, is it okay that I, an art historian, call graffiti art yet am incredibly peeved that some jackass tagged the Bode-Museum in blue spray paint?
Historically, inscribing images or words has been a means of claiming space, marking territory. For instance, early Christians would at times “seal” a space with a cross. The act required no particular artistic skill, but claimed the space, relying on the symbol’s perceived power to protect them. In a well-known instance of this procedure, Symeon the Stylite (c. 389 – 459) used crosses to mark the space of a village, demanding crosses on every house, in order to fend off wild beasts. In doing this he created an apotropaic seal around its inhabitants. Byzantinist Lyn Rodley uses graffiti in her examination of underground spaces in medieval Cappadocia. She concludes that if a particular set of labyrinths in central Turkey had been used for people to hide from raiders, “frightened people confined in uncomfortable underground space would surely have scratched their prayers (or, if illiterate, signs and symbols) on the walls.” In this vein, contemporary graffiti seems to straddle the traditional mode of claiming space or asserting presence while expressing a person’s or group’s creative vision.
In every Art History 101 class, we have that discussion of “what is art?” Every semester there are one or two students who take a stand that everything–even spilled paint–is art. The point of the discussion, of course, is to help students come to the realization that art is the creative outcome of human expression. But to be art, shouldn’t there be a positive force? Isn’t creativity about bringing something into the world, not destroying it? These are the thoughts I wrestled with in front of Akim’s video in the desolate white exhibition space. Yet the laws of physics remain: lapis lazuli had to be ground up for Giotto to paint the Scrovegni Chapel; pounds and pounds of marble had to be chipped away for Michelangelo’s Pietá to emerge. Energy and matter can neither be created nor destroyed. Even great art, it seems, blazes a trail of recreated substances. The product may ultimately be judged a masterpiece or a nuisance, but both destroy to create.
While artists and critics continue to discuss the merits (or lack thereof) of contemporary graffiti as an art form, I’ll plead the middle ages and take a longer view. It’s a sign of life, a marker of a particular place and time, a thought that simply had to be replicated in a more tangible form. Like a preliminary sketch of a master painter, graffiti conveys fleeting ideas that needed to be captured.
 “Akim” in Moritz van Dulmen, ed., based in Berlin, (Berlin: Kulturprojekte Berlin GmnH; Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König) 22-23. See also http://www.kulturprojekte-berlin.de/publikationen/ for ordering the catalog.
 Robert Doran, Theodoret (Bishop of Cyrrhus), and Antonius (monk, disciple of Simeon Stylites), The Lives of Simeon Stylites (Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 1992), 141, http://books.google.com/books?id=7arYAAAAMAAJ.
 Lyn Rodley, Cave Monasteries of Byzantine Cappadocia, (New York: Cambridge University Press), 1985.