The narrow, cobbled streets of this 200 year-old neighborhood, Dresden’s Neustadt, or New Town, are lined with 4-story buildings, and for block after block, the first six feet up from street level are covered with graffiti. Mercilessly, exuberantly, covered with painted words and graphics of all kinds: a generous dose of hip hop, inevitably. And the scrawl of grass-roots politiking: the polyglot voice of discontent, of young egos. And–soaring above the visual din, murals–monsters and skeletons and human figures, realistic and surreally distorted. Sometimes they reach 30 and 40 feet high.
Every one of these veins of street art is interesting in its own way. All together, they project pure energy. The urgency to make a mark, to take ownership, to communicate. Ideas about private property are especially provocative in this formerly communist place, long run-down, now percolating—boiling, it seems to me–with twin spirits of entrepreneurship and something US politics shies away from by comparison, the collective effort to build a better place.
Friday, October 3, is German Unity Day—a national holiday celebrating the official reunification of Germany 24 years ago. To my eyes and ears and all my senses, really, Dresden is defined by the energy of reunification, and rebuilding. Graffiti is just one of the release valves.
Consider the hip hop style pieces and tags. To an awful lot of people, and perhaps especially Americans, this is what graffiti is. But here it is just one particular brand, one specific thread in the rope. Viewed through the lens of east and west, of capitalism vs. communism or socialism, it’s a grass roots embrace of western culture, the flattery of imitation applied to that American street style, one of our most easily recognized cultural exports. Eye candy. It’s a bit like seeing McDonalds, or a Subway, both of which are present here, even if only a little. Hip hop style shows up as part of the chorus everywhere graffiti can be found–but it’s just one of the voices. In this context I appreciate it mostly as part of the palimpsesto–one layer in the whole, screaming chorus of color and activity.
As far as individual marks go, I’m personally more intrigued by written messages painted around town, in at least three languages.
I see plenty of English with the German, including many lines written by people painting in what seems (by its syntax) to be a second language. “It’s hardt [sic] to see racism when you’re,” for example. Indeed: When you are racist, it is difficult to see racism. And indeed, someone wrote in a correction to the spelling of “hard.”
The linguistic mix includes a bit of Spanish, some even with Mexican (not continental European) sympathies, such as the mark of the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional, (Zapatista Army of National Liberation), of Chiapas. Remember Subcomandante Marcos?
Some of the same unwritten rules clearly apply to graffiti here as in the US, and everywhere I’ve looked for the writing on the wall. The baroque neighborhood surrounding the Frauenkirche (The Church of Our Lady, its familiar domed version completed in 1743) is immaculate. The Frauenkirche and the palatial Zwinger complex of museums have been rebuilt stone by stone since demolition by allied bombing in 1945. And everyone knows you don’t tag a church.
Dresden also has places as ruined as Cleveland’s storied “Fun Wall,” where writers paint with impunity, accumulating layer on layer of paint. Dresden has its direct parallel, not far from the Elbe River, about halfway between Neustadt and Blasewitz, an overgrown ruin of a building covered in hip hop pieces. Whoever owns these walls seems to have no plans, except perhaps to sell when the right bidder comes along with a new construction project. Until then, it’s just canvas made of brick.
In the Neustadt, though, Graffiti is not only everywhere, but it is all over buildings that are actively being used. Not long ago, this neighborhood was losing people, except for squatters. Now people, own these buildings, run businesses in their storefronts, and live in their apartments. Despite the objections, it seems to me the energy reflected in the graffiti is part of what has drawn people again. People like to be near creative energy. The artists, as we know in Cleveland, bring it. Of course not everyone sees it that way. One landlord conceived a can’t beat-em-join-em kind of solution, painting the entire first floor of a building on Boemischer Strasse with black chalkboard paint. It’s covered in chalk graffiti. And of course, just above the chalkboard, someone sprayed a tag.
Once in a while, though, you turn a corner and see something that distinguishes itself: a work of art that’s neither graphic treatment of a made-up name, nor political branding, just images, figures, scenes along the street, available to everyone, all day, every day. Folks who have appreciated the Zoetic Walls project in Collinwood will appreciate such pieces. It’s commonly said that street art loses something when it is done with permission, which some of these clearly have. I’d have to say that very much depends on the nature of the street art. When I roll around here on my bicycle, taking it all in, I just don’t care.