Berlin: Stumbling Stones and street art

Artists force us to stumble, to remember.

BERLIN STUMBLING blocks, a project that installed blocks in memorial to Jews killed in the Holocaust (photo credit: REUTERS)
BERLIN STUMBLING blocks, a project that installed blocks in memorial to Jews killed in the Holocaust
(photo credit: REUTERS)
You stumble over them, they’re that small. They slow you down, force you to look twice. And that’s the point. You stop and crouch to read what is inscribed on the brass plaque:
DEPORTIERT 27.11.1941
ERMORDET 30.11.1941
There are five Stumbling Stones, or Stolpersteine, outside my friend Kenny Fries’s apartment. As I stare down at them, Kenny and his husband Mike wait patiently for me to grasp the import.
They’ve taken me from one surprise to another during our evening in their new hometown, Berlin, which they already know and love. It’s a warm, glorious September night as we walk down Karl Marx Allee – formerly Stalin Allee – a vast street lined by faceless concrete apartment blocks intended for members of the Communist Party, and for victory parades and marches. It now looks faintly forlorn. The entire street is a monument to a triumph that never happened. I do a double-take at the Karl Marx Bookstore and peer inside the large windows at an arched interior. Empty.
“Today it’s a printing press,” Kenny informs me, “but they kept the sign and the original design.”
In St. Petersburg and in Gdansk, I saw wounded buildings, slashed with horrors of war and bandaged with colorful new facades, but somehow the bloody past always leaks out (see my previous post on Gdansk). In Berlin, the Jewish Museum and the Holocaust Memorial provide interesting switches. The Jewish Museum, with the broken Star of David on its punctured facade, works with the senses to recreate the terror of Jews in Germany during World War II. The ground shifts beneath your feet, white noise accompanies you, and walls close in, leaving you dizzy and claustrophobic. The Holocaust Memorial, with its maze of coffin-like gray pillars lining narrow corridors and abrupt Escheresque twists and turns, makes you doubt the faint light at the end of the tunnel... as if you’ll wander down these dark corridors like Kafka’s Joseph K for the rest of time. At every corner, you stumble over memories and ghosts, and “Jew” whispers in your ear.
For Berliners, the defining moment of history is not World War II, but the Berlin Wall being torn down 25 years ago.
Kenny, Mike and I stand in front of the Tacheles – which sounds like a Hebrew prayer, but is the last standing Squatters’ House. When the Wall came down, East Berliners immediately evacuated their homes and escaped to West Berlin. Struggling young West Berliners sneaked into East Berlin and occupied the abandoned houses. Some remained for years, but most were eventually kicked out. At night the Tacheles looks raw and gaping, black orifices plugged by posters, slogans, spray paint – the new language of art.
The following day, Ben, a street artist who calls himself El Kapitano del Karacho (Brazilian friends informed him it means “Captain of the Penis”), takes us to Friedrichain, a shady neighborhood known for drugs and danger, and its graffiti.
“Don’t buy your drugs from pushers here,” he advises.
“And don’t get drunk in bars here.”
He leads us to an old train station – a dizzying whirl of spray paint, rollers, posters and wall art covering decay, poverty and disintegration. After a few hours at the Black Market Collective, a large warehouse where I created my own version of street art – a stenciled portrait of John Lennon – using an Exacto-knife, spraying paint, shaking it dry—I understand the excitement. It’s like being a kid let loose in an art studio, only the entire city is your canvas.
“We’re criminals,” says Ben gleefully. “The fine for graffiti is 463.60 euros, and with a court case and lawsuits, it can go to 2,000 euros. But there’s no thrill like painting a wall and running to hide a second before the cops drive by.”
The street artists travel in packs: the artist, checkers on the next corner with walkie talkies – no phones because they may be tapped. Black hoodies and face masks, and they carry knives and baseball bats to look intimidating.
Sometimes a film crew because they want to be documented.
Ben points out the work of known artists like Sobre, El Bocho and Jimmy C, known for social criticism and conspiracy theories.
“Ah!” I jump in here. “So you want to be known, but not caught. Is that what it’s about?” “Yes... street art began with writing your name on a wall, but look at a group like 1UP.”
In the train station an art exhibit is devoted to an internationally known street-art group that moves from city to city, films their work in documentaries, puts together (expensive) volumes of their art, and signs themselves 1UP. No personal signatures, just 1UP, which comes from Super Mario Brothers, and can stand for 1 United Power.
Street artists know their work will be plastered over, repainted by the city and other artists. That doesn’t concern them. What’s important is the thrill, the moment.
Street bombing, murdering a wall, the explosion of art – a happening. And then, moving on. The next wall, the next challenge, the next city.
After Ben leaves, I walk along the remaining parts of the Wall, known as the East Side Gallery, possibly the largest outdoor art gallery in the world. The Berlin Wall – painted, graffiti’d, layer upon layer, smeared and sprayed to the last inch. Street art at its ultimate: the voice of the people, protesting, creating beauty (however you define it) in the face of repression.
I stumble as if the Stolpersteine are under my feet. Later, I learn that they are an art project for Europe by Gunter Demnig, commemorative brass plaques set in the pavement in front of the deported person’s last address of choice. Demnig was inspired by the Talmud: “A person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten.” Each stone begins: “HERE LIVED... .”
“One ‘stone,’” he writes. “One name. One person.”
Standing at the Wall, I close my eyes and see artists madly painting over bloodstains, punctures, gaping wounds...and running in the night. And others carving a broken Star of David, tilting the ground beneath our feet, hammering in brass plaques, and forcing us to stumble. To remember.
The writer is the author of the novel, The Road to Fez, and the recipient of literary fellowships.