When I first arrived in Berlin I noticed the bananas. Bright, yellow Warholian markers by Cologne-based stencil artist Thomas Baumgärtel, known worldwide for his unofficial seals of approval emblazoned on what the artist deems the best galleries, museums and institutions. Since 1986, under the alias “Bananasprayer”, Baumgärtel has been conflating insider and outsider creating a dialog between the urban artist and the gallery institution. Today these extroverted gestures of aesthetic judgment act as convergence points that network the street with more established spaces.
Like Bananasprayer the vast majority of urban art in Berlin is still found in its native environment — in the streets — and the most skilled have far but fled entirely into the shelter of local galleries. At a bus or tram stop you might stumble on work by up-and-coming ad-buster Vermibus, a Berlin-based artist who utilizes just solvents, brushes, and a gesture of erasure to radically transform the layers of ad posters. Other artists like paste-up figure El Bocho, urban poet SP38, stencil anonym XOOOOX, André’s top hat-sporting stick figure Monsieur A and ad-buster Mein Lieber Prost are an everyday sight — clustered in Friedrichshain doorways or front-and-center on prominent walls in Mitte. In addition to these local heroes, major international figures like ROA (Belgium), Os Gemeos (São Paulo), Blu (Italy), Victor Ash (Portugal) and photograffeur JR (France) have also left their mark with gloriously imposing pieces that serve as pilgrimage destinations for the urbanly inclined. As another crossover point with commercially driven enterprises in the city, these murals have also become prominent highlights for numerous “urban art walking tours” and even for an urban art iPhone app (made for Adidas and actually developed in Berlin).
But as interventions continue to adorn U-Bahn stations and larger murals dominate walls from one -burg to the next, the gallery seals of approval are growing in number and doing their part to change the game in Berlin. Galleries like Skalitzers and itinerant street art gallery Open Walls work with creatives to exhibit, promote and sell works to an increasingly international audience with lucrative results.
Perhaps no Berlin urban fine art space is more recognized worldwide than Circleculture gallery. The brainchild of Johann Haehling von Lanzenauer, the Mitte gallery was founded in 2001 with a dedication to working with urban and urban-inspired artists, showcasing projects and collaborating with big brands like Adidas and elite businesses such as Soho House and upscale apparel boutique The Corner Store. While Circleculture works with some street artists like XOOOOX, the Brooklyn-based German paste-up duo Various & Gould, Vhils, Stohead and others, they also collaborate with urban-inspired work — “urban fine art” -- work that incorporates street art techniques like spray-paint and stenciling, but also involves traditional features like a standard canvas, materials like oil paint or even bronze casting, and an overall presentation that is conscientious of a more traditional exhibition space. Jaybo Monk is one of these artists. Originally hailing from France, Jaybo has spent nearly a lifetime on the streets picking up techniques, imitating and developing styles, eventually settling in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin. After years of inculcation with street art culture, he now applies this edgy style to large-scale canvases. Running with the Hunted, his current show at Circleculture, features work evolved from continuous dabbling with these multifarious urban styles, yet also has the unmistakable mark of a seasoned oil painter — with strokes and formal design that are curious, elegant and transcendent.
Jaybo Monk, A Long Tomorrow, 2012, spraypaint, acrylic and bitumen on canvas, varnish, 120 x 100cm; Courtesy of Circleculture Gallery.
The negotiation between street artist and larger institution is deceptively simple. While there is a constant proliferation of artists and talents immediately visible on the streets, there is an equally large market and demand for the “cool” and the “hip”. How do you negotiate the two without losing some semblance of authenticity? Without selling out? This was the topic of the recent culture talk at Platoon, a cultural hub that brings together events, talks, exhibitions and discussions on contemporary culture. The panel titled “Sellout? The Relation of Culture & Brands” discussed the changing role of street art, urban culture, graffiti in public spaces and their relation to galleries and branding culture. The conclusion? Sometimes it's hard to distinguish one from another.
The confluence is especially strong in Berlin where the presence of so much competing talent has resulted in a formidable market, comprised of players whose activities have all the hallmarks of a major brand initiative. With major auction houses like Phillips de Pury and Bonhams setting the stage with record lot prices, institutionalized urban art has become big business, and Berlin galleries are beginning to capitalize on the fruits of the ever-evolving urban-artscape that’s just on the other side of their pristine walls.
But galleries like Circleculture are doing more than just racking in big bucks for work you would otherwise see for free from the curb. They and other spaces like them are handing the artists an airhorn and a new audience, the possibility to really create a dialogue. For collectors and Berlin dwellers they are preserving slivers of history and evolving culture that would otherwise be forever ephemeral, pasted, thrown up, written and bombed on the face of an ever-shifting anxious city.
(Image on top: BLU, Golden Handcuffs, Berlin; Photo by sabeth718, Creative Commons License.)