The warehouse is chilly, dimly lit, and smells of paint. Curtis is dressed in black from head to toe and gives me the go-ahead nod. I look at all the cans in front of me, pick up the pink one, shake it, and push the top gently; my first attempt at graffiti is exhilarating and I smile as I stand back and look at my work.
No, I wasn’t breaking the law; I actually paid to have the opportunity to do this. Most street art Berlin tours simply walk you around the city, but this one allows you to pick up a can yourself and create your own street art in the ‘comfort’ of their workshop with a mentor (that’s Curtis!). Whenever you can do something yourself you learn to appreciate what goes into it. This hands-on element to the Viator street art tour is what made it the best street art tour I’ve taken.
It’s impossible to ignore the graffiti and street art around Berlin and all of Europe. I’ve always had mixed feelings about it as I walk throughout Rome or Athens or Berlin. I love the colorful artistic Wall and Mural style of street art on the sides of large buildings, but I have a hard time with the tagging on public doors and walls. But one thing is for sure, you can’t escape it in Europe – so I thought I would try to understand it instead.
We follow our guides as they show us the various types street art around Berlin; Wall art/Murals, Tagging, Throw Ups, Paste Ups, and Stencils. Curtis points out what appears to be scribbles high up on the side of a building. He says that it actually spells a word and asks me to take a guess. I squint trying to make something out of the red lines and curves, but as long as I look at it, all I can see is red, nonsense, scribbles. “It says Styler,” he says as he sees me struggling. Now with this word in my head I see it; suddenly it’s clear as if I can see for the first time, I can make out an S-T-Y and more.
As we all stare upward at more tagging done by Styler of the Uber Fresh Crew, our other guide, Rob, instructs me to look for how the letters connect. Once I can see the connection of letters, I start to see the words. The tags are slowly becoming clearer to me as the day moves forward. However the tagging is still a hard pill to swallow for me.
We move on to Throw Ups. These are works that are designed for quick execution to avoid attracting attention. It normally consists of a one-color outline and a fill color of ‘easy-to –paint’ bubble letters. We examine a number of these by the 1UP crew and I am mesmerized. Not by the artistry, but by the teamwork that they require to do them so quickly. Curtis explains that these Throw Ups take a lot of practice for a team to get it right. The pieces are practically choreographed, as a dance would be. The team has to quickly move around each other and timing is critical so that there are no drips in the finished work. Sometimes their canvas even moves with them when they do Throw Ups on moving vehicles like subway cars.
How to Appreciate Street Art
“When looking at and admiring people’s street art, you don’t say ‘That’s beautiful’, you say ‘Nice spot’” Rob explains, “That’s praise in the street art world.”
Granted, appreciating art is individual; what I like, you might not. Rob gives me a few things to consider when viewing any kind of Street Art. Each work can be evaluated by the danger of getting caught or hurt (placement, lighting), saturation (how many tags in a area/city/globally), and style (did they bring a new design). This explanation gave me a new lens to view the work by and the ability to appreciate some of the tags that I would have overlooked before.
Now It’s My Turn
We enter an old brick warehouse building; our graffiti workshop. Tables and cans are everywhere, and the walls are painted in colorful creations made by the teachers and guides. Everything has tags on it, even the garbage cans and the bathroom walls.
I am given a pile of stencils to choose from and Curtis teaches me how to cut them out. The cutting is a tedious process, but once done, I’m ready to paint. Curtis walks us through how to use the paint cans and do smooth strokes as well as fades.
Now it’s my turn. I look at my geisha stencil in front of me and I look at the various pattern stencils and the colors to choose from; I am overwhelmed. It’s hard to imagine how the stencil is layered as well as how the various colors will look together. It practically hurts to try to make decisions – my creative painting muscles haven’t been stretched in a while and are now brittle. But once I start, it all begins to flow. I still rely on Curtis quite a bit for reassurance, but it is my creation in the end. A creation I am immensely proud of.
What makes this tour stand out from any other graffiti tour I’ve taken in the world is when I am given my own can and I’m able to create my own street art! There’s no better way to appreciate something than to try it yourself. It is only then when you understand the complexities, creativity, mechanics, and artistry involved.
So the next time you really want to understand street art, take a tour and pick up a can yourself.