Exploring Berlin’s raw, unapologetic city identity

Reflecting on a recent visit to Germany’s capital and creative hub – experiencing the city’s unorthodox approach to placebrand.

Sunrise looking from Oberbaum Bridge

Upon arriving at Berlin’s Schoenefeld airport, I wasn’t greeted with a particular welcome or ‘energy’ I’ve come to experience in other European cities.  There wasn’t a lot to it – a generic look, a few forgettable shops… odd for a capital city revered for it’s culture – we didn’t stick around too long. Schoenefeld is the secondary, smaller airport in the city, so I can’t speak for it’s primary airport.

A short walk to the station and we were on the train to our destination, Friedrichshain. We jumped off and then it started to happen. A city covered wall to wall in graffiti, street art, tags and messages. There was an instant sense of identity here which spread across the entire city. We could easily go into a debate at this point about whether graffiti constitutes art or if it’s just mindless vandalism, but for the me the sheer amount of the stuff made my experience in the city visually stimulating – I really felt like I was somewhere rather than anywhere.

Pasteups & Graffiti

‘Berlin Kidz’ famous for their vertical lettering style

When I looked into the governments current stance on graffiti, I was surprised to find that, just like most cities, it is still very much illegal and punishable by heavy fines. It was the fact that they obviously don’t try to clean or cover it up which I found interesting. This is a city where the people have persevered through harsh times, once physically and ideologically divided by a concrete wall, which I think plays a really important role in the cities identity today… Berlin is free – when the wall fell there was obviously a strong desire for radical expressionism, something which seems to still linger in the city’s culture today. The fact that the government doesn’t try to completely mute this I think makes for a really raw and fascinating sense of place.

Strong opinions on tourism & the wall

Further to the graffiti found all over the city, I regularly came across lots of really unique pasteup posters which I found to push the boundaries further than graphic design you’d run into on a regular basis in the UK. Things tend to be more experimental, artistic and edgy, which I think again contributes to the city’s unapologetic identity. This is a city packed with creative people – does the typical person just ‘get it’ a bit more over here? And does that give designers more leeway to experiment and create engaging, unorthodox, eye-catching work? Fashion in the city also seems to be pushed a little further – countless avant-garde outfits and unique characters wander the streets, once again adding to this constant ‘feeling’ that everything is not necessarily designed by a tourism or marketing board.

Unique pasteups found all over the city

I’m aware of the Be Berlin brand, but I didn’t once see it plastered over the city, even in the more touristic areas. The official website stated “3.4 million men and women in Berlin who make the city so unmistakable and play an active part in shaping the city’s transformations”. Berlin doesn’t need to force it’s place brand – the people make the city what it is. It’s real, it’s raw, it’s honest.

By Joe Tracey

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