Ever since I was young, I have always dreamed of travelling the world. Since graduating, I have travelled a little around Europe and also visited Africa and America after working as a flight attendant. However, my first trip abroad was to Berlin and happened whilst I was studying Art at university, in Lisbon.
Berlin is the centre of the urban artworld and a modern mecca for street artists. Along with some friends, I stayed in a hostel in Kreuzberg, an area heavily bombarded with art as are artistic districts Friedrichshain, Neukölln and Mitte. Every building, every home, every convenience store, every crack, crevice, nook, and cranny is filled with everything from tags, paste ups, stencils, to stickers, posters and giant murals. Around every corner you will find hidden gems and amazing artwork.
Whilst in the city, I learned all I could from the locals as to how Berlin became the art-filled phenomenon it is today, and it was all due to a unique combination of historical and cultural events.
After the Second World War came to an end, what was left of Germany was divided between the four occupying Allied Forces: the United States, the United Kingdom, France and the Soviet Union.
Tension since the war had been growing between the United States and the Soviet Union, which culminated in The Berlin Wall being built in 1961, by the German Democratic Republic, during the Cold War.
The wall not only divided Berlin in half, separating West Germany from East Socialist Germany, but also symbolised the division of the world into two blocks, one led by the roaring Americans and the other by the austere Soviet regime.
In the early 60s, the United States had its focus on Vietnam, John F. Kennedy is the youngest elected president in history, Bob Dylan releases his first album and Marilyn Monroe is found dead having overdosed on sleeping pills. However, the areas surrounding the Berlin Wall still evoked remnants of a harrowing war.
Abandoned buildings, piles of concrete, deserted streets, and no resistance from the Western government led to a flock of punks, Turkish immigrants, anarchists and newcomers to settle in the area. These first settlers started a new community and opened their own businesses. All the while, the Berlin wall was the perfect canvas for people to express their thoughts and feelings, their outrage and passion, their beliefs and art.
The Western festive lifestyle was attracting residents of the Soviet Zone, fleeing hunger, poverty, and oppression, thereby depriving the Soviet regime of the work force they so desperately needed.
After the wall was built, people still risked everything to make it to the other side by jumping from building windows towering over the wall, crawling through sewers and over barbed wire, even driving through it and flying over it in hot air balloons.
By the end of the 70s, the Vietnam War had come to an end, disco had become one of the most popular genres of music, Elvis Presley died on the toilet and the United States had turned their focus to Iran who kidnapped 52 American diplomats and citizens.
Meanwhile in Berlin, a new wave of street artists emerged, expressing their art through stencils and spray paint. West Berlin began to thrive with tempting subsidies, privileges and no military conscription, attracting young liberals, artists, anarchists and bohemians who moulded the city according to their ideals, transforming it into the cultural avant-garde capital we know today. Art, theatre, literature, music, and cultural and intellectual life thrived and so did an anti-establishment movement, allowing graffiti and street art to flourish.
In 1980, the wall was fortified. Now stronger and taller than ever, artists from all over the world began to adorn the wall with their art. Of course, this was only on the west side of the wall, as anyone approaching the wall from the east would be shot.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, graffiti artists flooded into East Germany and all the blank areas, previously guarded by the military, became a new canvas for the Western artists. The Eastern artists, who until now had been repressed, also joined their new contemporaries and together they were all able to express a new concept, celebrated by everyone who now lived in the city: ‘what it means to be free’.
Lisbon has long been considered a picturesque and dynamic city and, in recent years, it has distanced itself further and further from its conservative roots. Following the country’s financial crisis over a decade ago, job opportunities have declined pushing many young graduates to pursue and cultivate their own ideas and projects.
Thousands of empty buildings span Lisbon’s urban landscape, of which half are abandoned or awaiting demolition. Over the last few years, the council has sanctioned a series of projects encouraging artists to exploit and revive their blank walls.
Many former abandoned buildings and factories are also now being used as creative spaces. Artists, filmmakers, galleries, bars, musicians, advertising agencies and tech companies are re-inventing Lisbon, Berlin-style.
In Alcântara, you have Lx Factory, a former abandoned industrial area which has been turned into a creative hub, filled with energetic bars, lively restaurants, art and book shops, galleries, and several design and advertising companies.
Next door you have Village Underground, another creative hub known for its buses and industrial shipping containers, which have been turned into offices and promotes several artistic and cultural events.
On the other side of Lisbon, Xabregas and Braço de Prata are part of another industrial landscape where you will find several former factories turned into galleries that celebrate both art and music.
With the emergence of a vivid entrepreneurial culture, art festivals, vibrant bars, and a unique street nightlife in Bairro Alto and along the river, Lisbon could be on the way to becoming the new Berlin.
Although I always long to travel the world, I am happy to call Lisbon my home.
By Jay Costa Owen
Jay recently graduated from the Faculty of Fine Artes in Lisbon. Jay’s interests are exploring new cultures through photography and the myths, legends and history that define them.