Momus | Essays

Berlin Wheatpasting

"What is desirable in our field," said Milton Glaser in 2002, "is continuous transgression." Berlin wheatpasters know that. They're out there at night, come snow, come rain, risking fines or imprisonment to publicize semi-legal parties with amateur, exciting, semi-legal graphics.

Last month I held a (perfectly legal) party in my apartment. I invited about twenty friends. They were Berlin people, but very few of them were actually longterm residents of the city. Most were arty exiles attracted by the city's cheap rents, radical politics and vibrant culture. There was Craig Robinson, an Englishman known for tiny pixel portraits of pop stars (he calls them Minipops). There was Jason Forrest, an escapee from Brooklyn and the Bush administration, once a visual artist but now a sample-happy 'appropriationist' musician known as Donna Summer. There was a Spaniard called Mario, who's making Jason's new video, and a couple of his friends, some young Americans who introduced themselves as The Simultaneous Brothers.

The Simultaneous Brothers were, visually, the coolest people there. One of them wore a Russian football scarf, the other a sweater with a naive soccer scene hand-painted onto it, around his head a white headband depicting pink and orange skiers. The sports-themed clothes had clearly been hand-picked for a couple of euros at some thrift store, perhaps nearby Humana (all profits go to third world development schemes). The Brothers arrived with a big tub of wheatpaste and a stack of posters advertising an upcoming event at the Rigaer Strasse squat where they're living. For them, my party was just the prelude to a hard night of cold, illegal work pasting posters on the walls of Friedrichshain. I picked up a handbill and read:


DJ Crew

Public 1 animal

Trade/-Sell "Art"

Make sushi!




1 euro AKTION


Rigaer 77

Cluttered and handmade, the handbill excited me. Black and white, cheaply reproduced, it had the look of a punky fanzine. Its dynamism, detail, energy and enthusiasm were appetising. Blocky, doodly, humourous lettering jostled on the page with drawings of robots, rabbits, and a Godzilla-like monster lizard. The backdrop was made up of blobby patches of schematic urban wallpaper somewhere between Paul Klee's representation of the rooftops of Tunis and the kind of drawing an autistic child might make of Sim City. In one corner lurked a telephone sketchpad sub-Vasarely warped checker pattern, below that a hand-drawn string of LCD numbers, and nearby a parrot clinging to a lightning bolt. The whole thing could have been a big eyesore, but instead it worked the same way a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting works. It took me back to school notebooks where, instead of making mneumonics for the six wives of Henry VIII, I'd inevitably be sketching a fat-tired beach dragster or making a funky electrified BOOOOOM! bubble, a graphic which was at once an explosion and a comment on an explosion.

I thought of those notebook scribbles a couple of weeks later when I came across another thrilling artifact of Berlin wheatpasting, a poster for a free dance event called Freitanz. The graphic contained exactly the kind of dandyish typographic exuberance that would have set the 12 year-old me off on a tributary week or two of tracing, photocopying and doodling. The word 'Freitanz' was set in an ecclesiatical gothic script which had been embellished with bezier-curve blots resembling splattered ink, random cross-hatchings, and flamboyant decorative descenders like antennae or peacock feathers. It looked so fresh that my first instinct was to steal: I reached for my Fujifilm F601 and made a digital note. Before long I'd made a Christmas card with a pirated, Photoshopped version of the typeface.

Berlin wheatpasting is all about appropriation and appetite, so wanting to steal seems, well, an appropriate response. As in any folk tradition worth its salt, you can be sure that what you're stealing has been stolen in turn from someone else. Sometimes, as in the zine or folk traditions, it's a collective artform -- everything is 'Trad. Anon.', everything belongs to the community. At other times you can trace the theft line to an original that somebody, somewhere thinks they own, or some big company once paid someone money for. Whether anyone can police the line between diffusion and protection is another matter. You cannot have omnipresence without accessibility, and you cannot have accessibility without appropriation.

The stairway to Mitte record store Microtitan is a wheatpaste heaven, anarchically decorated (by Brooklyn B-boy turned street artist Bäst) with a kind of appropriationist wallpaper featuring the Lufthansa logo and Michael Caine's face circa 'The Spy Who Came In From The Cold'. One poster I recently found cool enough to steal, take home, and pin on my hall wall juxtaposed a 1980s Jean-Paul Goude image of Grace Jones with a Space Invaders skull and some deliberately poor, scratchy trackpad lettering. It was an advertisement for a concert by Kevin Blechdom, an American woman now living in Berlin. Her music (on albums like the recent 'Bitches Without Britches') is heavy on the samples too.

I know people who know Goude. I wonder if he'd find Kevin's poster a tribute to, or a travesty of, his great work for Grace Jones in the 80s? Perhaps he'd look at it as philosophically as Milton Glaser, whose 'I Love NY' logo has entered visual folklore to the extent that, although many of us know who made it, the idea of anyone being able to police its use is laughable. In the end appetite is stronger than law.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Social Good

Comments [6]

Well said.

Having visited the sprawl of Berlin on more than one occasion, and just recently having relocated to Seoul, Korea (that's South for you Americans that don't know)your article hit the nail on the spot.

I believe that I am not exaggerating when I say that Seoul itself is one big product of this "continous transgression"; from Mies-ian rip-off skyscrapers (the SK building in downtown Seoul), to the fashion label emulator(not fake, its too meticulous and too big for that word now) center of the world; Dongdaemun Market Seoul has become the 'appropriationist capital of the world.

One thing that is different is that wheatpasting seems to be a countercultural phenomenon; penality of arrest and the like.

Here in Seoul however, it is the order of the day; 'If it works for him, it works for me.' It is fad, and individual expression, it is involved in naming a product or company, it is an intricate part of every ad campaign, and advertisement, it is prevalent and omnipresent.

So embedded is it in the structure of Seoul, that new and unique ideas are without doubt thought to be taken from overseas; the US, Europe(Berlin?). And sadly in most cases they are later revealed to be so.

In any case, as you mentioned, this is not necessarily wrong absolute. It is difficult to fathom just exactly what is mine and what isn't. What is original, and what is borrowed, or stolen seems to be a moot point now. Rather, 'how' you use it, and 'when' you use it seems to take precedence. An appropriate response indeed.

Coming from a small college town in Texas I've seen the power wheatpasting (though here 'stapling' might be a more appropriate term) can have on the local community. Two years ago a new sheriff was elected in Denton and he did away with postering and the town's largest musical festival, Fry St. Fair (where performers like Frank Black would turn up). The death of Fry St. Fair was one thing, but the death of postering really drove a nail in the local music community. Shows still occurred and many businesses allowed posters to be displayed in their windows, but the 'rock' spirit of the town was gone.

interesting and well-written article, and very inspiring for thought and critique. though none of the imagery posted appears specific to berlin itself. as the author wrote, many of the artists are new york-based. wheat-pasting is illegal, as is graffiti, but then again, they are also big moneymakers. graffiti has already had its time in the new york art gallery scene, and many of the old 'legends', such as futura 2000, are doing quite well. mk has a store on the lower east side where you can buy a sticker for $10. ogilvy and mather recently did a somewhat guerilla wheatpasting campaign for at&t's ogo.

so what exactly is new about this? at the risk of sounding arrogant, i've seen all of this in new york (im not a native new yorker at all, nor am i proud to be an american, and i am nowhere near being an old fogey). what exactly is transgressive about this, apart from the fact that it operates outside of major corporate sponsorship and is illegal? many people who go to expensive art schools participate in graffiti and wheatpasting, it isnt exactly the working-class/minority mode of expression that it once was. is it because that in berlin it is still part of a fresh scene? of course, im talking only on the visual level of the examples youve posted. i have been to berlin, and i am aware of the underground, back-alley party scene there that doesnt really seem to exist in new york. but these to me are images not of a specific location, but of a certain underground, international youth culture that has its roots in punk and hip hop (and new york city and london). the roughness of the photocopy aesthetic of the former, the typographical (can we refer to graffiti as typography? lettering?) and ink-drip references of the latter, its refinement and reinterpretation by the second generation of these counter-cultural movements. skateboarding, punk, hip hop, they're all international signifiers of rebellion and youth, and heavily commercialized.

the most recent issue of giant robot magazine has an interesting article on graffiti in japan. here you see a real visual difference from what you normally see in new york or other western metropolises. though its still illegal, some of it looks like public art. color, placement, and arrangement is really different from what you normally see on the streets of new york. and this refers to what fritz's post talks about. whats mine, whats yours. influence is hard to escape, especially in imbalanced east/west, north/south relations. youth-culture super graphics emulating the international youth culture scene (or whatever you call it) can be found in asia and latin america as well. but its the reappropriation and adaptation to local needs that is interesting and can offer something new.

also, i have to say that i doubt many of the americans who frequent this site are not going to know that seoul is part of south korea.
manuel miranda

Artist collectives on the East Coast running afoul of the law due to their wheatpasting activities (summons tacked to the gallery walls seem to be a staple at their shows) have received plenty of attention and have had their work in museums for quite some time now. Space 1026 has had a retrospective, and Fort Thunder/Forcefield have been included in a Whitney Biennial.

Very rare that a piece of wheatpasting catches my eye now, since many innovators have now moved on to 'legitimate' careers, often leaving taggers and imitators in their wake. Interesting how there is such a thin line between street art and visual pollution.

If there was a pronounced regional variation, it may hold more interest, but it seems to be a miniature version of the monoculture it purports to oppose.

Seoul? Delicious with butter.
Allen Crawford

Mmmm, i'm sorry i didn't see you at the party because you came so early!Anyway, it wasn't 100% awesome because berlin people aren't as collaborative at that as all the beautiful posters in the streets lead one to think. But we'll keep working on it and i'll make sure you get flyers everytime (the simultaneous brothers do it again january 5th same place, when are you leaving to japan?)

ps:wheatpaste was a failure, rich told me, they have something at bauhaus for 2 euro that doesn't make it look like shit the way wheatpaste does!

Although "sniping" happens all over New York, in this city transgression gives way to the orderly forces of market capitalism before long. If you want to get your "illegal" posters up on building sides and construction site hoardings, you supposedly have to go through one of the "official" "illegal" poster services who maintain a stranglehold on the marketplace. If you don't, your offering will get obliterated within hours.

Now that it's becoming common for consumer products companies to pay for the street cred delivered by "spontaneous" buzz, transgression has become another element in the marketing mix.
Michael Bierut

 Momus Nick Currie, more popularly known under the artist name Momus (after the Greek god of mockery), is a songwriter, blogger and former journalist for Wired.

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