Artipoeus Episode 39 – Graffiti Town

1Up @ Mehringdamm
1Up @ Mehringdamm

Welcome to Artipoeus, art you can hear.

Artipoeus hits the streets, hot on the trail of Berlin graffiti artist 1Up.

One up one up one up!  Oh my god, I sound ridiculous….

I’m a middle aged white lady.  In my professional photo, the one I use for Artipoeus, I look like I probably married well, live in a nice house, the car is paid off, the kids in college and my golf game is pretty good.

None of that is actually true.  I’ve never been married, was homeless for a year in New York, have no kids that I know of, practice martial arts and listen to the punk rock music.

I just look like I’m that other person.

I do like to challenge people’s perceptions.

I’m like current affairs.

When you spend a lot of time running around the gritty part of a city — any city — you also spend a lot of time surrounded by street art and graffiti.

Street art has evolved over the past decade into an academically recognized art form, with street artists like Banksy valued in the millions.  They are often, these days, invited to piece up a wall, like Shepard Fairey in Paris, Cleon Peterson in LA, or Nick Walker in New York.  There’s still a lot of guerilla street art to be found, but to a large degree, it’s become — gasp! — mainstream.

Graffiti, on the other hand, is still 100% illegal.  It’s a little more punk.

in the Ubahn station
in the Ubahn station
Find the 1Up
Find the 1Up

Graffiti is not street art.  Street artists can do graffiti, and graffers can do street art, but generally they are two separate breeds.  Street art usually tells a story, comments on the world in the immediate vicinity or the world at large, and is closer to film in its visual nature. It’s often meant to be discovered, to surprise and to make you think.

Graffiti is the written word, or name, as is often the case.  It’s about fonts, and it’s not about making you think, except to make you wonder how the hell someone got up there, or on top of that, or over that wall, across those tracks, or…  it’s about being visible, in your face youth and adventure and not so much defying authority and not giving a damn.

Street art is like the Henry Rollins to graffiti’s Iggy Pop.

Ok, Henry Rollins isn’t mainstream, but you get what I mean. Because I can’t Green Day.  I have too much respect for Street Art.

And none for Green Day.

Berlin is a city known for both, probably because in Berlin, the grittier parts of the city are everywhere.  It’s like decentralized grit, and it’s hard to know what came first: the grit or the graffiti?   Most of it here is politically charged, starting with the famous Thierry Noir colorful heads on the Berlin Wall.  It’s a destination for street artists, and everyone who’s anyone has passed through here, from Keith Haring to Blek the Rat to Space Invader, Monsieur le Chat and Shepard Fairey.

There are world-renowned, impressive and beautiful pieces all over the city — and the city appreciates them.  There is the massive spaceman, by Victor Ash — thought to be the largest stencil in the world.  There is the hanging stag by ROA, the handcuffed businessman by the muralist Blu, the giant slab of meat near the Berlin Wall Memorial by Marcus Haas, to name a few.  Some of this stuff is so famous, it’s been here for years — they don’t get pieced over by other artists and are just as much a part of the city as the Brandenburg Gate and the Fernsehturm at Alexanderplatz.

And then there’s the unofficial pieces, like the wheatpaste dancing girls all over Neukolln and all the up to Mitte, the colorblock BE YOU posters, the astronaut stencils, the reaching hands, and the ubiquitous A for Anarchy signs.  Great stuff, a visual feast for the eyes, a city told in pictures.

And then there’s the graffiti.  There is some impressive graffiti here, some beautiful throwback New York style around, which is always a pleasure to see; a gorgeous wyldstyle series at the Eisenacher U Bahn station depicting the four seasons on the subway walls that I’ve enjoyed watching get completed over the course of the past year; I pass a building I can see from the Putlitzer Bridge that sports a perfect, giant roller tag that I love seeing every day.  And of course, there’s tons and tons of juicy markers and spray tags, on doors, on walls, on handrails, on U bahn steps, on poles, on posters, on everything.

Graffiti comes in different shapes and sizes and colors and methods, but mostly it’s the method that counts.  So before we go any further, let’s just brush up on a little graffiti vocabulary.

Tag : A tag is a signature. Your name, or your nickname, or a slogan by which you’d like to be known, and usually the style you sign it in.  In New York, I shared a tag with someone for about three months – it was the name of the band we never started because: kids.  But we got the word out about the band.  So a tag is almost like a brand – the idea is to get your tag seen, in one of the earliest forms of social media.  It’s not just about saturation, though; it’s also about placement — the more clever and/or difficult places you can reach, the more respect you earn.

There are different kinds of tags, that are usually just as much a part of a signature as the name itself:

Bubble tag : a bubble tag is the most easily recognizable and commonly known.  Big bubble letters, distinctive and easy to read, usually have a thick outline, and the letters themselves are filled with color — that fades from one color to another, that blends to add depth, that adds cartoon sparkles to make it stand out, or bubbles even, on the bubble letters, to get really meta.  The artistry is within the thick black lines that define the letters, and it’s usually pretty amazing.

Throwie : a “throwie” or “throw up” is most often a bubble tag, interrupted.  Meaning, the writer had just enough time to paint the letters and fill them in with one color before having to take off so as not to get caught.

Spray tag : graffiti writers most often use spray paint, and a spray tag is simply line-writing with a spray can.  Purely one-dimensional, it’s simply a word or signature and that is usually transformed by its drips — that is, the still-wet paint runs down the wall, the lines of the letters dripping into each other, like all the letters are seen through a thick rain.

Roller tag : roller tags use paint rollers to create really large, often wide and blocky letters for a tag.  These are also very often outlined in thick black to distinguish the letters, but the letter form itself is usually squared, sort of like an official but really cool, giant stamp — as opposed to the squishy, soft lettering used in bubble tags.

Juicy markers : sometimes graff writers use paint markers, called juicy markers, because the felt tip is juicy with paint.  These of course offer the most control, and are good for subway cars and smooth, slick surfaces.  Juicy marker tags are the most calligraphy-like, the letters stylized and artful, often printed in such a way that the word itself creates a form, from a block word with a pagoda-like roof, to oblique rectangles to cirrus clouds..

Wyldstyle : often, when people think of graffiti from the 1980s and 90s, they think of wyldstyle — colorful, angular lettering that is impossible to read if you don’t know how, usually leaning or squished but always with the sense of movement, as though the tag itself will take off on the heels of the tagger, both of them running from the cops. It’s most associated with rap and hip hop.

Extinguisher tag: when you want to go big and reach high places, use a fire extinguisher.  Fire extinguisher tags are recognizable usually because of their size, but also because of the diffused lines the paint makes as it hits the wall.  There isn’t a lot of control with extinguishers, and fine lines are (so far) impossible.  There is also a wavy, scrawl quality to extinguisher writing, as though the tag was done by a drunk six year old, again caused by the difficulty in controlling the extinguisher itself.

When I moved to Berlin, the door to my new building was tagged with a simple white spray tag: 1Up it said.  It looked like this 1Up had just been passing by, tagging as they walked down the street.  It was at waist-level, so it looked like 1Up barely even lifted an arm to tag my door.

When I started using my U Bahn station regularly, I noticed 1Up again — two white spray tags on an unused subway poster support.  1Up 1Up.

And then I started moving around town, discovering the trains, the buildings, the people, the city.  And I started seeing 1Up everywhere: on an apartment’s shutters, high up on residential wall, in a corner where a building and a doorway meet, on the U Bahn tracks, S Bahn tracks, the train itself and along the Spree, North in Wedding and Moabit, south in Neukolln and Kreuzberg, all the way in Lichtenberg and Reinickendorf and even Stieglitz and Marzahn.  In the west, in the east, high and low.  Heaven spots that looked impossible to reach, down low where no one even looks.  1Up was everywhere.

Mostly I’ve seen simple line spray tags, but every now and then I see a throwie, a bubble tag, a roller tag and even once wyldstyle.  A lot of extinguisher tags.  Man, I thought.  This person is DETERMINED to tag every. single. square centimeter of Berlin.  Respect.  Because that is dedication.

And the branding side of tagging worked.  I got used to seeing 1Up everywhere to the point where I was looking for 1Up everywhere too.  It  became a game I played with myself, wherever I went in the city — look around and find your 1Up and sure enough, there 1Up would be too, a secret friend, a familiar face.  Because 1Up was everywhere, 1Up was Berlin, and Berlin is home.  1Up became the rhumb line that anchored me to my own front door.

Then I learned that 1Up is not a person.  It’s a crew.  It’s a crew that’s been around for over 10 years, made up of a shifting group of people and who tag 1Up not only in Berlin — although Berlin is their home city — but all over the world.

They are so well established that there are Youtube videos of the crew at work — bombing an U Bahn car in beautifully choreographed missions, working together as a team to hit sweet spots high up or down low, working individually to hit passing tags, in big groups or small, bombing as much city turf as they can.

Who is 1Up?  I am 1Up.  You are 1Up.  1Up is anonymous and anonymous means anyone.  Or everyone.


1Up is also the name of a website that focuses on video games. Popular in the world of gamers, who slide between Reddit and 4Chan and the hacker group Anonymous, wreaking havoc for good or bad in loosely organized campaigns that governments and law enforcement finds impossible to break, thanks to the diffused nature of the group that isn’t a group.

But in Graffiti world, 1Up means one united power.  And although 1Up is also made up of anonymous members that could be anyone or everyone — hence the I am 1Up — it is more Spartacus than Anarchist in spirit.  And there  is something really beautiful about the unity, the coordinated graffiti missions, the dedication by so many to spreading 1Up as far and wide as possible, giving enough room for writers to showcase their individual and collaborative talents.  That IS united power, and it takes graffiti to a different level.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Cass posted a photo of a new piece that had gone up at the U Bahn station Heinrich Heine Strasse.  It is utterly brilliant in its simplicity, and just… impressive. It evokes a wow.  The first few days after it went up, Berlin social media was full of the piece, all accompanied with a wow.  Wow is what I blurted out when I saw it on Cass’s instagram.

I wanted to see it, but it was out of the way of my daily routine, until my friend Jess, another street art and graff lover, came to visit from Paris.  I knew she’d appreciate this, and it was a good reason for me to finally see it in person too.  So we took the train at Heinrich Heine Strasse U Bahn, jumped off and I said, look!

Jess looked.  But this piece is so big, it’s actually hard to see.

We took a few steps back and Jess said, wow.

It’s the simplest, most recognizable image: a smiley face.  A smiley face so big, the outline of the circular face goes from track to ceiling and has got to span over 5 meters.  It’s a simple extinguisher tag in black paint, classic drips from the lines — always a good indicator that it was done quick & dirty and then the tagger ran.

The smiley face is impressive in size, but most of all in concept.  Because for some reason, no one’s ever done this before — no one has ever done a floor to ceiling piece in a subway station like this even though there has never been a reason NOT to.  And as I said, it’s so big, it’s hard to see at first.  You have to step back, but it’s a subway platform, so you can only step back so much.  You literally have to open your mind in order to see it.   And of course the smiley is simple, but it’s also friendly.  This giant black extinguisher tag, as though this enormous face staring at you in the U Bahn is saying I know I’m big, and shocking, and you’ve never seen anything like me before… but I’m friendly.  I like you.  And everything is going to be ok.

Like current affairs.

On the opposite track, equally as big but in white, is the artist’s signature:  1Up.

I was so happy to see that.

Take U Bahn Line 8 to the Heinrich Heine Strasse station, and the piece can be found on the West Wall, until the city washes it off.  As of this broadcast, the piece is still there – but hurry! Graffiti doesn’t last forever!

Special thanks to Tona Hamashige, aka “Hope” — one of the original New York City graffiti writers, for her contributions to this episode.  You can follow her work and the archival graffiti work she documents on Instagram at writingxwrongs.  Music used in this episode is the original track Monuments, by Cedric Till, aka Concrete Cee and produced by Wasaru. You can follow him on Soundcloud at Concrete Cee.

That’s all for Artipoeus this week.  See you around town!

——

Brought to you by Susie Kahlich.


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