I was determined not to miss it again. After stumbling upon a magnificent giant portrait by street artist Vhils in 2012, I tracked down all four works that were in his set, a commercial graffiti tribute to the pioneering spirit associated with Berlin.
Or so I thought. I actually left one out.
So on a return trip to Berlin in 2015, I made sure to nail that shot – that of karaoke pioneer Joe Hatchiban, purveyor of a wildly popular platform for bad singing in a former Cold War Death Strip venue.
Imagine my shock when I approached the building on which Hatchiban’s portrait was supposed to be etched: Chausseestr. 36, itself formerly in the Death Strip. The once crumbling block was fenced in by scaffolding and rotating cranes. In front, a giant banner read – in English no less: “The Mile. Be part of it”.
The dreaded Berlin gentrification. Was the artwork gone?
Scurrying round to the side, I almost went limp with relief. It was still intact. We asked permission from a foreman to enter the site to photograph it and got an abrupt “Yes, but quickly”.
And now other thoughts started flooding in.
I should have known the portrait would remain. As in Linienstr 24, the artwork would have enhanced the real estate value of Chausseestr. 36 and be used to hook buyers. This is particularly since the artist’s stature has only grown since he created the work.
But then, Vhils did originally produce the image as part of an advertising campaign. To detractors, this would have been an outrageous appropriation of a form beloved and umbilically associated with Berlin.
I love Vhils’ portraits but they did cause confusion. Is it graffiti or is it art? Is it commercial or is it counter-culture? Is it public or is it private?
Therefore detractors must feel some modicum of satisfaction at how the building’s gentrification strips away any pretentions of the work being anything but a business venture.
Yet in doing so, it not only legitimises the artwork (graffiti is illegal in Berlin) but clarifies its intent, a rebirth of a thing untainted and to be wondered at, just as Chauseestr. 36 is being rebirthed.
Be part of it indeed. ω
My pursuit of Vhils’ four portraits are variously featured in ‘Stone Faced’, ‘RAW Art’ and ‘Power Lines’. Vhils’ homepage has information about him (real name Alexandre Farto) and his latest work. The ‘Go Forth’ ad campaign featuring Vhils, by Levi’s and ad agency Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam, is featured in this video.