A graffiti exhibition is the last thing you would expect in a museum known for its archaic form and looming historical presence. Despite its novelty, the carefully curated “EINE STADT WIRD BUNT: Hamburg Graffiti History 1980-1999” is the Museum of Hamburg History’s highest-attended exhibit. With over 75,000 visitors since its opening in November 2022, the museum has extended its run until January 7th, 2024. The four curators of the exhibition, Oliver Nebel, Frank Petering, Mirko Reisser, and Andreas Timm, are graffiti writers who began their spraying careers in 1980s Hamburg.
Museum Director for the Museum of Hamburg History, Prof. Bettina Probst, says in the forward in the exhibit’s catalog: “However you look at graffiti today, it is not to be overlooked in our cities or on our walls. Some may be torn between rejection, acceptance, and recognition of this form of expression, which has now evolved into its own form of art.”
It took four years and a labor of love to gather all the items in the book “EINE STADT WIRD BUNT,” the foundation for their presentation of German graffiti history. Through their friends in the scene, their collections and archives, and the photos, sketches, and black books they gathered, the history of graffiti in Hamburg is displayed through the lens of the 1980s and 1990s. The show is not an opportunity to argue whether or not graffiti is art or whether it belongs in a museum or not but is simply a historical rendering of a movement.
“This isn’t an art exhibition, we aren’t trying to convince anyone that graffiti is art we just want to show them how it started in Hamburg. Whether people like it or not or think it’s art or not, that’s up to them.” says curator and graffiti-artist Mirko Reisser, also known as DAIM.
While stated in the name that the exhibit is about the emergence of the Hamburg graffiti scene, wrapped up with the sprayers are also DJs, MCs, hip-hop artists, and breakers. That this subculture sprung from the United States in the 1970s is a known fact, although the specific origin city is still debatable. Hip-hop culture in New York and Philadelphia is the uncontested spark that lit the fuse that traveled the Atlantic and burst into flames in Hamburg and other European cities in the early 1980s. Whether you were a rapper, dancer, or writer, you inevitably grew up in a multi-faceted community rich with outside influences and cross-genre inspiration.
The development of the graffiti scene in Hamburg, once it arrived, can be witnessed on the walls and in the display cases at the Museum for Hamburg History. Not only did the four curators pull from their knowledge of the graffiti scene, but they also included input from art historians and architecture experts to show how the city itself played a significant role in the growth of the subculture.
“The graffiti scene is very much wrapped up in the city’s architecture, how the city was developed and changed through the years. The scene developed as much as the city allowed it to. Hamburg, for example, was very much destroyed during the war. There are a lot of areas in the 1980s that were still run down from the bombing. The scene flourished, there was space to let it freely develop, and people could safely experiment. There are no free spaces like this anymore, no spaces you can explore without being worried about people, cars, and regulators,” says Reisser.
The integral relationship between a space and the people inhabiting it is clearly shown in the exhibition hall, with the first images being of rundown post-war neighborhoods in Hamburg. In these unregulated areas, creative talent flourished, experimentation was encouraged, and people could swap out ideas and knowledge of the city’s train systems or police routes. The interplay of the different individual aspects of the graffiti subculture eventually strengthened enough that they grew into their own professionalized industries. Hip-Hop has become its own international phenomenon, DJs are looked at like rock stars, and graffiti as part of urban-art is shown in fine art galleries worldwide.
The exhibition’s most immersive experience is the recreation of a graffiti student’s childhood bedroom circa 1988. If you don’t miss it on your way out, tucked to the side, you’ll find a small, unostentatious room packed with stuff. Next to a desk covered in worn comic books, magazines, and sketchbooks, a bed with Coca-Cola bedsheets is illuminated by old televisions playing 1980s graffiti documentation “Style Wars”, and videogames like Space Invader. It’s like entering a time capsule, you almost feel guilty for having invaded the space of the hypothetical student sprayer.
“The items are gathered from us, the curators, and our friends. It is a bit overdone because we didn’t have all of this stuff; it’s an idealized version of what we all wish we did have at that age.” Reisser says as one of his sons just happens to run over to our table in the museum cafe. Around us, the ongoing “Unlock Book Fair” is a bustling graffiti family affair.
The EINE STADT WIRD BUNT curators understand the importance of family, community, and exchange in the graffiti scene. Therefore, with the help of Spanish director Javier Abarca and a team of graffiti publishers and scholars, they presented the June 2023 “Unlock Book Fair” in Hamburg to bring the crew together. The first instance of the event took place in 2016 in Barcelona as a place for graffiti enthusiasts to gather and explore the wide range of magazines, zines, photo collections, and other creative ventures. It’s an excuse for all things graffiti and street art to coalesce.
Graffiti artists are notorious for their competitiveness and egotism, always fighting to get up and have their work seen by the most people for as long as possible; however, their mutual respect via this shared subculture is evident at Unlock. Despite the flexible and differing opinions on spraying over other people’s work or what is considered “selling out,” the graffiti scene contains, these days, the former youth of the 1980s and 1990s. This group of graffiti OGs has created a brilliant way to bring graffiti and street art to the world through printed publications.
The 2023 “Unlock Book Fair” in Hamburg boasts a group of over 40 publishers from across the world, offering over 600 graffiti titles, photo galleries, and printed images. On the warm June weekend, I sit in the bustling excitement, positioned between Kresimir, publisher of “ZGBkaos” and writer from Croatia, and Dutch creator of the train-spotting graffiti magazine “BAMN.” The event is hosted in the stunning atrium of the Museum of Hamburg History, with high arching glass ceilings letting in beams of sunlight and warmth. It is a blissful time for us graffiti fanatics, toys, and OGs alike.
“Graffiti lives on through books; you need to take a photo of it, but what’s the point of a photo in your pocket? Print has always been and will always be a part of graffiti. Print gives graffiti longevity.”
Reisser echos, “Graffiti lives on through books; you need to take a photo of it, but what’s the point of a photo in your pocket? Print has always been and will always be a part of graffiti. Print gives graffiti longevity.”
At one stand, you can get a personalized print from the folks at the Museum of Labor, of the notorious Hamburg sprayer OZ., made on an antique printing press. At another, a tagging-themed box of cereal called “Illegal Crunch” from Podpolie. UZI, the Hamburg graffiti crew, sells T-shirts encouraging you to surf and spray the German train system, the Deutsche Bahn. The Mr. Graffiti enterprise from the Netherlands offers the weekend’s largest collection of international street art anthologies, auto-biographies, and photo albums.
Beers start flowing as the first day of the book fair comes to a close, and the various stands trade, proudly exchanging photos and magazines that highlight their homeland’s artists for those of others. The atmosphere is jovial and welcoming, with an after-party in the city’s notorious red light district, St. Pauli´s Reeperbahn.
Two weeks following the “Unlock Book Fair,” the Museum of Hamburg History hosts the “Tag Conference: Name Writing in Public Space.” The academic conference, presented by “EINE STADT WIRD BUNT” and directed by Javier Abarca with the support of Hamburg University and the Stiftung wissensART, focuses on tagging throughout history and today. The lecture series began in Berlin in 2017 and is well known in the graffiti community as a consistently captivating event, cleverly blending the academic and the artistic worlds.
“Thousands of years ago, people were already scratching their names on the walls. Scholars who study the phenomenon sometimes don’t see the connection to modern-day graffiti. We are bringing scientists and experts from our scene in to talk in a more educational format.”
“Thousands of years ago, people were already scratching their names on the walls. Scholars who study the phenomenon sometimes don’t see the connection to modern-day graffiti. We are bringing scientists and experts from our scene in to talk in a more educational format.” Reisser says when talking about the conference.
“The Tag Conference” program is dense, spans multiple cultures, countries, and centuries, and contains a blend of scholarly, anthropological, and archival knowledge. Orestis Pangalos from Greece spoke on “Collectivity in individual name writing” and showed images of names etched into stone dating as far back as 1630. The theme of egotism and narcissism in tagging one’s name is also a desire not to be forgotten by collective society.
Polina Stohnushko from Ukraine discussed the political and prolific Berlin tags “Nicht Unser Krieg” and the public’s response to and interaction with them. Tracing the messages back to a single source based on handwriting analysis, and documenting changes made by passersby as they cross out or add to the scrawled protests.
In the museum’s lecture hall, the audience takes in the history of humans leaving their mark and contemplates why we have this intrinsic need to be remembered. Engaged, they ask questions and provide commentary or advice, and I am once again reminded of the importance this type of forum has in legitimizing the graffiti community. During coffee breaks and group dinners after the fact, phone numbers, Instagram handles, catalogs, and stories are constantly exchanged.
For a graffiti nerd, Hamburg in June 2023 is the place you would want to be. These three events, the exhibit, the book fair, and the conference, were built to be harmoniously intertwined, each unique yet equal parts creative, communal, and scholastic. I urge those of you who desire a glimpse into how the graffiti and hip-hop subculture crossed oceans and landed in Hamburg, Germany, to visit the “EINE STADT WIRD BUNT” exhibition.
Open till January 7th, 2024 at Museum for Hamburg History.