It’s a drizzly, misty morning and a bunch of 20-somethings are gathered under a grotty railway arch in Berlin’s Mitte district. The place is plastered with drawings, stencils and paste-ups, ranging from thoughtless scribbles to beautiful works of art. Our local tour guide Alana is asking us what makes this particular wall so special.
She leans down and points at a solitary number six in white paint. She explains this is the work of Mr 6, a local legend who cycles around all day with paint pots and brushes on sticks, writing a “6” everywhere he goes. After years of dedication to this unknown cause, Mr 6 has dotted the capital with hundreds of thousands of 6’s. “The police know him well and have arrested him many times, but as he himself is covered with 6’s, he just pleads insanity each time and they send him on his way,” Alana cheerfully explains.
Someone like Mr 6 is perfectly at home in Berlin. He’s saluted when he spends the morning writing a 6 on every bin bag in a skip, and cheered at when he manages to write a 6 on a wall as he cycles past without slowing down. Imagine Mr 6 rocking up to Trafalgar Square? Or hitting Oxford Street on a Saturday?
Gritty, creative and poor compared to other major cities in Germany, Berlin’s currency is self expression. Artists, musicians and performers come from miles around to get in on the act and tourists flock to see the work of some of the most famous street artists in the world. DJs ‘make parties’ until the sun comes up, and no one seems to work very much. Compared to the humdrum of London and its fiercely competitive streak, Berlin is a welcome change of pace. No one will ask you where you work, or how you’re affording your rent.
But things are changing fast for this uber cool city. The artists who squatted in entire streets after the fall of the Berlin Wall have mostly been evicted now to make way for expensive boutiques and retail chains. Even the residents of the famous art squat Tacheles lost their long-fought battle last year (although the sculpture garden has survived if you missed the real thing).
Berlin will always have a rebellious side (the smoking ban never really took off), but if you want to enjoy its underbelly and explore anti-establishment subcultures, go now or forever hold your Frappuccino.
Shop: Vintage and independent stalls in the Sunday flea market in Mauer Park
Sleep: In a kooky hostel like Circus
Drink: In one of the many dive bars in the hipster district of Kreuzberg
Go: On the Alternative Tour, which is free and takes place twice a day
Look: Out for black and white photo booths for a cool souvineer. And of course, the number 6.
Fly to Berlin from £76 one way with British Airways
Image: El Bocho