October 27, 2017

Can advertising

Kimo von Rekowski is a member of the Berlin graffiti crew “Die Dixons”. That sounds funny at first. In fact, Kimo and his two companions Jörn Reiners and Marco Bollenbach are really funny contemporaries. Nevertheless, the three of them should be taken very seriously, because on the one hand they are currently conquering masses of Berlin fire protection walls with their company Xi-Design and turning the business of outdoor advertising in urban areas upside down. On the other hand, they are very committed to the local graffiti scene – after all, one of the biggest subcultures in Berlin. We talked about all that and much more.

Viktor Hildebrandt:We are standing on a building site. Until a few weeks ago, there was a house here. But not just any house, THE HOUSE. Why don’t you tell us about it?

Kimo von Rekowski: THE HAUS was a huge street art exhibition in the middle of Berlin’s commercial heart. A total of 165 artists from 17 nations have been allowed to let off steam in the 80 or so offices of a former bank building. But that was not enough for them – they even redesigned the corridors, toilets and staircases. The result was a colourful mix of different art forms. There was not only graffiti, but also typography and photography, sound and video installations, tape art, sculptures and much more. But almost nothing was done with canvases.

Who gave you permission to paint and decorate a bank building?

THE HAUS was an interim use project by Pandion AG, a German real estate company that specialises in building high-end condominiums. Pandion AG bought this property some time ago and will now build a residential building with about 60 rather luxurious flats here. Before demolition, however, the building would have stood empty for a few months. To avoid this and at the same time do something for its own image, the company looked for an interim user. That was us, The Dixons. We became caretakers, so to speak, and were allowed to use the building until the excavators rolled in.

With urban interim use projects, you often have to act very quickly and get things done. I assume the last few months have been quite stressful for you?

You can say that again. We entered the building for the first time in January and four months later THE HAUS opened. The exhibition was then open six days a week for two months. Yet for us, just like for the artists, it was only a “side project” in which we earned nothing.

How did you convince 165 artists at such short notice to invest time here without payment?

Getting the artists to the start was really the smallest problem. We haven’t just been on the scene since yesterday, we have 20 years of experience under our belts and a pretty big network. So basically we just called all our friends and colleagues. Besides, there is still a lot of word-of-mouth in the street art scene. So the news about Urban Art Bang Berlin spread quickly. The people didn’t get a fee from us, but they had the opportunity to present their art to a large audience. In this respect, the project was very attractive for people.

“Of course, it is easy to be against it at first. It is much more difficult to develop realistic solutions.”

Besides, for all of us – the organisers as well as the artists – THE HAUS was primarily about promoting street art. We wanted to finally stage street art in places where this art form hasn’t really been able to gain a foothold yet, where it’s still filled with negative prejudices. We wanted to offer access to street art to those who still think that everyone who can handle spray cans is a criminal vandal. I think we succeeded quite well.

Did you have a favourite room in THE HAUS?

Not really, there were too many great projects for that. But there was one room that was particularly close to our hearts: together with the International Justice Mission (IJM), we designed a room on the topic of forced prostitution and human trafficking in India. The IJM frees people from slavery. We wanted to give them a stage because, although their work is incredibly important, hardly anyone knows about it.

How was such a difficult subject handled artistically?

Through a combination of analogue and digital elements. The whole room looked like a typical room in an Indian brothel, all the objects actually came from a real brothel in Mumbai. So the visitors entered another world, so to speak. They could then put on virtual reality goggles and watch a short film showing the harsh reality we so often close our eyes to. But not as a documentary, more like a thriller. But don’t worry: we didn’t leave people alone with these impressions. There was always a young lady from the IJM in the room with whom you could talk about what you had seen. She picked up the people – some were moved to tears, others rather frustrated, still others completely disturbed – and explained the problem to them in more detail.

I suppose the production of such a film was very expensive. I guess a TV was too old-fashioned for you?

The virtual reality glasses simply make the difference. They pull the visitor into the film, so to speak, and amplify its effect enormously. Have you ever worn one of these? You don’t feel anything from your actual physical surroundings. It really feels like you’re there.

Are there more spaces where such technologies have been used? Is there also graffiti in 3-D?

So virtual reality was only used in this one room. But there was an artist, for example, who painted his whole picture with the help of a laser. Well, he rather burned it into the wall. Dot by dot. The whole thing took almost 400 hours. We have also experimented with new technologies in some other projects in the city. For example, we created a Star Wars wall in Berlin this year. First we painted the cinema poster on the wall, then the same image was projected onto the wall again from a distance of 25 metres using a high-performance beamer. With the help of special effects, Darth Vader suddenly came out of the wall and a bunch of star fighters flew around in the background.

Is this the new standard for advertising in the city?

So I definitely see that there is a trend towards interactive advertising. Not only in our profession, but in general. People are simply into it. We ourselves think technology is great, we just don’t understand it.

THE HAUS was a huge success. All the guided tours were fully booked weeks in advance, there was always a long queue at the entrance, the newspapers reported extensively on the project, the exhibition catalogue is still in great demand. Honestly, did you expect that?

We were confident from the beginning that the Berlin Art Bang would be a success. But we didn’t expect it to hit like a bomb.

What were the most important success factors from your point of view?

First and foremost, it’s obviously due to the works of art that you could look at here. If the art hadn’t touched people, it would have been dead here. Secondly, this form of exhibition is completely new. Have you ever seen anything like it here in Berlin before? No! We have entered new territory and people are curious. Thirdly, there is also the pressure of time. You only had two months to see the exhibition. Now it’s over and done with! We deliberately decided that nothing would remain of THE HAUS but the exhibition catalogue. Anyone who wanted to see the artworks therefore had to be quick. And this effect, in turn, was further enhanced by the fact that we asked our visitors not to take photos of the exhibition, but to see and enjoy it with their own eyes. This creates a special atmosphere in the house and ensures that people still experience surprises and have not already seen the whole exhibition on their friends’ mobile phones in advance. Again, this is the downside of technology. It often distracts us from the real thing.

This rush shows that street art is moving from the fringes of society further and further towards the centre. Another indication of this development is that more and more companies are discovering street art in general and graffiti in particular for their advertising campaigns. You recognised this early on and developed a business model from it . You could say that. On the other hand, façade painting is a craft that has a great tradition in Berlin. In this respect, one could perhaps speak of a new wave of demand. But it’s true: more and more large companies, especially from the entertainment and lifestyle sector, want to work with us. These commissioned works bring in money and are great fun for us. At the same time, they also finance our non-commercial projects, such as THE HAUS, to which our hearts are particularly attached.


You do large-scale advertising in the middle of the city. There are many people who would like to see no advertising at all, or at least less advertising in public spaces. There is a lot of criticism, especially from the street art scene. Do you feel addressed there?

It is, of course, easy at first to be against. It is much more difficult to develop realistic solutions. There are certainly good arguments against advertising in public spaces and clearly the city should not be overloaded with advertising. But the question is far too complex to be answered with a simple either-or, all-or-nothing. Much more relevant are questions like: What kind of advertising is there in public space? How much does it dominate the cityscape? Is there anything other than advertising? Our pictures should appeal to people, put a smile on their faces. We try to paint pictures that are as beautiful and technically clean as possible, that also fit well into the cityscape and the respective neighbourhood. Besides, we use fire protection walls, which would otherwise be grey and completely drab. Our pictures are hand-painted and unique, that has a special quality and I think people perceive it that way.

“If art had not touched people, this place would have been dead.”

In this respect, I think that what we do is an enrichment of the public space. This becomes particularly clear in comparison with poster advertising, which often seems unimaginative, intrusive and inappropriate. Of course, we would like to have less of that. In other words, I think our work simply raises the bar a bit higher for advertising in public spaces. In addition, as I said, we use the well-paid commissioned works to cross-finance non-commercial, purely artistic projects, which can then also be seen in public spaces.

It’s great that you have the opportunity to finance independent art projects indirectly through financially strong customers. It’s great that you also use this possibility instead of putting the money into your own pockets. But many other street artists can’t do that, at least not on this scale.

Right. Freelance artists generally don’t have it easy today. That doesn’t just apply to street artists. As artists, we would of course welcome it if our society could afford more artists and more art. But the core problem with street art is not necessarily financing. Spray cans, for example, don’t cost the earth. You can do really cool things with comparatively small budgets. The real problem is criminalisation and generalisation. There are still too few spaces where street art can develop. And too many people who don’t recognise street art as an art form, but label it as vandalism.

Can you blame people for that in the face of graffiti on trains and freshly painted house walls?

At least they can be accused of simplifying the situation to an extreme. Of course there is vandalism in the scene. But most of the pictures are made on walls that no one would otherwise be interested in, and many of them are really sophisticated. Besides, there would obviously be less vandalism if the scene wasn’t criminalised, but instead people were given spaces where they could try out and develop their artistic talents.

Vandalism would vanish into thin air through legalisation?

No, absolutely not. Even legalising graffiti is not a question of all or nothing. I don’t think that all people should be allowed to spray whatever they want, wherever they want! But just as little should an entire scene – which here in Berlin includes many thousands of people – be pushed into criminality. Instead of a campaign against graffiti, the city should rather do a campaign with graffiti. That would also increase the pressure on those who continue to smear walls or scratch windows. Finally, it would lead to nicer pictures because people would no longer have to go spraying at night and in a great hurry.

In many cities in Europe there are tendencies like you just described. Street art is finding more and more supporters. What is the situation in Berlin?

There are current developments that we very much welcome! For example, the Senate recently founded a working group on the topic. Very different players sit together there, all of whom have something to do with street art. The Dixons are also part of the group.

What happens in this working group?

We are now first making a comprehensive inventory. The overall goal is to make our city more beautiful through street art. But it’s also about revitalising the neighbourhoods and shaping the urban space together. We are therefore looking at: Which actors are there? What are their capacities and problems? How can we tackle the problems and support each other?

What are typical problems?

I have already addressed the issue of legal walls. It is particularly important that there are also areas in central locations in the future. In addition, foreign artists who would like to paint a wall here often have problems finding a contact person. So far there is no one at the state level. On the other hand, people from youth and district work often have to wait forever for a funding application to be processed. As a result, many great ideas come to nothing, because street art is always quick. Somehow that is in the nature of things. And at the moment we too have to get special permission from the authorities for every single wall we want to paint – whether it’s for a free project or for advertising – before we can get started. We would like to see a regulation in the building code in the future so that we don’t have to start from scratch all the time. As you can see, there are many construction sites. But I think we are on the right track, because the individual actors are finally ready to approach each other!

Thank you very much for the interesting conversation. One last quick question to finish off: Did you also paint illegally in the past?

Yeah, sure. But don’t worry – we’re out of that age.


October 27, 2017

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