Hamburg Winter Wanderings

TXMX and Russell, hanging out while Quasikunst photographs the assoonas Stencil Nation show.
art on the wall, clockwise from the gas mask: rauwel, huh, jan and js’, and piratos
photo by quasikunst

Night 1

The bus ride from Berlin is quick and on time, arriving around 7:30 PM. TXMX meets me at the station, wearing a hot pink hat like he said he would in the email. “My girlfriend always appreciates it when I meet her at the station with this hat on.” I’ve known TXMX via Stencil Archive for well over five years now. He’d given me hundreds of his photographs to put on the site, and had given me maybe two dozen for the book. He was probably my first email, stencil pen pal. Now he’d offered up a cozy spot in his studio to crash.

We hop on the subway and go over to the Reeperbahn station. “Up there is the red light district,” TXMX tells me. “You’ll be staying only a few minutes from here in the St. Pauli district.” He takes me to his studio, where he paints, cuts stencils, and “puts his things.” He’s set up a nice, cozy nook for me back by the desk. We have tea, connect for the first time face to face, and then figure out what to do for the evening.

I’ve been sniffly and sneezy for a few days so do not want to go too late. Going late happens quick and easy in Germany. So we walk around the corner to a nice, smoky cafe and I have a local Astra beer. Right across the street, the Beatles lived in a flat during their early days in 1960. After the drink, and a falafel right down the street, TXMX took me on a night walk of urban art.

We walk up Wohwillstr. and he knows all the art and artists that are doing local work. He pulls out his flashlight and we go into driveways and look at the work in the dark corners. We end up in the Schanzenviertel ‘hood, at Rote Flora, and it is an amazing squat covered with graffiti. Behind it is the Bunker, a five story square tower almost completely covered with spray graffiti. One wall is a climbing wall, with the grips bolted into the graffed wall. We then scoot down Eifflestra., along the train tracks and look at more tags, graff, stencils, stickers, etc. Back at the studio, we have one more tea, chat a bit about tomorrow and then I get settled and sleep the sniffles away.

Day 1/Night 2

The comforter TXMX gave me to cover up is amazingly warm. I had to shed layers during the night and now don’t want to get up and face the German Winter morning. I eventually get up, with the urge to photo, make, cut, spray stencils. But first I have to find a cafe with free WiFi so I can check in with Berlin, Pod, the tour, and the USA. During my search, I try to follow the route TXMX took me through St. Pauli last night.

I go one way, snapping stencils and looking for WiFi, get a bit turned around, and then zig zag through the streets back to the studio. Have a tea to thaw out (freezing out there!) and then look at the map TXMX gave me to try to figure out where Rote Flora is. I go the other way that we first went last night and find the route. In turn, I find free WiFi in a cafe right beside Rote Flora. I thaw out some more as I update the flyer for Wien, chat with Pod a bit, and check email. Back to the documenting, and freezing (I have to take my gloves off to use the camera, so my fingers have suffered), and then a brief trip up the Reeperbahn before meeting TXMX and going to the ASA studio in Altona-Nord (North) for the slide presentation.

The Reeperbahn, a major boulevard with side streets, is indeed the Red Light District of the city. Hamburg, like San Francisco, is a port city, so has always been a stop for sailors looking for fun. If SF still had the Barbary Coast, I can only imagine it as this section of Hamburg. Anything you want to do, it’s there. There’s a gay porn and club street. A drag queen cabaret. Sex shops. Strip clubs with old men barking in front. BDSM. A men-only, 18 and up, street where you can go to brothels and buy sex. Gambling is all over the area, and bars, clubs, discos, pubs, and any other kid of place where one can drink. I’m there early, and, along with the freezing weather, the streets are pleasantly empty of tourists, drunks, and horny men.

Welcome to Hamburg.

TXMX and I show up at his studio at the same time. We have another tea (TXMX is rolling smokes every time we take these breaks) and then discuss what is needed for the show. A table. A power strip. A beamer. Wait. TXMX thinks that I have an old school slide projector. No. I need a beamer/digital projector. Uh oh! TXMX calls Quasikunst (from ASA crew) and then the hunt for a beamer begins. The first lead, Pirot, is not working since he’s sick and not answering his mobile.

We hop a cab with my books and laptop, along with the table, and head up to the ASA (Altona Stencil Art) studio in Altona-Nord. The taxi drops us off at a cobble-stone dead end street, right at the S bahn tracks and three other streets (no grid system in this ancient city). After a short walk, you can’t miss the ASA studio. Have to walk into a garage to get to it, and the garage is covered with amazing stencil art “collabs”. Inside the garage, where ASA paints, the walls are covered with stencils. Going left into a small courtyard, more stencils on the wall. Down a few steps into a 200 year old house’s basement, and the first room is filled with stenciled wooden pallets.

The stencil community here in Hamburg has gotten tight over the past few years. Mostly thanks to the French artist Artiste Ovrier. He lived in Hamburg for a while and enmeshed a group of artists into a crew called ASA. Some members have dropped out/joined in, but now the group is at a set number.

I find and meet Quasikunst, A, and some other artists in the next room. Quasikunst is in the process of hanging art on the wall while A is setting up the bar back in a smaller side room. “The Hamburg stencil scene has never had a show like this,” he tells me. I only understand later that night that this is the FIRST time almost all the artists in Hamburg have their stencils in one room. So I end up giving my lecture in a room full of amazing art, with most of the artists in attendance. What an honor!

But first, the mad rush for a beamer. Quasikunst is making many calls. He’s found another one. No, it’s been lent out. He calls that person, and HE lent it out to a third person. Pirot still isn’t answering the phone. Finally, TONA has a beamer the might work. Well, it’s our last shot.

People start to show up and Quasikunst tells me we’ll start late. Several artists aren’t there yet and friends haven’t shown up yet. The small basement room becomes full of cigarette smoke. I don’t smoke but can see my breath in the cold. I haven’t sat down since the taxi over about two hours ago. Finally TONA shows up with the beamer. It doesn’t work at first, but then after adjustments, my desktop appears on the blank wall left for that purpose. Whew…..

The room’s getting crowded. Music’s playing. Beer and wine are flowing. More cigarette smoke. I’m wondering if they all know English well enough to get what I’m saying. Will my jokes translate? I’ve had to speak a more formal English so that they understand me better here in Germany, so will have to remember to pronounce better and not just ramble through the bullet points in my head.

Quasikunst finally tells me to start and the room is very full. People are peeking through doorways and from the tiny bar area. This is awesome. An actual underground stencil event in an underground studio located in a basement. Feels like an important cultural moment for the scene. I give my presentation, which lasts under 40 minutes since I don’t ramble as much as I have in North America.

Then the after party begins, which means more beer, cigarettes, music, and standing in the freezing basement. I meet Dash3Ultra from ASA and we have a great talk. I meet Auzone and we have a great talk. I meet one of the Los Piratos crew who is taller than Quasikunst! Funk25 stops by to say hello. The six books I brought all sell quickly. I make a mental note that I need to mail more books to Europe tomorrow! I only have six books left for the rest of the tour. Shit.

Things thin out and I finally head back to TXMX’s studio, where we chat about Thomas Pynchon among other things. I sleep finally around 2:30 AM, after a great walk back through St. Pauli.

Day 2, Night 3

Don’t want to get up again but manage to make my great muesli cereal breakfast, some tea and a sink bath (no shower at the studio). Back out in the city, but this time with appointments and my stencils. I first go up to Wool Will, a trendy store near the studio, and pick up some great graff vids from M. He lets me use his WiFi there so I check in with Berlin, the tour, email.

Then I walk over to the ASA stdio once again to meet Quasikunst once more. TXMX will be there. TXMX and I get there early so go off to find a sandwich and some wine. Back at the studio we wait long enough for me to get out my stencils to paint something. Then Quasikunst shows up. Inside, we hang out while he shoots photos of all the art. You can find the photos here on Flickr (and on Stencil Archive soon).

I had my stencils so attempted to stencil out in their courtyard area. Hard to do in the freezing winter weather. The tape didn’t stick. The black paint kept running down my hand. My fingers weren’t working that well. But I painted two globe stencils there. TXMX wanted one at his studio, so I came back to his place and painted one with little difficulty. Easy to do when you can keep going inside to keep things warm.

Everyone’s heading to Die Bedürfnisanstalt, an old public toilet that’s been converted into an art space, tonight for the Artfart exhibit. I head back to the studio, walking with Quasikunst for a while, have a tea, paint a stencil, walk a bit until I find an Indian restaurant for dinner, and then walk over to Bleickenallee for the show. The artist came to my event, works with stencils, but also works in other media. I liked the show. One wall was pen and ink that had a graphic novel feel. Another wall had collage critiquing consumerism. The whole show was a play on pop art, which the artist doesn’t like too much. Things soon closed up at Die Bedürfnisanstalt, so we all headed to the local stencil hang out, which is closing and moving back to its renovated original location.

Walked over with Dash3Ultra, and we talked about Rudolf Steiner, art, squats (passed one called No Pasaran on Lubuschstrss.), and many other things along the way.

We make it to a building covered in graffiti and art. Dash3Ultra walks me around and gives me a tour of all the stencils on the facade. We then go into the space, named Hafenklang (In Exile). What a crazy place! Full of graff and looking like a 1980s mall after a major riot. D3U takes me around the whole space and shows me all the graff on the INSIDE. Totally covered! Dance hall and ganja downstairs. Free foosball and squat-like hang outs downstairs too. Upstairs is old school hip hop in a smoky bar. I drink beers, talk graffiti and skateboarding with Los Piratos, and randomly tag the place up. It’s moving back to it’s original location in a month anyway so who cares. Who cares if it wasn’t closing.

Walking up the steps to leave around 4 AM, a random drunk guy asks me something in German. “In English, bitte” I reply. He asks me where I’m from. I keep telling him San Francisco. He keeps forgetting but does remember to ask if I’m gay. Overall, he tells me that Germany is the best country in Europe. Hamburg is the best city in Germany. “Fuck France. Fuck England.” I shake his hand and wander out into the cold streets full of writings from many authors and head back to my amazing crash pad studio, compliments of TXMX. Right near the Reeperbahn, right in St. Pauli, on the edge of graffiti, culture, ethnic minorities. Home for me at the moment in Hamburg.

Day 3

Get up a bit slower this morning. Too many beers. But glad to head out on a sunny day and photograph the art on Hafenklang’s facade. Walk down to St. Pauli Fischmarkt and see major, almost apocalyptic industrial facilities across the Elbe River. The river is slushy and full of ice chunks. I’ve never experienced a frozen river before. I walk along the tourist esplanade, passing what looks like a series of squats amongst all the high-priced, riverside real estate.

I should mention that Hamburg, just like Berlin and maybe every other city in the Northern Hemisphere, is going through a condo boom. Things are changing here in Hamburg. Right down the street from TXMX’s studio, 47 artists were evicted from a small building so that it could be torn down and a tall building full of condos can go up. The artist Moki has a show up in another part of St. Pauli and M. informs me that is was a funky area that is now a rich, funk area. What the hell? Berlin and Hamburg both are seeing the condo boom. And again, who’s buying these places? TXMX was a bit distraught about the changes he’s seeing. The graffiti on the streets is addressing this too. But why are these places being built if no one is buying them?

I cut up Helgolander Allee and walk to the norther part of St. Pauli to see Moki’s exhibit. The gallery is closed so I look at her beautiful art through the window. I browse the flea market that’s happening in the area and then wander over to the area M. told me about. Find some Boxi stencils along with a few others. This street reminds me of Upper Haight in SF. Grab a falafel and walk back over to the Reeperbahn for one last look/see. Find the men-only street, eerily empty of horny men again. Still cold and early I guess because nothing’s happening on the Reeperbahn. I think I’m glad my memory of it will be that way.

Meet TXMX one last time at his studio. We talk some more, have one last coffee, and then take the subway back to the bus for Berlin with about 10 minutes to spare. Hugs, goodbyes, see you onlines, and TXMX wanders off to go to an art exhibit with his girlfriend. On the bus, the full moon rises before the sun sets. I enjoy it out the window as cars fly by us going super fast.

Back to the big city. Back to Berlin. On with the tour and more amazing memories.