"Berlin has a very long history of street art, graffiti and urban art. Urban art needs free spaces and Berlin offered these spaces in the 1980s a lot. Not just the Berlin wall – vacant buildings were also a playground for international street artists". Yasha Young is the director and curator of the recently opened URBAN NATION – the world’s first major institution focused on the cultivation and recording of street art and graffiti. The museum opened late last month after Young's ten-year preparatory phase working towards its realisation. The museum houses the works of some of the biggest names in street art, so it's hardly surprising that the opening had people flocking to the streets in anticipation. A couple of weeks into its opening, Young spoke to think about why this museum needs to exist, and why it has to be in Berlin.
Cover: Opening of URBAN NATION, photo by Nika Kramer
Left: URBAN NATION; right: Yasha Young – photos by Nika Kramer
"Berlin is and has always been
a city that artists or creatives
feel very much attracted to"
"After the fall of the wall, Berlin was a hot spot for urban artists," Young said. "In the 1990s Berlin became the art capital of Germany and in the beginning of the 2000s we saw the movement grow immensely, and many urban art galleries opened their doors all over the city". Indeed Berlin stands out on the world stage as an art mecca. It's home to some of the world's most significant art fairs, its galleries have lured curators from some of Europe's biggest art capitals, and it's accepted as the place to be for art lovers who want to know what's coming next. But Young insists that the city's winning virtue is its ability to nurture and sustain artists themselves.
"Berlin is and has always been a city that artists or creatives feel very much attracted to – you can still find affordable living spaces and studios, and you have a very diverse cross genre creative scene that is on constant output," Young explains. She paints a picture which contrasts with the reality of subsequent art capitals where artists are being driven out due to increasing rents and cost of living. Young's work rests heavily on the strength of Berlin's network of artists. She built URBAN NATION's on the basis of that network.
Opening of URBAN NATION, photo by Nika Kramer
"I started my work here about 16 or 17 years ago – we were able to create and connect with a great network of artists here in Berlin with creatives all over the world. We started with two projects – projects "One Wall" and "Project M" – where we began painting the city and its walls. Once we realised the potential [of the projects] and that our vision was in fact working, it was a very natural transition and decision to open: URBAN NATION, a museum for urban contemporary art".
"Street art is an art form that is first and foremost meant for everybody. It can be seen by everybody in the streets, and it can be produced by anyone. It does not have boundaries of gender, culture or age. Urban space is a common space for everybody. So [URBAN NATION] is just a natural progress of the history of the work happening outside".
Artwork by Hush – courtesy of URBAN NATION
When it opened, the museum's very purpose was questioned by some – the main point of contention being: isn't street art meant to be on the streets? Young resists this rationale, insisting that the purpose of the institution and the organic proliferation of street art are working in tandem, they're not mutually exclusive.
"We will always work outside and continue to keep the conversation flowing," Young said. "We will organize workshops and develop social projects for children, teenagers and the people of the neighborhood. We are looking to connect, create and care with longevity and mindfulness. We want to encourage the access and interaction to urban art within the museum – it's free to enter and we welcome everyone to visit".
"Street art does not have boundaries
of gender, culture or age"
Opening of URBAN NATION, photo by Nika Kramer
Left: artwork by Martin Watson; right: artwork by Mimi S – courtesy of URBAN NATION
So what should visitors expect to see when they visit URBAN NATION? And what can it offer that's different from walking the streets of Berlin?
"Street art still belongs to the streets, and that's where it should stay and work," Young explained. "Inside the museum you'll see urban contemporary art pieces. For the last exhibition, for example, the pieces were made specifically for the museum and the content of the exhibition. Most of the exhibited artists work in the streets but on canvas as well, and have done that for a long time. There is no limit to medium and choice of outlet in urban contemporary art. The artist decides".
"The architecture of [the museum] and the internal space is designed to be able to invite artists to paint twenty metre artworks on the wall, or on a canvas, or produce temporary large scale installations – the construction of the museum allows that. Also, the facade of the museum is made out of interchangeable elements, so that it can be painted, archived and painted again. We are simply an archive trying to tell the story of what many see and experience daily in their cities. A place to read, learn, experience and maybe even get involved".
Well, that's us convinced.
You can visit URBAN NATION at Bülowstraße 7, 10783 Berlin, Germany. It's opening hours are Tuesday to Sunday between 10am and 6pm. Entrance is free.