The areas of St Pauli and the Schanzenviertel in Hamburg are well known for their counter-culture. As in so many places, this culture includes music, political awareness, and street art. The street art is abundant, impossible to overlook. But is it art, or is it graffiti? And does the distinction matter?
Street Art in St Pauli and the Schanzenviertel
St Pauli and the Schanzenviertel are neighbouring districts in what was once a working class area. However, the once grand buildings suggest a more prosperous past. And today it is more of a mixed neighbourhood, the streets lined with trendy cafés and independent shops.
A vibrant counter-culture developed in the 1960s. The music scene was particularly important, and St Pauli is often associated with The Beatles, who first performed here in 1960. Live music continues to be one of the attractions of the area.
The street art is a part of this culture. Scarcely an inch is untouched, every available space covered with brightly coloured images and slogans. Which brings us to the question of whether it really is street art, or whether it should more properly be categorised as graffiti.
Street Art or Graffiti?
Of course, there is no clear line between street art and graffiti. Indeed, some commentators would simply class graffiti as a particular subset of street art. Others might point to the intention of the artist. So that street art would be creative, designed for public consumption. Whereas graffiti is more personal and esoteric, and sometimes even destructive. There is another possible distinction: street art is “legal”, created with the sanction of the property owner, but graffiti is “illegal”.
The street art in the Schanzenviertel is technically illegal, although mostly tolerated. The exception is the Flora Park, where spray painting is permitted, and where I watched two artists openly at work. The intention of the artists is of course open to conjecture. However some observers might regard the apparently random jumble of images as meaningless, and so dismiss them as “not public art”.
Once you move into the St Pauli area, the art seems a little more deliberate in its design. The artworks are more individually coherent. These include a collage of old vinyl discs, and an old tree in the cobbled Augustenpassage with shoes dangling from its branches. The car park beside the Rindermarkthalle hosted an international art festival in 2015. This was a massive exhibition by graphic designers and alternative artists, and you can still see some of their work on the car park walls.
If you’re interested in learning more about street art, have a look at my review of the book Lonely Planet: Street Art.
Political Dimension to Street Art in the Schanzenviertel
There is usually a political edge to any counterculture. Hamburg was the scene of the anti-capitalist G20 riots in 2017, and in the Schanzenviertel this took the form of violent protests against the gentrification of the area. It is clear that feelings still run high: much of the street art (or graffiti) reflects political concerns. I saw lots of messages saying things like “United Against Racism” and “Refugees Welcome”. And the Rote Flora, a former opera house, is now a place for rough sleepers, a meeting place for left-wing activists, and a space for art and political propaganda.
It is also about reclaiming the space for the people. Back in the Flora Park, an old bunker is now both a climbing wall and a “legal graffiti area”, a place for self-expression. And, walking through the park towards the Rote Flora, I spotted a lone skateboarder practising his skills in the most colourful skate park I have ever seen.
Street art is obviously very important to St Pauli and the Schanzenviertel. But is it art, graffiti or a political statement? I leave it to you to decide…
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