What began in the 1970s with tags on walls that quickly took over New York has now developed into a worldwide urban art movement, and city landscapes everywhere are used as pseudo-canvases.
Urban Nation, an international institution for street artists, has been turning Berlin into an open-air museum since 2013, bringing together established pioneers of urban art and upcoming local sprayers, and providing them space on select buildings for their creations. The headquarters at Bulowstr. 7 hasn’t looked like a regular building for years, with its four-storey-high façade regularly used as a giant canvas by international artists like Shepard Fairy (the artist behind the Obama Hope poster) and The London Police.
In September 2017, the location opened its doors for the first time as the Urban Nation Museum for Contemporary Art, the world’s first major institution built to champion and archive street art and graffiti from all over the globe. In celebration, the surrounding area was transformed for two days into an open-air gallery, which saw wall climbers unveiling the works of French street art legend Invader on the gable of the museum building, as well as a giant window illustration at nearby Nollendorfplatz train station.
The opening exhibition, "Unique. United. Unstoppable" features 150 pieces, created specifically for the gallery space by artists such as Banksy, 3D (the frontman of Massive Attack), German duo Herakut, and Blek le Rat (the pioneer of stencil graffiti who made his name spraying rats on the streets of Paris in the 1980s), as well as the library of photojournalist Martha Cooper, whose recordings impressively document the emergence and development of urban art. The gallery rooms extend over two floors, and thanks to the bridge-like architectural design, visitors can view the pieces from a range of perspectives.
The museum is an extension of what happens on the streets, showing what the artists can also do on conventional canvas, and has been described as the biggest acknowledgement so far of the legitimacy of urban art. Some may object to the institutionalization of an art movement valued for its anarchic spirit, but artists relish the hope it will increase the value and appeal of their life-long passion.