Sunday, March 6, 2011 – Munich, Germany
Travel the world long enough and patterns emerge between cultures. Common behavior among humans becomes evident despite differences in language, culture, weather and economic status.
Most of our stereotypes show the Germans and Japanese as serious and ordered people. Yes, they can let their hair down and have a good time, especially when alcohol is involved, but the stereotype would have you believe everything magically snaps back into place on Monday morning.
That fails to explain the graffiti found on the sides of buildings and along the train tracks. No matter where I go, I find graffiti lurking in the cities. Tokyo, Munich, Atlanta, Augsburg, Amsterdam, Nuremberg, Sao Paulo … it seems to be a common thread.
The easy answer is rebellion. This is what you think when you see Japanese punks on a Saturday night, loudly weaving their way between staggering businessmen on a Tokyo sidewalk. You expect it from youth before they fall into the structure of corporate uniforms, be it the jumpsuit of a train worker or the matching company tie every salesperson wears at a German trade show.
That rage against the machine that aims to make people part of its gears is an attractive proposition, and one I would agree with in some circumstances. Then every once in a while life surprises you with different ideas. My surprise was waiting on the northeast side of Munich.
I was talking the long way back to the train station from the BMW Museum, walking along the edge of the Olympic Park, when I saw a group of apartments on my left. Row after row of simple rectangles filled the space, like generic blocks laid into a simple pattern. These are utilitarian structures with the look of a government assisted housing project … plain, ordinary, unremarkable.
Then you look closer, and small blocks of color catch your eye. Residents have painted some of the apartments with murals, or scribed messages for passersby. These aren’t the crude and shocking styles of the graffiti artist, but images made by people trying to personalize their space. They can’t own the space, but they can make it their own.
And that seems to be the common thread … personalization rather than ownership. Graffiti is trying to own the space of others, fashion statements try to own your identity, the apartment murals try to own the space they occupy. In the cases where you can’t financially own the space, people still try to own that space in ways that don’t involve money. It’s part of the human condition.