Life

These Artists Tore Down Street Signs Named After Germany's Racist Past

We followed "Rocco and His Brothers" on their latest project
December 8, 2020, 8:45am
Rocco and His Brothers welding street signs onto a pole for their latest project
All Photos courtesy of Rocco and His Brothers

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.

“Rocco and His Brothers” is a Berlin street art crew whose members describe themselves as “art activists”.

Known for controversial installations which highlight social justice issues, in 2018 they hung a mannequin wearing a life jacket from a crane in Berlin, to draw attention to the bodies of refugees tragically washing up on Europe’s shores. Earlier this year, when the German centre-right CDU party proposed to lift rent caps in Berlin – and then ironically had to move offices because of a rent hike – Rocco and His Brothers built them a fake office in a metro station, featuring a desk, office plant and carpet.

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I met up with ringleader Rocco and the rest of the group recently to watch their latest project in action. For this initiative, they targeted street names in Berlin which nod to Germany’s colonial history, like Lüderitzstraße, named after a German colony in Namibia; or Nachtigalplatz, named after explorer Gustav Nachtigal, who was instrumental in establishing Germany’s first two colonies, Togoland (today’s Togo, and parts of Ghana) and Kamerun (including Cameroon and parts of Congo and Gabon).

Rocco und seine Brüder. Two men in high visibility vests taking down a street sign.

"People talk about these names all the time, but nothing happens," said Rocco. In August of 2020, the government announced it would rename Berlin’s Mohrenstraße – or “Moors street” – after Ghanian philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo following Black Lives Matter protests.

However, Rocco and His Brothers were sick of the inaction, so I watched them remove the signs of five streets with colonial links and re-weld the signs onto one street pole.

Rocco und Seine Brüder. Two men in builders uniforms next to the street signs.

The final art installation – street signs attached to a pole.

"Don't forget to wipe your fingerprints,” said Rocco. The crew’s installations are obviously illegal, and the police have been trying to track them down for years. If they were caught, they’d likely be fined thousands of euros. But Rocco and His Brothers have so far avoided attracting attention, by wearing builders’ or city workers’ uniforms while they do their work.

The next morning, the crew packed up the street signs and we drove to Pekinger Platz (Beijing Square), in Berlin’s northern Wedding neighbourhood. Most people know Germany had colonies in Africa, but there were three in northeastern China, too – Jiaozhou (or Kiautschou) Bay, and the cities of Yantai (or Chefoo) and Qingdao. 

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Once we got to the square, the crew sectioned off a cobblestone compass built into the ground with some portable barriers. They then erected the street pole so that most of the street names pointed south, towards Africa, while Kiautschoustraße pointed east, to China. A couple of photos later and we were back in the car, off to the next project at the Mohrenstraße metro station.

Rocco und seine Brüder. The final art installation inside the compass.

The final art installation, placed inside the compass.

Rocco wouldn’t tell me how, but he’d got hold of a master key that opened the door to a maintenance room in the middle of the metro platform. Once inside, Rocco connected an MP3 player to some speakers and broadcasted an audio recording listing the names and crimes of prominent colonialist figures in German history, for the whole platform to hear.

"Carl Peters. Colonialist, racist. Founder of the German colony of East Africa,” went one section. “He arbitrarily imposed the death penalty on the indigenous population, tortured them, oppressed them, killed them, often for purely personal reasons. A street in Berlin bears his name. Colonialism and its crimes are glorified."

Rocco und seine Brüder. Rocco setting up the MP3 player.

Rocco setting up the MP3 player.

The MP3 is connected to speakers and to the metro station's intercom.

The MP3 is connected to speakers and to the metro station's intercom.

The reactions were mixed. A few minutes in, an older woman lost her cool. "Fuck you BVG! [Berlin’s transport company] We get the message!” she shouted. “This is nuts,” said a man in a suit. "Imagine if the train was cancelled – I’d really lose it!" said another.

But lots of people looked like they were actually listening. After over an hour, a BVG worker showed up to try to access the room, but Rocco had purposefully snapped the key inside the lock. Eventually, the police were called and managed to get in. But for almost two hours, the metro station was filled with stories of Germany’s dark colonial past.

Two BVG employees trying to get into the maintenance room.

Two BVG employees trying to get into the maintenance room.

Rocco was satisfied. Coming from the graffiti world, he and his crew have a special attachment to the metro, traditionally – as in other countries – a popular spot to tag. “There’s almost no other place where diverse groups of people come together like in the metro,” Rocco said.

A few days later, on a Saturday morning, the crew got together for the last part of their anti-colonialist initiative. We headed to the Afrikanische Straße (African Street) metro station in north-west Berlin.

Rocco had another trick up his sleeve: a tool that can open the billboard displays inside Berlin’s metro stations. Rocco opened up a display featuring an ad for a discount supermarket chain. In its place, he rolled out a poster showing a German man in colonial gear being served by an African child, with a message reading, “Na, Mibia – is this tip enough?”

An anti-colonialist poster at the metro station.

An anti-colonialist poster at the metro station.

The writing referred to a diplomatic debacle in August of this year, when Namibia refused to accept a sum of €10 million offered by the German government as reparations for genocide. Up to 100,000 Herero and Nama people were killed between 1904 and 1908 after they rebelled against the German colonial rule in Namibia. The remaining population was put in concentration camps, where they died of disease, abuses and exhaustion. 

“It’s a ridiculous sum,” said Rocco, “and it shows how little Germany is prepared to take responsibility for these crimes."