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Photographing the Faces of Berlin's Graffiti Scene

Norman Behrendt portraits of Berlin's most prominent graffiti writers serve as a comment on the duality of their lives.

by Norman Behrendt, Words by Grey Hutton
06 August 2015, 3:20pm

All photos by Norman Behrendt

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the German Democratic Republic opened up a whole new landscape for West Berlin's graffiti artists to explore. While the Western side of the almost 12-foot-tall concrete wall had been a canvas for street art throughout the 1980s, its Eastern side had managed to remain almost completely unscathed thanks to all the watchtowers and guard dogs that the Socialist regime used to prevent its citizens from leaving. Once the wall was demolished in 1989, West Berlin's graffiti artists were granted newfound access to the former GDR and began to inspire a whole new generation of writers.

Photographer Norman Behrendt grew up around the newly unified Berlin graffiti scene. In 2007, he decided to start shooting portraits of some of the more prominent artists of his generation. The project grew until he had collected the 83 portraits and 76 interviews that now make up his book Burning Down the House (seltmann+söhne, 2015).

"I mostly focused on the guys living double lives," Norman told me. "Some are lawyers, others are students, and one even works for the police." In an attempt to avoid all of the usual stereotypes, Norman tried to capture the anonymous artists in some of Berlin's most public spaces. "The point I am trying to make is: You can't just judge people by the way they look," he said.

The portraits are a collaboration between the photographer and the subject, with each writer choosing how to represent themselves. All of the pictures play with themes relating to their individual work—from the clothes they wear to the locations they're shot in. One guy, for instance, decided to cover himself in four liters of pig's blood before being photographed.

Surprisingly, many of the subjects agreed to pose with their faces totally visible—a brave statement given that massive fines and potential prison sentences often await those caught by the police. In an ironic twist, the book itself is bound with the same material that's used to upholster Berlin's U-Bahn train seats because its iconic "puzzle print" is said to work like urban camouflage and deter tags. Its use in the book had to be approved by the BVG (Berlin Public Transport Company) who, every year, fork out millions of euros in an attempt to repel graffiti artists and clean up after them.

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The end of the book features additional polaroid portraits, which were shot separately to the original portraits and sent to the individual artists for approval. These polaroids were returned to Norman uniquely customized, in a final attempt for the artists to stamp their mark whilst remaining anonymous—which, in many ways, is the fundamental core of being a graffiti artist.

Burning Down the House (seltmann+söhne) was published in January 2015. Norman is currently selling a special edition of the book limited to 30 unique copies. Order it here.