Surviving Berlin’s art jungle

Creative minds from all over the world flock to Berlin in search of their own artistic haven, but being able to stay afloat financially can often be an enormous challenge. Exberliner magazine takes a look at some of their schemes for survival.

Surviving Berlin's art jungle
Photo: Skye von der Osten for Exberliner

The Nomadic Buffalo

Berlin has a very appealing, almost Mediterranean flair: a mesmerizing current that catches the casual jellyfish who thrive on philosophizing bar culture. But the keener ones will use its power to push toward more productive waters.“I am, above all, a copyist. And I find joy in watching other people watch me work,” says Christiane Jessen-Richardsen. Five years ago, after a life of copywriting and catering, the Berlin-based ‘‘street painter’’ (as she calls herself) decided to turn her attentions to the surprisingly lucrative niche-discipline of sidewalk art. Jessen-Richardsen says she loves working out in the open, using the pavement as her canvas. A large chalk drawing takes her up to five days, and is done either on commission or as a street ‘begging job.’

For someone who claims that she doesn’t know a thing about the art world, she makes a remarkably good living off her – in the eyes of those higher up in the art world food chain – ‘questionable’ artwork. A garish portrait of Mozart or a cheesy Mexican landscape works just as well in the Cologne Cathedral square as in Rome or Verona (she regularly criss-crosses the north of Italy with her chalk box under her arm). “But Berlin is awful,” she says, disgruntled from another unsuccessful stint at the Brandenburg Gate. “The main problem with this city is that it has no centre, and it’s so awfully big that people don’t even walk past the same place twice – so they can’t appreciate what you’re doing and say ‘Hey, your work is still in progress!’”

As well as squeezing juice out of organized jobs for festivals across Germany, she is ready to take the next step. It’s a new style that turned the 2D street art world upside down. “I would say that nowadays, about 60 percent of sidewalk art is 3D, so I was forced to learn it,” she says. “I really don’t like it: 3D provokes the effect of surprise, even though the drawing itself might be unspectacular.”

When her nomadic days are over, Jessen-Richardsen will change direction, and start drawing portraits of animals with their owners. She points out at a framed picture of a buffalo hanging on her wall: it’s of a shamanic Krafttier, an animal that reflects the soul of the person being painted. It is, indeed, a zoo out there.

The Networking Spider

The times of the cavemen are not too distant: the art world is a male-dominated place. “Women often don’t know how to place themselves on the market,” says Hannah Kruse, coordinator of Goldrausch, a grant program for female artists. Two thirds of all art students are female, but the hatchlings in the highest-placed eagle nests are still testosterone-heavy. So Petra (not her real name) decided to take these matters into her own hands.

The 28-year-old UdK student plans to bushwhack a path of her own… even before graduating. Backed up by her best asset – womanhood – she has entered the social circles of art connoisseurs: collectors are, after all, where the money is, and if you must sell yourself, it’s best to bypass the pimp. Petra’s future already looks bright. She has sold a couple of paintings: €900 is, she says, what people will pay for a square meter of her canvasses. And when one gay couple who had bought a ‘piece of her’ invited her over to dinner, Petra dressed up – anxiously hoping to cut a fine figure, find the right smart things to say at the dinner table and generally play the part of the young, up-and-coming artist so well that her paintings would emit the right whiff of must-have sexiness….

The Night Hawk

When the sun sets, nocturnal species go about their diverse wanderings. Berlin’s vibrant, excessive nightlife is the sporting ground of queer folk and dubious sugar daddies. Californian Stevie Hanley’s story sounds surprisingly familiar: “I met this gay filmmaker from Holland in Castro one day. When I told him what I was up to and my plans to move to New York, he advised me to move to Berlin instead.”

The 25-year-old Berkeley Wunderkind majored in “Shame Studies”, as he defines it, just as he was discovering his artistic skills. “My parents were profoundly religious in a twisted way. They attempted to change my homosexual views by putting me in obscure Mormon re-education programs.”

Hanley has, however, grown more confident than many of his sexual contemporaries, and now aims his artistic arrows at religious and gender issues. “I tend to secularise religious thought, but in Berlin, they think you’re stupid if you are serious about holy matters.” Two and a half years ago, Hanley hit the Berlin gay scene, working at the Tuntenhaus and curating at the Schwules Museum. There, he met the owner of Rote Lotte, where his paintings are now sold -but they still don’t make him money enough for food and lodging, so a Schöneberg escort service keeps him out of the clutches of poverty. “My work is an inspiration for my art,” he points out with a sweet, contagious smile. “And I provide a sort of therapy for these lonely gay men who are ultimately seeking communication.” As he sits in his Neukölln studio, a big unfinished canvas of trees rises up behind him: these represent the Holy Spirit, and are intended to provoke questions about the fragility of the human soul. And, as twilight darkens the roofs of Sonnenallee, Hanley himself jumps up, ready for the next artistic challenge. You can almost hear his competitors howling with dismay.

Stevie Hanley‘s work is in The Devil Is A Loser And He‘s My Bitch at Galerie Studio St. (Sanderstr. 26, Neukölln, U-Bhf Schönleinstr.,Tel 0177 3686 343, Tue, Sun, 16-19, Fri-Sat 19-24) until Oct 23.

The Busy Beaver

All he ever wanted was to paint. Among the dynamic demands of a non-stop ‘2.0’ society, Edward B. Gordon, a 43-year-old native of Hannover, has discovered a working pattern that allows him to do what he loves most. Gordon’s parents are both artists: “Painting was something that ran in the family.” After a foray into acting, he gave in to his vocation: he lived off the rarely-sold piece, occasional commission work and his wits, until one day he thought up a gimmick that allowed him to do nothing but art, all the time.

For the past three years, Gordon has painted a work inspired by the streets of Berlin every single day. He then puts a picture of it up on his blog and sells it within 24 hours to the highest bidder – €150 is the minimum price. It’s not a bad idea: after all, even the hippest white-walled Mitte galleries sell almost all their art online. Gordon has managed to do what so many Berliners only dream of: he lives off his art – and nothing else. No nightshifts in bars; no language teaching; no tedious shifts at museums. “Of course, there’s the pressure of finishing a painting every single day,“ he says, “but I like the discipline it takes.” Gordon has found his niche: he has sold nearly all of the more than 1000 paintings he has produced – some for €151, some for as much €1700. And this year, major newspapers like the FAZ used some of his pictures to illustrate their stories. For this artist, it’s about staying in motion:physically and virtually.

Click here for more from Berlin’s leading monthly magazine in English.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Five German drinks to try this summer

There’s nothing quite like a cold drink on a hot summer’s day and the Germans know it well. That’s why they’ve got a variety of tasty alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages to cool them down in the hottest months. Here are five you should try.

Five German drinks to try this summer

Summertime in Germany can get pretty hot, but thankfully there are plenty of popular drinks which can help you cool down, as well as tickle the tastebuds.

In Germany, fizzy water is wildly popular, so it’s not surprising that Sprudel is a key ingredient in most of the drinks on this list.


A Hugo cocktail. Photo: Greta Farnedi/Unsplash

The Hugo is a cocktail made of Prosecco, elderflower syrup, mint leaves, a shot of mineral water and a slice of lime.

This refreshing alcoholic drink was invented by Roland Gruber, a bartender in South Tyrol, the mainly German-speaking region of northern Italy in 2005.

Though the drink wasn’t invented in Germany, it quickly spread across the borders of northern Italy and gained popularity here. Nowadays, you’ll be able to order a Hugo in pretty much any bar in the country.


A woman holds a pint of Radler. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Nicolas Armer

One of the best-known and most popular mixed beer drinks is the Radler: a concoction of beer and lemonade, a bit like a British shandy. In some areas of Germany – particularly in the south – the mixture is called Alster.

Usually, the ratio is 60 percent beer and 40 percent lemonade, but there are also some interesting variants. In some regions of Germany, a distinction is made between sweet (with lemonade) and sour (with water) Radler. Some foolhardy drinkers even mix their beer with cola (called a diesel).

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The German regions producing the most important beer ingredient


A woman pours apple spritz into plastic cups. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Soeren Stache

Apfelschorle is an absolute German classic.

The traditional mix of apple juice and fizzy water is a 1:1 ratio, but if you’re making the drink at home you can adjust the measurements to your liking. 

The concept of Saftschorle (fruit spritzer) has moved way beyond the plain old apple in Germany though. On Supermarket shelves, you’ll find major drinks chains offering a wide variety of fizzy fruit beverages, including  Rhabarbe-Schorle (Rhubarb spritz), Schwarze Johannisbeer-Schorle (Black currant spritz) and Holunderschorle (elderberry spritz).

Berliner Weiße mit Schuss

A woman drinks a Berliner Weiße in Berlin.

A woman drinks a Berliner Weiße in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Britta Pedersen

The Berliner Weiße (or Weisse) is an old, German beer, brewed with barley and wheat malt.

As the name suggests, it originates from the German capital, where it was extremely popular in the 19th century and was celebrated as the “Champagne of the North”.

But by the end of the 19th century, sour beer styles, including this one, became increasingly unpopular and they almost died out completely. 

READ ALSO: Five German foods that aren’t what you think they are

So people started mixing the drink with sweet syrup. This gave rise to the trend of drinking Berliner Weissbier with a shot (Schuss) of raspberry or woodruff syrup, which is still widely enjoyed today. Some breweries even ferment fruits such as raspberries or strawberries.

The drink is so well-known in Germany, that there was even a TV series named after it which ran for 10 years 1984 to 1995.


Water and wine in equal parts and both well chilled – a light summer drink. Photo: picture alliance / dpa-tmn | DWI

Another fizzy-water-based German classic is the white wine spritz. 

A wine spritzer is a refreshing drink on warm summer days which has the advantage of not going to your head as quickly as a regular glass of wine. With equal parts fizzy water and wine, the drink has only about 5-6 percent alcohol, compared to glass of pure white wine, which has about 9-14 percent. 

For optimum German-ness when making this drink at home, choose a German white wine such as Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner or Riesling.

Enjoy and drink responsibly!