At the beginning of the 1980s, Hamburg’s urban landscape gradually began to change. The instigators of this transformation were not urban planners, however, but graffiti artists: inspired by films like Wild Style and Beat Street, they moved around the city at night with spray cans and left behind colourful pictures, symbols and writing on walls, bridges and train carriages. Over the course of time, Hamburg – which had been a grey city dominated by postwar architecture – was transformed into a colourful and diverse metropolis which soon became one of the European epicentres of the graffiti and hip-hop scene, alongside Paris, Amsterdam and Munich.
The exhibition “A CITY BECOMES COLOURFUL. Hamburg Graffiti History 1980-1999”, which will run from November 2nd, 2022 until January 7th, 2024 at the Hamburg Museum, tells the story of the origins of this youth subculture in Hamburg. The curators Oliver Nebel, Frank Petering, Mirko Reisser and Andreas Timm have assembled almost 500 exhibits, including photographs, texts, sketchbooks, spray cans, newspapers, magazines, vinyl records and accessories. In their research, they were able to build on their previous collaborative work: they are the editors of the lavishly illustrated book EINE STADT WIRD BUNT (A City Becomes Colourful), published in 2021, from which the exhibition gets its name.
Like the book, the exhibition explores the historical period from the creation of a new city topography after the Second World War to the punk and protest culture of the 1980s and the emergence of a growing graffiti scene. The exhibition looks in detail at how North American hip-hop culture became established in Hamburg. Numerous photographs, including some large-format ones, show how Hamburg’s graffiti pioneers conquered the walls of the city. Film posters, concert tickets, articles from magazines like Stern and Bravo and various other documents illustrate the key role of the media, the importance of the music and breakdancing scene, and the relevance of youth clubs and the cultural sector to the development of the entire subculture.
Flyers, audio tapes and vinyl records: at first glance, some exhibits may look like mundane everyday objects from a bygone era. In the context of the story told by the exhibition, however, it soon becomes clear that almost every little snippet that had anything to do with hip-hop and graffiti was fiercely treasured at the time. In this pre-internet era, information about the subculture was in short supply, and belonging to the scene was like being a member of a secret society. The exhibition features equipment used by graffiti writers, such as spray cans, marker pens, square spanners and bolt cutters, but also accessories typical of the scene, like name belts, sneakers, baseball jackets with “backpieces”, and legendary records, to give visitors a profound insight into the beginnings of hip-hop culture in Hamburg. Alongside graffiti writing, it also looks at MCing, DJing and breakdancing.
The highlights of the exhibition include the historic S-Bahn seats which museum visitors are allowed to sit on – just like a graffiti writer in the 1980s. Above the entrance to the exhibition’s music section there is a large sign saying “Powerhouse”. This installation is the original sign that once hung above the entrance to a legendary hip-hop club in St. Pauli. Another highlight is the faithfully reconstructed room of a fictional Hamburg teenager who became a graffitist in the 1980s. The biographical transition from childhood to adolescence is expressed by numerous details in the room: beside the collection of empty cola cans which decorated many young people’s bedrooms at the time, there are also colourful Sparvar spray cans.