“Does anyone know what a squatter is?” My counselor, Cedric, was looking to one of us to answer.
I raised my hand.
“A squatter is someone who illegally lives in an abandoned house. Legally, they can’t be kicked out, at least in the U.S., so it creates a weird grey area,” I responded.
I only knew this stuff from urban ecology.
From there, we went to meet a squatter, who would be giving us a tour of the squatters’ complex he lived in.
The complex takes up less than a square block and consists of a collection of near-dilapidated buildings.
This community is a haven for artists. It’s home to the counterculture of Hamburg, Germany, where I was spent a month abroad this summer. It’s called the Gängeviertal.
The Concept of the Gängeviertal
The concept of the Gängeviertal is very simple: to be independent of monetary commitments and to just focus on your art and your community.
I found this concept revolutionary, almost—coming from a school and an environment and a city where everything is so elitist, where prestige is so important.
In our world, we’re so focused on finding the right path to an Ivy League school that we often forget the world that exists around us. I’ve found that a lot of people don’t stop to listen to or to care for the people around them. This isn’t usually malicious, but rather the product of being so goal-oriented that we forget that there’s a world filled with other people experiencing so many different things than we are.
But at the Gängeviertal, the whole point is to focus on those around you, to slow down your lifestyle, and to take in not just your experiences, but those of everyone.
New York is similar to Stuyvesant. It boasts the best fashion, the best food, the best musical theater. New York is for people who care about prestige. In a sense, it’s always been that way, because back in the city’s earliest days, actors with stars in their eyes came here to find fame.
But there’s an aspect to old New York that I find very similar to the Gäneviertal, and that’s that it was an old school artists’ paradise. New York used to be a place for all artists to come and live cheaply and immerse themselves in their art, and it’s sort of crazy to think that the city’s so rich now.
But the Gängeviertal has a communal aspect that New York never had. The concept of the Gängeviertal is that it belongs to the artists. As such, all the walls are covered in new graffiti works (though, there are signs telling artists to respect the work and not tag or graffiti over other people’s pieces), there are sculptures placed all over outside, and there’s work everywhere inside. And because the complex is contained within a single block, the feeling is much more intimate.
The First Encounter
The first time I was at the Gängeviertal, Cedric guided us down a really nice, modern-looking block to meet our tour guide, Anton. As we turned toward the block where the Gängeviertal was located, all I could see was a parking lot. But, all of the sudden, everything looked completely different.
There were bikes everywhere (in varying conditions), and there was a faint smell of plaster in the air. We entered one of the communal centers, and I saw pieces of fabric hanging from the gazebo where we sat.
“Look behind the gazebo,” Cedric said.
Behind us was an astonishingly detailed 40-foot graffiti mural of a dissected spider on the building.
The Gängeviertal has two communal buildings. One is dedicated to the artists’ studios. There’s a stage, a dance studio, a screen printing studio, and a penthouse photography studio. The whole building sort of smells musty with air that may or may not be slightly toxic to breathe.
The other communal building houses the kitchen. Outside, there are some benches covered in homemade tiles and walls covered in murals.
Each of the few remaining buildings has a gallery on its bottom floor. These galleries are nothing fancy, but they’re open to the public. The people of the community—some artists, some not—live upstairs.
The artists who live in the complex use the studios for free. Sometimes, they hold workshops to help introduce the others in the community to their own forms of art. However, the studios are also rented out to provide income for the Gängeviertal. But it’s all flexible. Since the goal is to provide a place for artists to work if they can’t afford to elsewhere, new artists can bargain down the already cheap studio prices. This is particularly helpful for experimental theater groups who want a place to try and fail and try again with their art.
Anton explained his frustrations. The Gängeviertal tried to get some government funding, but they didn’t get the money because there was always the question, “How much revenue will this generate?” That question went against the entire goal of the community, which was to experiment and to be a community.
A Concert at the Gängeviertal
And it really was close knit. I spent a lot of time there throughout the rest of my trip. At the concert I went to, everyone seemed to know each other. (The concert hall even had a “pay what you want” policy for all drinks to accommodate everyone.) It was an intimate feeling, and it was interesting to observe as an outsider, because everyone else seemed to know each other from the community.
Everyone was there to immerse themselves in good music and see people they knew and loved. Nobody really dressed up, but everyone seemed very fashionable. Their hair seemed a bit greasy, they all had a pair of nice leather boots. The general attire was similar to that of any concert, but the hairdos may have been a little crazier.
And the music, like everything else there, was edgy and indie.
Last Visit to the Gängeviertal
I went back once more. Cedric was friends with a screen printer named Klaus, so we also got to go back and screen print on our own clothes for free. When we got there, we waited in a stairwell by the studio. Giant paper mache busts of an elephant and a horse had just been installed. The lights flickered a bit, but never for long.
Klaus taught us how the whole process worked, even though his English wasn’t great, and brought us sodas (I had one called Spezi, which is a mix of Fanta and Coke that nobody in the U.S. has figured out is actually delicious), and held our screens along the way when we needed help.
Printing things on your own clothes and then getting to wear them around makes you feel quite indie, yourself. The designs were symbolic of the avant-garde nature of the Gängeviertal, ranging from an intestinal tract to Snoop Dogg to a bold-letter print that roughly translates to “Shut up,” but a bit more explicitly. After I had finished printing my four t-shirts, I had really fallen in love with the community.
This whole thing made me realize that we should really appreciate artists. My parents are artists, so we’ve always bought local paintings, sculptures, and screen prints, and I’ve always gotten hand-made earrings for my birthdays. But supporting local artists really is important, because all art starts at the local level. Local art is what eventually gets mass-produced.
So, instead of buying a knockoff of some local artist’s thing, you could support your local artists. The attitude of appreciating handmade goods exists in Europe, but not so much in the U.S., since we’re so consumed by what’s cheapest.
I admire this community and what it stands for: living with very little, giving back to the community, and appreciating those around you. We should all pay attention to the counterculture and non-mainstream art culture around us—whether it’s small, experimental theater or graffiti artists—because it’s the underground and the counterculture that give rise to the new mainstream.