Does street art lose its essence when an entire museum dedicates its walls to the genre? Yasha Young is certain that there’s nothing wrong with curating street art. She initiated the new Urban Nation Museum for Contemporary Art in Berlin.

Xavier Prou is in his late sixties, of average height, and still has a full head of hair. If you found yourself standing next to the Frenchman, you could easily mistake him for a retired philosophy professor on a scholarly visit to Berlin.

Die-hard street art fans know better. Since the early 1980s, Prou or Blek le Rat has been busy spraying stylized rats onto facades. Born in 1951, he is considered one of the founding fathers of stencil art, a vital tradition and precursor of street art as we know it today.

Among others, his pioneering work inspired an artist who, two decades later, would catapult street art into the mainstream: Banksy. Just like Prou, the notorious and anonymous British icon initially made his name with depictions of rats before honing his signature style with its brilliant combination of aesthetics, humor, and political agenda.

sculptures and pictures in the street art museum
Colorful variety: a cross-section through the street art landscape.
Photo: Sabine Dobre

Works by Banksy, Blek le Rat & co.

At the Urban Nation Museum for Contemporary Art in Berlin, each of the two seminal pioneers have one piece on display. At the same time, the presence of these two heavyweights in the recently opened museum does not mean that the project aims to assemble an academic collection of street art icons.

Quite the opposite, in fact: “In my opinion, museums are not just for showing works by artists who have already made it – or who are dead,” says the museum’s director, Yasha Young. “The work of a museum should begin where artists embark on a journey of change, where an art genre starts to change or even where a brand new one arises.”

street art objects in the new Berlin museum
Navigate the world of street art – room for room.
Photo: Sabine Dobre

Originals by international street artists

The scene has never been more active and thriving, as the colorful kaleidoscope of images, objects, and materials proves, jumping at visitors the moment they enter the building. All works are originals, created by renowned national and international artists – especially for the museum.

So, don’t expect any posters or facades plucked straight from the street and then re-assembled in the museum. There’s simply no way to reproduce the original urban spirit and its specific production condition (slinking from wall to wall in dark, foggy nights; brush, stencil, or spray can in tow).

Yet while the medium might have changed, there is no change to the underlying message. Despite swapping walls for canvas, all artists displayed at the Urban Nation Museum have remained true to their characteristic styles, aesthetics, and choices of motif.

director of the museum Yasha Young
The project’s initiator: Yasha Young.
Photo: Nika Kramer

A work of art, inside and out

For Yasha Young, the museum opening in September 2017 meant the fulfilment of a personal dream. A dream that started back in 2013 when the German-American commenced working for the Berliner Leben Foundation of the Gewobag communal housing association.

Public arts projects like Project M and OneWall had already paved the way for Young’s unconventional idea. Now, this ambitious project has found its home in a four-level turn-of-the-century building in Berlin’s Schöneberg district.

Tasked with the ambitious transformation of the original building, the architects at Graft not only decided to asphalt the interior corridors, but also turned the building’s exterior into a work of art on its own via a modular, switchable facade system. Designed to serve as a striking canvas for artists, it regularly receives a brand-new look and update. After unmounting, previous facade elements can enter the museum’s collection and serve as exhibits. The best thing about it all? Admission to the museum is absolutely free.

street art museum in Berlin-Schöneberg from the outside
The museum in the heart of Berlin’s Schöneberg district.
Photo: Sabine Dobre

Urban Nation Museum wants to write art history

“We want to play a part in writing art history. Our main principles are to promote, collect, and archive. Street art has become a firm fixture in society and city planning,” adds Yasha Young. “I have always loved how this art form manages to reach very different people across all social classes, offering different ways to access it. For example, graffiti still happens on the street and not everyone can read or understand its code. Street art is often more figurative, making it easier for people to form an opinion.”

It’s an invitation for visitors and neighbors alike since the Urban Nation Museum explicitly wants to involve its surroundings. From day one, Young and her team have tried to approach and involve local residents, a. o. with a colorful redesign of the nearby Nollendorfplatz subway stop or tape art portraits adorning the windows of a retirement home across the street. Two houses down, the museum even stages workshops and does youth work.

Does street art need this?

Is it not in the genre’s nature to happen out on the streets? Is its ephemeral character not part of its intrinsic DNA? And is displaying it in a museum context not like locking a wild tiger in a cage?

“It’s about giving the tiger a home where he can enjoy a bite or two that he might never find outside in the wild,” explains Young. “It’s my job to be an observer, to record, show, and tell everything.”

images on the walls of the street art museum
The museum wants to help define art history.
Photo: Sabine Dobre

The Urban Nation Museum remains in flux

Besides an exhibit by Swoon, firmly ensconced in concrete, and a spectacular portrait by Portuguese artist Alexandre Farto aka Vhils, hewn straight into the wall, the museum plans to exhibit a regular rotation of fresh works. Even the museum’s own Banksy will get taken down one day. And who knows – maybe the space behind it will reveal another work by the notorious prankster …

Yasha Young faces the framed work and smiles. She would be the last one to object. “Who knows,” she says. “Anything is possible.”

Urban Nation Museum for Contemporary Art, Bülowstraße 7, 10783 Berlin