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Life after Tacheles: What’s become of the artist squatters?

It was an artists’ utopia, a cultural institution, a tourist magnet: after over two decades on Oranienburger Straße, Tacheles was shut down, the artists kicked out. Five and a half years on, Taylor Lindsay finds out what happened next.

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Photo by Linda Cerna

It was an artists’ utopia, a cultural institution, a tourist magnet: after over two decades on Oranienburger Straße, Tacheles was shut down, the artists kicked out. Five and a half years on, Taylor Lindsay tracked down the original clique to find out what came next.

If you walked down Mitte’s Oranienburger Straße at any point between 1990 and 2012, you would have likely noticed a commanding, if dishevelled, structure located just a short distance from the synagogue. Up until five years ago, the second-most visited art attraction in Berlin wasn’t the East Side Gallery or Museum Island, it was this five-storey building: aka Kunsthaus Tacheles. Taken over by artists after the Wall fell in 1990, the building was transformed into a creative commune. It was quintessential post-Wende Berlin: upon their occupancy, the artists launched a legal battle for the property and rescued it from demolition, maintaining a presence for 22 years.

At its peak, Kunsthaus Tacheles had a theatre, a bar, an event space, studios and nearly 100 creators from over 30 different countries all under one roof. There was no censorship, no middleman at the market. The doors to the house were open 24/7, and artists sold work right out of their studios. Everyone from critics to tourists, to students, to other artists wandered in and out of Tacheles, named after the Yiddish word meaning “straight-talk”. Some say the Kunsthaus became kitschy in its final years, producing “artsy” works deliberately catering to the tourist palate. Still, it was the only place of its kind.

But it didn’t last. The temporary lease, under which they paid a symbolic 50 cents per year, came to an end in 2008. For three more years the artists were once more illegally squatting, peacefully pushing back against investors, opposition and the city of Berlin (under Mayor Klaus Wowereit). Their lack of menace didn’t mitigate their determination – they stayed in the building, even as their electricity was abruptly cut off and different investors approached artists individually, offering them money to leave. Except for the café on the ground floor, most held out. Finally, city officials came and forced the last of them to vacate on September 4, 2012.

Thousands mourned and protested; the city had stamped out a crucial subculture and with it, a quintessential spirit. Or did they? Five years later, don’t look for Tacheles in the bereft building on Oranienburger Straße, now marooned on the edge of a vast desert of a development site. If you want a glimpse of the spirit today, look at the Tacheles Berliners who wouldn’t be subdued.

A new Tacheles in Lichtenberg?

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Tacheles may be gone but at Kulturbotschaft Lichtenberg Txus Parras (pic), Tim Roeloffs and co are training a new generation of artists in their philosophy. Photo by German Palomeque

Txus Parras, now 55, was one of the earliest internationals to arrive at Tacheles. At 26 he was travelling the world as an event technician, but he admits he always wanted to be an artist. Touring with a punk band called “Pogo” took him from Spain to Poland, and from Poland to Berlin. The first place he found was Tacheles. “And I never went back to Spain,” he says, grinning at the memory. He settled in and started creating.

Looking at his work now, it’s hard to imagine a version of himself that wasn’t making art. For one thing, he’s covered in it: buttons on his hats, rings on his fingers, lime green pants stamped with political slogans, and his accordion at hand. He designs psychedelic patterns for clothing, sculptures made from discarded doll parts, posters in at least three different languages, and tourist favourites like zines and painted records. The latter he sells at the East Side Gallery, which is where we first met him. When Tacheles comes up, he describes it like he was just there hours before. “It was free, it was open, there was this great feeling. We had the philosophy there that everyone is an artist. Everyone is an artist,” he insists with a guttural voice, talking with his hands. “And now we want to make a new artist meeting place, something with the spirit of Tacheles.” 

This “new place” is actually a thing, and the “we” he alludes to includes four other Tacheles originals: Tim Roeloffs, Peter Rampazo, Lucas Böttcher and his father Jürgen Böttcher. Named Kulturbotschaft Lichtenberg, the project began in February this year with a flurry of excitement as German newspapers initially dubbed it “New Tacheles”. There are some major differences though: the building’s address, Herzbergstraße 53, puts it right on the edge of the city, and the rent is €10,000 a month. But the founders moved fast, filling the three spacious floors with work spanning decades – from 86-year-old Jürgen Böttcher’s oil canvases dating back to the 1970s to new works from street artists who Parras met weeks earlier. Paintings, collage and silk screened shirts line almost every surface that isn’t a footpath in the artists’ studios. There’s a common area where the founders and a growing group of almost 60 people meet and cook together. Everything is peppered with colour. Fully peopled, it might look something like Tacheles. As for the rent, they’re making it work, one scrappy manoeuvre at a time; selling art, hosting events, or making deals with wholesalers, swapping designs for funds.

“Nobody is Tacheles more than us,” Parras says proudly of the project. “But it’s not a new Tacheles. We’re just incorporating the old philosophy of Tacheles; we want to keep the spirit that made it a social, cultural place, not just a functional one.” Is this all because he misses the original Tacheles? Partly. “Nobody wanted to go,” he says of the September eviction. “But actually, I didn’t really leave till December,” he grins. “They had to keep coming back for me.” 

Lessons from the Tacheles elders

While Parras is the project’s biggest proselytiser, Tim Roeloffs is at its core, though he credits the others for bringing the Lichtenberg building to life. When Roeloffs got to Tacheles in 1992, he wasn’t technically an artist either, coming instead from a family of Dutch farmers. His story is one of Berlin’s most famous: discovered by Donatella Versace at Tacheles in 2007, rocketed to fame, harangued by real estate sharks since 2011, and recently evicted from his home.

“It’s been a crazy time,” Roeloffs explains. “First I was kicked out of Tacheles. Then, this year, I got kicked out of my private working space. Then I got kicked out of the next place I went to work. And then I was kicked out of my home. But, somehow, I’m the happiest man in the world with this place,” he gestures around the Lichtenberg hub.

Like Parras, Roeloffs conjures up fervour and flavour when he talks about the old days at Tacheles, beer in hand, gluing together newspapers into canvas material as he speaks. “It was more than a workplace. You had input and output and exchange. I didn’t come from the art world; I learned in squats, and Tacheles was like my university.”

At “Tacheles Academy,” the new programme run by Parras and Roeloffs, a growing group of 20-somethings learn how to use scrap material and second-hand supplies to make art for sale. They show up to the Kulturbotschaft when they want, learn from the Tacheles elders, and spend much of their time out selling art on the street. “Everyone can do it this way,” says Roeloffs, who can build €200 wooden frames from roadside supplies. “You’re not ‘allowed’ to do this, in some people’s minds. Everyone’s in love with the idea of the starving, poor unknown artist. But if I make something today, I want to sell it tomorrow. Wanting to make money doesn’t make me less of an artist.” But these are just five of the Tacheles old guard. Where are the others?

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After the eviction from the iconic location on Oranienburger Straße, Martin and Linda moved art and artefacts to a Potsdam basement. Photo by Anastasia Chistyakova

The unofficial boss

If Parras, Roeloffs and the Böttchers were the old “spirit” of Tacheles, a different group of people were more like the bones, the skeletal system that gave it a distinct – and perhaps controversial – shape in the last decade. This was a small body of five, handling operations, admin, tax, PR and politics, all the while artists themselves. Martin Reiter and Linda Cerna were at the helm of the group.

It’s no secret that Reiter wasn’t always popular with the Tacheles folk. But he’s unfazed by this today. “My position, if you want it in those terms, was to play the role of the boss,” he says slowly. “The boss gets involved with the politics, the market… when things get difficult, everyone needs to be able to point to ‘the fucked-up boss.’”

There was no ‘spirit’ of Tacheles at the time. Everyone is making up their own reality of ‘What Tacheles Was.’ It became a myth.”

When he came to Tacheles in 1993, it was by invitation. At age 27 he was already recognised in Austria for his paintings, sculptures, and specialty in robotics. He arrived to a slew of internal problems. “All the Western guys were there for the house and the money, at first,” he remembers. Later, sub-groups formed. “The groups weren’t so much divided by house, downstairs, and yard, but rather: the guys who just wanted to make money, the guys who fucked up because they drank too much and thought that made them artists, the touristic-art guys, the pragmatic and open-minded artists, and the crooks. The worst were the people who said, ‘I am the Tacheles.’ I never said that, because no one person could say that and it be true.”

He went to the courts to battle for Tacheles several times: first in the 1990s for the 10-year lease, and again from 2008 to 2012 trying to get a new contract. “We won that first battle: we kept the building. But it was only a 10-year contract. In a speech to the others I said that we cannot take this 10-year contract, because in 2008 they will definitely throw us out. But the group didn’t follow that idea, so in the end we signed the contract. I wanted to keep going until we were the owners of the house.”

Unlike the Lichtenberg fellows, Reiter dismisses the idea of a “spirit of Tacheles” existing as such. “These are buzzwords, there was no ‘spirit’ of Tacheles at the time. Everyone is now doing what people do with religion. They’re making their up own reality of ‘What Tacheles Was’, because it’s in the past. It became myth. The facts are: we squatted a house, we painted pictures, and we got famous because a small group of people fucked with the economy, the bank and the politicians of Germany. If we hadn’t done that, nobody would give a shit about Tacheles.”

But he clearly does, despite the edge in his tone. After the dust settled, he set up and started managing The Tacheles Archives in the basement of a small building in Potsdam. Its drawers are overflowing with artefacts, filled with meticulously filed photos, flyers and catalogues. Paintings hang on every wall and stacks of files cover the floor, like a messy bedroom where he can remember “exactly where everything is.” This is what’s left of much of the art of Tacheles itself: about 250 works the artists left behind. When he’s not maintaining the archives, organising small exhibitions, or making a living teaching robotics, he meets and collaborates with artists from the old days. One of them is Linda Cerna.

Housekeeping in a squat  

Cerna came in 2008, as the 10-year lease was running out and the artists were trying to find a new way to secure the house, buffeted at every turn by Mayor Wowereit’s unwillingness to help and investors clamouring to turn Tacheles into a brand for new real estate. A Freie Universität graduate, she wanted to get into cultural management and thought an internship would be the best route. “I wanted to go somewhere that interested me, that I cared about. So, I went straight to Tacheles. I found Martin and asked for a chance. He just said ‘Well, you can try!’” When Cerna successfully organised the massive archive into an in-house retrospective exhibition in a matter of weeks, she was there to stay.

The organisational team had to contend with complex internal politics at the time. This included enforcing the “rent” system: artists paid about €200 a month for the electricity, gas, water, and a smattering of tax necessities. There was more than a little pushback. “We wanted to be as democratic as possible when it came to the art, the projects we could make happen. But we couldn’t be democratic about deciding whether we pay for electricity or not. It’s not just about making art and welcoming people, it’s about cleaning the toilet and keeping the power on too.”

And then there was the outer, PR layer: “We contacted politicians and asked for support. We took all the legal steps we could to save the house, knowing that in the end the only way to save Tacheles was if the city of Berlin really wanted to save it. In the end, they decided not to,” says Cerna, telling us of a particularly embarrassing incident in which artists sent a set of symbolic keys to the mayor when it became clear they would be evicted in September, along with an open letter that said: “The house is yours now, we hope you keep it an art place for the city.” Two days later, Wowereit had given the keys to an investor, apparently not knowing that it was a symbolic gesture – the investors’ hired hands went to the building while it was dark and tried all the doors with the keys.

Post-eviction, Cerna kept working with the artists both in Berlin and abroad; she helped set up the archives with Reiter, and she was invited to the Casoria Contemporary Art Museum in Naples to do a Tacheles-themed exhibition. She now organises communication for art fairs, including Berliner Liste. She’s disconcerted by the city’s unwillingness to save the living landmark. “It wasn’t the cost, because we financed it ourselves. If you look at it objectively, the project was something the city should have been proud of, it was special; people don’t come here to visit the shopping malls. It was a big loss for Berlin.”

Exporting the myth

Of course, the gentrification of the last decade only fanned the flames of that loss. Some artists left the city after their studio space idyll was gone. Barbara Fragogna, also a member of the organisation team, returned to Italy after the eviction. Like Cerna, she too witnessed the final five years, coming to Berlin in pursuit of an artistic career and moving into a small flat just down the street from Tacheles. At the time, no one was doing the tedious work she eventually took over: running and structuring a programme for the frequently used 400sqm gallery and accompanying catalogues. Independently, she kickstarted exchanges with artists from Italy. She now employs the organisational flair she brought to Tacheles in her Turin-based Fusion Art Gallery.

At the mention of another similar project in Berlin, Barbara laughs kindly. “Maybe if Martin and Linda were doing it, I’d come back for that. A big organisation like that can only thrive if you have a lucky cosmic moment, the perfect combination of people… We used to say, we would vote for Linda for queen of the universe.”

But she remembers the tension, too. “We could have been evicted at any moment. Everything felt precarious. Once, we were suddenly occupied by security men from the bank,” she says, recounting the time a group of hired vandals broke into painter Alexandr Rodin’s fifth-floor studio. “They were all dressed in black. I could see one of them had a swastika tattoo. They squatted his studio and destroyed some work. It felt like living with a parasite.” It took two months of back and forth in the courts (costs shouldered in part by Martin Reiter) to get a legal order forcing them out.

“Sometimes we wondered if we should just close it ourselves,” she sighs. “It’s so psychologically and physically tiring, to work in a place where you invest all your time and energy and you don’t know when it’s going to end. During the last days we were planning to improve the house and solve the structural problems – but we needed more finances. I think if we’d been permitted to keep the building, we would have found a way. Even though we lost the property in the end, it’s impressive how far we got.”

What about the others?

For the artists who aren’t founding a new art centre or hanging out with the organisational team, there is no single trajectory that accounts for the last five years. Some started galleries that quickly closed. Some are still in Berlin selling art or drugs. At least three committed suicide after the eviction. Some even attempted, unsuccessfully, to create a “New Tacheles” in Marzahn in 2013.

And some are still arguably thriving, filling the gap left by Tacheles with their own thrifty solutions to support their creative careers. Experimental musician and painter Kurihara Takuya remembers it all: the stressful last days, the loss of electricity, the dissent within the house. He kept to himself and “stayed out of the politics,” continuing to put on experimental music shows with friends on Monday nights in the building’s event space. “I was offered money by the lawyers from the bank’s side to leave, but I kept turning it down – I wanted to keep my studio.”

When Tacheles closed, he moved his art into his 20sqm apartment in Neukölln where he still lives today. Pieces are lined up against the walls about a foot deep into the room where he sleeps. He can’t afford to create and sell full time, so he supplements his income by washing dishes nine hours a week at a restaurant and selling his work on Sundays at Mauerpark.

“Tacheles helped with my future. I have connections to galleries and clients who visited me back then. Being there forever wouldn’t have been ideal for me anyway. I wanted to take the next step as an artist, stage proper exhibitions, go other places. When it closed, it sucked: I lost the place my income was coming from. But it turned out okay – better, even. There was no option to go back anyway.” He motions to his current surroundings. “We all had to go forward.”

It seems, then, that Martin Reiter’s statement was true: the spirit of Tacheles could be a “myth” in the sense that anyone could make what they wanted of it later. But those who are actually making something of it now – recording history, teaching young Berliners, organising festivals, building Italian galleries, or just simply creating – are using that myth for something. This seems fair. They are, after all, its authors. 

Tacheles in 12 dates

1907 Construction of the 9000sqm building, designed to be a department store

1909 – 1914 Department store operated by Wolf Wertheim, auctioned off just before WWI

1928 Building owned by AEG and used as a product showroom for electrical goods

1930s Used by Nazi officials

1941 Used to hold French prisoners of war

1948 Taken by the GDR, used for multiple short-term businesses

1980 Doomed for demolition thanks to zero renovations

1990 Two months before demolition, the first Tacheles artists occupy the building and push for a re-examination of the space

1992 Building examined and deemed liveable (and a historic landmark)

2012 Artists forced to leave, building empty. Surrounding stores begin to close

2016 Bank, city and investors announce commercial intentions, try to invite big name artists to the space for their own project. Ai Weiwei refuses

2018 TBD