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“Don’t just paint a blatant message on the wall”

Gerrit Peters and Heiko Zahlmann design graffiti for the auditorium of the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin

Art and research create new opportunities for interaction and get people talking. A progressive project was the redesign of the HZB auditorium on the Lise-Meitner Campus in Wannsee by the artist duo Heiko Zahlmann and Gerrit Peters. Both artists have been in the graffiti scene for many years, and have artistically unified the research topics of HZB in a giant mural. Artists Gerrit Peters (TASEK) and Heiko Zahlmann (RKT one) spoke about the project.

Graffiti in the lecture hall of the Helmholtz Centre Berlin

©HZB/Phil Dera

Interview mit Gerrit Peters und Heiko Zahlmann

How did it happen that you were allowed to paint graffiti in the auditorium of the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin?

Zahlmann: The HZB asked us to submit a design for a mural in the auditorium for a competition. We just spontaneously said yes. The design was a tremendous challenge. When we started working on the HZB, we had a whole lot of catching up to do. We also had guidelines: The picture had to be modern and dynamic. And it had to depict various different fields of research. Combining all this into a draft was no easy task.

How did the challenge appeal to you?

Zahlmann: For me, it was thrilling to develop something that had to satisfy the scientists’ wishes. Previously, there was a chart of nuclides fastened to the wall, and many people felt emotionally attached to it. So, our design had to be able to compete with that chart. That was the real challenge.

How long did it take to complete? Are you happy with the results?

Peters: We are completely happy. It took the four of us – we were with two art students – eight days to complete. That makes 320 hours for the realization alone. We had planned everything beforehand, down to the last detail. Our approach was, in that way, a bit like that of the physicists we got to know at HZB: They need a lot of preparation time for just a brief experiment. It’s no different for us.

How should the picture affect the viewer?

Peters: For us, the core essence, the unifying principle in research, was wave-particle duality. The mural is deliberately intended to rouse a passion for discovery and puzzle-solving. We didn’t want to pin an overly blatant message on the wall. That gets boring very quickly. People should always be able to discover something new in our picture, even when sitting for the tenth time in the auditorium. At the same time, our picture mustn’t distract from what’s going on in the auditorium. In that respect, I think we took it to the limit with the colour scheme.

When doing commissions, you often have to make compromises. How do you deal with that?

Zahlmann: Even in commissions, we can express our own style. We discover interesting places, and we are happy when our art moves people. Of course, we also accommodate the clients’ wishes, all worthy in their own right. The people who work here have to be able to relate. We do work much more uncompromisingly on free projects. But thankfully, we don’t have to submit.

Is it still important to you to do the painting yourselves?

Zahlmann: For the wall in the auditorium, we took our own brushes in hand. Basically it depends on the size of the project, of course. For very large projects, we have to coordinate and organize more concertedly. Then we distribute the jobs and let the specialists get to work. We are networked with many good artists who help out when needed.

Could you have put up such a motif in the auditorium of a research institute 20 years ago?

Peters: Certainly not. We have worked hard over the past 20 years to increase acceptance of graffiti and to show that it is not just a part of a subculture. At the same time, the art has to look authentic, and should not be disloyal its roots. Slowly, it’s paying off; urban art is now Zeitgeist.

Zahlmann: Plus, twenty years ago, we might not have been able to create this picture anyway, because we would have lacked the knowhow and experience. And no one from the HZB would have even thought of asking us for a design. Still, even back then, we found and created a place for our art. Graffiti has influenced many people of our generation; they themselves have sprayed around and have grown up with it. Now, these same people won’t hang an oil painting above their sofa, but something like a graffiti tag instead.

How important is contact with the subculture, though?

Peters: It is very important to us. We approach the scene and offer workshops for young artists, for example.

Zahlmann: Sometimes, though, we still just do classic graffiti – on some dirty wall somewhere, and of course unpaid. Last December, I painted a wall in Hamburg with a young, super-talented artist. That was great fun, and helps keep in contact with the young scene.

Peters: You see this philosophy everywhere in the scene. You can travel all over the world and run into graffiti artists who support you straight off. We have already had the wildest encounters. With the art comes a very strong solidarity that transcends all boundaries.

You have been an active graffiti artist for 25 years. Doesn’t it ever become boring?

Zahlmann: When I started 25 years ago, everyone in the scene was looking to New York, and so spraying similar pictures. But you don’t want to do that all your life. Now, we are discovering a great broadness, so there is always variety. Now it’s canvas work, now its sculpture, a mural project or writing a book. For us, art isn’t a hobby we do in our spare time. We do it all day long, have done for decades, and live from our art. Then you naturally come up with ideas that no one else has had – and that never gets boring.

Interviewed by Silvia Zerbe.

About the artists

Heiko Zahlmann

lives and works in Hamburg and has been a graffiti artist for over 20 years. In 1999, with two partners, he founded the studio community ‘getting-up’.  Today, he designs gigantic murals in urban space, as well as sculptures and reliefs. His works are exhibited in renowned galleries.

Gerrit Peters

Gerrit Peters has lived and worked in Hamburg since 1997, and already began his career in the German graffiti scene in the late 80s. He quickly discovered the big cityscape and its many potentials as an inspiration for his urban art. He heads workshops on graffiti and urban art, and works as a lecturer and speaker at universities and museums.