Surviving Berlin’s art jungle

Creative minds from all over the world flock to Berlin in search of their own artistic haven, but being able to stay afloat financially can often be an enormous challenge. Exberliner magazine takes a look at some of their schemes for survival.

Surviving Berlin's art jungle
Photo: Skye von der Osten for Exberliner

The Nomadic Buffalo

Berlin has a very appealing, almost Mediterranean flair: a mesmerizing current that catches the casual jellyfish who thrive on philosophizing bar culture. But the keener ones will use its power to push toward more productive waters.“I am, above all, a copyist. And I find joy in watching other people watch me work,” says Christiane Jessen-Richardsen. Five years ago, after a life of copywriting and catering, the Berlin-based ‘‘street painter’’ (as she calls herself) decided to turn her attentions to the surprisingly lucrative niche-discipline of sidewalk art. Jessen-Richardsen says she loves working out in the open, using the pavement as her canvas. A large chalk drawing takes her up to five days, and is done either on commission or as a street ‘begging job.’

For someone who claims that she doesn’t know a thing about the art world, she makes a remarkably good living off her – in the eyes of those higher up in the art world food chain – ‘questionable’ artwork. A garish portrait of Mozart or a cheesy Mexican landscape works just as well in the Cologne Cathedral square as in Rome or Verona (she regularly criss-crosses the north of Italy with her chalk box under her arm). “But Berlin is awful,” she says, disgruntled from another unsuccessful stint at the Brandenburg Gate. “The main problem with this city is that it has no centre, and it’s so awfully big that people don’t even walk past the same place twice – so they can’t appreciate what you’re doing and say ‘Hey, your work is still in progress!’”

As well as squeezing juice out of organized jobs for festivals across Germany, she is ready to take the next step. It’s a new style that turned the 2D street art world upside down. “I would say that nowadays, about 60 percent of sidewalk art is 3D, so I was forced to learn it,” she says. “I really don’t like it: 3D provokes the effect of surprise, even though the drawing itself might be unspectacular.”

When her nomadic days are over, Jessen-Richardsen will change direction, and start drawing portraits of animals with their owners. She points out at a framed picture of a buffalo hanging on her wall: it’s of a shamanic Krafttier, an animal that reflects the soul of the person being painted. It is, indeed, a zoo out there.

The Networking Spider

The times of the cavemen are not too distant: the art world is a male-dominated place. “Women often don’t know how to place themselves on the market,” says Hannah Kruse, coordinator of Goldrausch, a grant program for female artists. Two thirds of all art students are female, but the hatchlings in the highest-placed eagle nests are still testosterone-heavy. So Petra (not her real name) decided to take these matters into her own hands.

The 28-year-old UdK student plans to bushwhack a path of her own… even before graduating. Backed up by her best asset – womanhood – she has entered the social circles of art connoisseurs: collectors are, after all, where the money is, and if you must sell yourself, it’s best to bypass the pimp. Petra’s future already looks bright. She has sold a couple of paintings: €900 is, she says, what people will pay for a square meter of her canvasses. And when one gay couple who had bought a ‘piece of her’ invited her over to dinner, Petra dressed up – anxiously hoping to cut a fine figure, find the right smart things to say at the dinner table and generally play the part of the young, up-and-coming artist so well that her paintings would emit the right whiff of must-have sexiness….

The Night Hawk

When the sun sets, nocturnal species go about their diverse wanderings. Berlin’s vibrant, excessive nightlife is the sporting ground of queer folk and dubious sugar daddies. Californian Stevie Hanley’s story sounds surprisingly familiar: “I met this gay filmmaker from Holland in Castro one day. When I told him what I was up to and my plans to move to New York, he advised me to move to Berlin instead.”

The 25-year-old Berkeley Wunderkind majored in “Shame Studies”, as he defines it, just as he was discovering his artistic skills. “My parents were profoundly religious in a twisted way. They attempted to change my homosexual views by putting me in obscure Mormon re-education programs.”

Hanley has, however, grown more confident than many of his sexual contemporaries, and now aims his artistic arrows at religious and gender issues. “I tend to secularise religious thought, but in Berlin, they think you’re stupid if you are serious about holy matters.” Two and a half years ago, Hanley hit the Berlin gay scene, working at the Tuntenhaus and curating at the Schwules Museum. There, he met the owner of Rote Lotte, where his paintings are now sold -but they still don’t make him money enough for food and lodging, so a Schöneberg escort service keeps him out of the clutches of poverty. “My work is an inspiration for my art,” he points out with a sweet, contagious smile. “And I provide a sort of therapy for these lonely gay men who are ultimately seeking communication.” As he sits in his Neukölln studio, a big unfinished canvas of trees rises up behind him: these represent the Holy Spirit, and are intended to provoke questions about the fragility of the human soul. And, as twilight darkens the roofs of Sonnenallee, Hanley himself jumps up, ready for the next artistic challenge. You can almost hear his competitors howling with dismay.

Stevie Hanley‘s work is in The Devil Is A Loser And He‘s My Bitch at Galerie Studio St. (Sanderstr. 26, Neukölln, U-Bhf Schönleinstr.,Tel 0177 3686 343, Tue, Sun, 16-19, Fri-Sat 19-24) until Oct 23.

The Busy Beaver

All he ever wanted was to paint. Among the dynamic demands of a non-stop ‘2.0’ society, Edward B. Gordon, a 43-year-old native of Hannover, has discovered a working pattern that allows him to do what he loves most. Gordon’s parents are both artists: “Painting was something that ran in the family.” After a foray into acting, he gave in to his vocation: he lived off the rarely-sold piece, occasional commission work and his wits, until one day he thought up a gimmick that allowed him to do nothing but art, all the time.

For the past three years, Gordon has painted a work inspired by the streets of Berlin every single day. He then puts a picture of it up on his blog and sells it within 24 hours to the highest bidder – €150 is the minimum price. It’s not a bad idea: after all, even the hippest white-walled Mitte galleries sell almost all their art online. Gordon has managed to do what so many Berliners only dream of: he lives off his art – and nothing else. No nightshifts in bars; no language teaching; no tedious shifts at museums. “Of course, there’s the pressure of finishing a painting every single day,“ he says, “but I like the discipline it takes.” Gordon has found his niche: he has sold nearly all of the more than 1000 paintings he has produced – some for €151, some for as much €1700. And this year, major newspapers like the FAZ used some of his pictures to illustrate their stories. For this artist, it’s about staying in motion:physically and virtually.

Click here for more from Berlin’s leading monthly magazine in English.

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‘Lack of diversity is a problem’: What it’s like to work at a Berlin tech startup

Many foreigners dream of finding a job in Germany's growing startup scene. But aside from promises of free pizza, what's the culture like, is the pay good - and do you need to speak German? We spoke to two foreigners working at tech startups in Berlin to find out.

'Lack of diversity is a problem': What it's like to work at a Berlin tech startup

With over €5.1 billion in venture capital fund investments raised last year, the startup industry in Germany’s capital is booming. Startups are the fastest-growing job sector in Berlin, and more than 78,000 people are now employed in the sector.

The sector attracts highly qualified, ambitious people from all over the globe. But what is it really like to work for a Berlin startup?

We spoke to two insiders to find out. Gabriela, 36, is originally from Poland and has been a Business-to-Business Manager in a tech startup in Berlin since October last year. Giuseppe, also 36, is originally from Italy and has been working as a Human Resources Manager in various tech startups for the last seven years. 

Most important question first – do you actually get free pizza and office table tennis?

Giuseppe: These kinds of benefits have become a bit of a cliche that doesn’t really reflect the reality anymore. Yoga, soft drinks, and fruit baskets are nothing special. The real benefits are now to do with remote working and flexible working schedules. 

Gabriela: We haven’t really had many of these kinds of ‘incentives’ because we’ve been mainly working from home since I started. Only in the last month or so we’ve been going to the office at least once a week, and we do get free pizza and drinks once a month when the CEO’s give us their monthly update on how the business is going.

READ ALSO: The German regions attracting startups

Would you say that your work environment is diverse?

Gabriela: My team is a complete mix of people from different European countries. But the number of BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) people on board is not very high and there is definitely a problem with the lack of female leadership, which the company is trying to address. The CEOs are all white Germans.

Giuseppe: (Lack of) diversity is still a big problem. Most of the CEOs and the highest earners are white – usually German – guys. Women and BAME people tend to occupy lower-paid jobs. It’s a systemic issue – and there is competition among a lot of startups that are trying to show who is more diverse. 

How much German is spoken in your company?

Gabriela: Hardly any. We speak all the time in English with each other and all of our meetings are in English.

Giuseppe: It’s the same with us. I’m hearing German less and less. 

READ ALSO: How easy is it to get an English-speaking job in Germany?

Is there anything then that indicates that the company you’re working for is German?

Gabriela: I think the presence of a strong labour law reminds you that you’re in Germany. In our company, there’s an employees representation group and certain clear rules. You know that you won’t be suddenly dismissed once you’ve passed your probation time.

Giuseppe: Yes, the labour law is what I would point to. It’s not easy to get rid of employees in Germany – there is a more robust framework that affects the environment and culture. 

What is the salary like?

Gabriela: I think it’s competitive. My company does salary benchmarking every summer to see what the standard is across the industry and adjusts its pay accordingly.

Giuseppe: Salaries have gone up a lot in the last few years and you could even say they are booming now. A ‘normal’ engineer can expect to earn at least €85,000 per year, and if you are in a serious leadership position, you can expect to earn up to €180,000.

READ ALSO: Do internationals face discrimination in the workplace

A woman working from home throws money in the air. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

Would you say that it’s a high-pressure environment to work in?

Gabriela: For me, there isn’t the kind of pressure that if you don’t perform you won’t get the money you should be getting. Instead, my company is trying to get you to think that your own success is intertwined with the success of the company. There are good incentives to work hard and we have also a certain amount of shares in the company, so if it does well we benefit too.

Giuseppe: I personally feel pressure, but I love what I do, so for me it’s fine. But I have seen a lot of cases of people burning out – especially young people. I think because there are a lot of young managers, who get into leadership roles without having the tools or strength to resist the pressure.

How do you find the work-life balance? 

Giuseppe: I feel like I’m working all the time, but again, that’s because I love my job and I want to, it’s not necessarily the expectation, it’s not like in the US. In Berlin tech startups, there is a tendency to slow down around 6pm.

Gabriela: For me, the work-life balance compared to previous jobs is very good. Telecommuting is great, there are flexible starting times and last-minute holiday requests are usually approved. I think it’s very good for people with children and more complex schedules. 

How many days holiday do you get?

Gabriela: We get 28 days holiday per year.

Giuseppe: We get between 23 and 30 days holiday per year, depending on how long you’ve been working in the company.

What are the career progression opportunities like?

Gabriela: Very dynamic. For myself, I don’t see a clear career path at the moment, but I see a lot of movement happening and people moving to different roles. There is a feeling of being in a constant state of change. 

Giuseppe: If you join a startup at the right time, you can very easily become a manager very quickly.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to boost your career chances in Germany

What was different about working for a Berlin start-up than you expected?

Gabriela: I thought that working from home would be easier, because I hadn’t done that much before, but I find it much harder to be engaged than I expected. I think a lot of startups (in Berlin) are struggling now to find the right balance between the competing interests of their employees – some of whom want to be fully remote and others who want to come more regularly to the office.

Giuseppe: Before I started working for tech startups I had this romantic image that they were all led by geniuses with big ideas who started in their garages. But in reality, I’ve found this emotional, big-dreaming side to be lacking. There are a lot of people who work for startups who just see it like any other job.

A work team exchanging ideas with notes on a whiteboard.

A work team exchanging ideas with notes on a whiteboard. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

What are the best things about working for a Berlin tech start-up?

Giuseppe: You can make an impact with what you do, to build a product and say it’s mine. There is also creativity and freshness in the team dynamics. I was deeply unhappy in the years I spent working for big corporations because I didn’t know what the goal was. In startups, the objectives are clear.

Gabriela: You can grow with the company, and there are a lot of positions opening all the time, and it’s very common for startups to promote internal talent.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The German regions attracting startups

What are the worst things about working for a Berlin tech start-up?

Gabriela: Sometimes it can be hard to keep up with the pace of change. It sometimes feels like we are constantly onboarding new people or people are changing roles and there is a slightly chaotic feel to things. The buzzword “agility” is used and abused, and sometimes means staff is expected to go along with anything and everything.

Giuseppe: In the tech start-up world here there seem to be a lot of people who get into the top jobs because they speak a lot, not necessarily because they are the most competent. There is a lot of networking and self-promotion required to push yourself forward. It’s also not a good environment for people who don’t like change, because things change a lot. 

Do you think Berlin is a good place for foreigners to work?

Gabriela: Yes, definitely. You have a lot of choice when it comes to places to work – so it’s unlikely you’ll have to stick at a job which
you don’t like. It’s also a big help for foreigners that most startups in Berlin don’t require German language skills.

Giuseppe: Definitely. For me, the mix of cultures and ideas in the workplace is really inspiring and motivating. And, of course, the city of Berlin itself is full of cultural events and has a great night life – so it’s a great place to live for when you want to detach from work too.

Do you have any advice for anyone thinking about joining a tech start-up in Berlin?

Giuseppe: Try to develop an entrepreneurial mindset instead of an employee mindset as soon as possible. Always look for opportunities, don’t take things personally, don’t think about what happened yesterday, and focus on the now. 

Gabriela: Be open-minded and be prepared for change.