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Damian Yves Rohde: Criminalised to Commissioned

From criminalised to commissioned: The graffiti art of Wedding-born Damian Yves Rohde is spread across Berlin and all over the world. By Alex Bidstrup

Rohde in the Gerichtshöfe. Photo: Linaroosa Viitanen

Despite his Wedding working class background, graffiti artist Damian Yves Rohde is royalty. Street art royalty, that is. His uncle, ‘Lenor’ was among the first artists to emerge from Wedding’s hip-hop and street art scene and the first person to teach Rohde how to paint. Now, Rohde’s works are spread across Berlin and the world. As he walks through Gerichtshöfe, a hot spot for artists in Wedding, he points out one of his latest pieces: it’s typical of his style, his tag ‘Gore’ in bright candy colours, a 1980s Miami sunset palette.

Rohde grew up near the Berlin Wall, with what we now know as Mauerpark just across the street. His Wedding roots run deep. His great grandfather worked in the district as a tailor, and his grandfather opened the area’s first record store. But it was his uncle and his involvement in the street art scene that made Rohde fall in love with it.

I would go out in the middle of the night, rain or snow, because I was afraid that somebody else would take my spot

“He listened to Wu Tang and Snoop Dogg on vinyl and smoked the whole day. He was like a big brother,” says Rohde. Lenor’s influence is apparent in both Rohde’s work and in Wedding. Rohde’s art often features pop culture crossovers of things his uncle introduced him to. Lenor’s tag, JFF, can still be seen on some blocks in Wedding, even though he hasn’t sprayed since the 1990s. The fall of the Berlin Wall was instrumental in helping Rohde get started. “You could paint everywhere because people had worse problems to deal with. People didn’t give a fuck about graffiti. Now that people have more money, they are more focused on petty crime,” he says.

His uncle was the first role model and father figure in his life. His birth father had abandoned him to pursue a music career in London, leaving his mother, Claudia, to raise Rohde on her own. A brief relationship between Rohde’s mother and David Vostell, son of the famous artist Wolf Vostell, led Rohde to his first taste of formal artistic training. “I was addicted. Sometimes at night I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking about painting. I would go out in the middle of the night, rain or snow, because I was afraid that somebody else would take my spot.”

Rohde’s mural of Christophe Bouchet. Photo: Linaroosa Viitanen

In 1999, Rohde started visiting Cuba after his mother began dating someone there. Havana was a paradise for graffiti artists, full of bare walls and a public that was indifferent to the legality of what he did. Though he had an abundance of walls to use as canvases, materials were a problem. “You couldn’t pick what colours you wanted to paint with. I would go to the stores and the shelves were basically empty. There was a black market though. I had to ask around, but eventually I found a guy who sold concentrates, which I could use to make my own colours.”

Rohde got his big break in 2012. He was one of 30 artists invited to Paris by Art Liberté to paint sections of the Berlin Wall for the 25th anniversary of its fall. Here, he met Christophe Bouchet, one of the first artists to paint the Berlin wall (on the Western side), as well as the famed German artist and musician Kiddy Citny. Under their tutelage, Rohde mastered more abstract styles and photo realism. He spent nearly a decade studying at Universität der Künste between commissions.

When Bouchet died in 2021, Rohde immortalised him in a mural. Ironically, despite having found success in galleries from Paris to London to Basel, and on street walls the world all over, Rohde is best known to Berliners for his collection of seven Buddy Bears commissioned by the city. The bears were put on display in Wittenbergplatz and the phone hasn’t stopped ringing since.