Tam Eastley investigates the Kork-Yogis taking over Berlin’s street signs…
I first noticed them in the spring of 2010. My best friend Lisa was visiting from San Francisco, and we were walking to my favourite pizza place on the corner of Hertzbergstrasse and Richardplatz in the heart of Rixdorf.
Lisa was taking note of every aspect of her surroundings, gazing at cobblestones, gushing at the urban garden in front of a block of apartments, and slowly pronouncing the odd-sounding German words on the decorated street signs written in old fashioned loopy letters.
This corner of Berlin, to her, was exciting and new.
“What’s that?” she asked, pointing towards the sign for Hertzbergstrasse. I looked up, stood on my tippy toes, and shielded my eyes from the midday sun. Perched above the street sign was a little man, made of cork. He was about two inches tall and was leaning over his front leg with one arm reaching for the sky. I’d never seen one before.
“Looks like a man made of cork!” I exclaimed in temporary excitement, before ducking into the dark interior of the pizza place to order my predictable margarita.
The next day, we headed to the Turkish Market on Maybachufer. Barely out my door, we spotted another cork man on the corner of Zwiestädter Strasse and Richardplatz. This one was sitting down, legs out in front, and arms stretching to touch them.
Ever since those first two sightings, I’ve been on an urban treasure hunt. The cork men are just above eye level and easy to miss, but once you know they’re there, waiting for you to find, you can spot them at the furthest of distances.
I’d walk to the grocery store and across the street, about five meters away on Richardstrasse and Schöneweider Strasse, I’d see another one. I’d be biking to Görlitzer Park and there’d be one perched on Weigandufer, in front of a new little canal-side cafe. There was one on the sign for Paul-Lincke-Ufer, in front of an often jam-packed restaurant, with tables and patrons spilling out onto the streets.
They were everywhere: Reichenberger Strasse, Forster Strasse, Weserstrasse, Sonnenallee, Skalitzer Strasse. There was one far up north in Wedding on Badstrasse, and one way down south in Gropiusstadt on Fritz-Erler-Allee. I took pictures and made a map.
I quickly realized that the cork men were positioned in various yoga poses. Sarvangasana: the shoulder stand. Virabhadrasana II: the warrior pose. Ardha Chandrasana: the half moon. Sometimes, from down below at street level, it was hard to tell exactly what they were doing. Then, after coming back a few days later with my camera, they’d be gone.
I’d come across a street sign with two little cork feet glued to the top, the only remnant of the famous cork man. He was transient, temporary, an offering to the Berlin weather and its citizens. The first two Lisa and I discovered were gone a few weeks after she was. The first one that I discovered by myself, after Lisa left, had vanished by the next time she visited.
For the last couple of years I’ve been convinced that I was the only one who knew they were there. I’d point them out to friends as we were walking down the street. We’d whiz by on our bicycles and I’d yell into the wind, pointing a finger off to the side of the road: “there’s one!”
I concluded that whoever made the cork men had to be someone who lived near me. Once I learned to keep my eyes open and up, I started to notice the absolute wealth of cork men popping up in Rixdorf, my Kiez within a Kiez. Late at night, walking home, I would often dream about finding the creator, surveying all my fellow late-night wanderers with a keen eye and a sense of potential wonderment.
I pictured a rusty old ladder propped up against a street sign, with a black-clad man in a leather jacket teetering at the top, meticulously placing his little men.
I imagined that he’d be hard-edged but serene, the perfect Berlin yoga mix.
I concluded the only way to draw him out of his secret cave filled with tiny cork men doing yoga would be to engage in some kind of reciprocal act of tiny but ingenious street art: thimble sized top hats, flags in their hands.
I wanted to pepper Richardplatz with stickers begging the artist to come forth. “Where are you, cork man?” they’d say. And then I’d wait for a response. I wanted a cat and mouse game, Berlin graffiti style.
But I got too eager. I posted a picture of the cork men on Twitter and asked if anyone knew anything. Within a few hours, I was directed to an article about the maker in the newspaper Tagesspiegel. I was excited at first, and then slowly, and sinkingly, disappointed. Someone else found him first.
The cork men weren’t my little Berlin discovery anymore. And the creator, Josef Foos, was a name I knew only too well, because every week, for the last couple of years, I’d received flyers in my mailbox advertising his local yoga studio.
Over the next week I met with Foos twice. The first time, I dropped in on his yoga studio and he showed me some cork men that his students had made for him. He told me that he’d been inspired by the British artist Slinkachu, famous for his photographs of little plastic people against the backdrop of big cities and objects, doing seemingly normal things like smoking, or hailing a cab.
In 2009, Foos decided to do something similar, but didn’t want to use plastic. Instead, he started experimenting with cork, and naturally (for him) decided to put them in yoga poses. He wanted to create something that made people happy and that made them look at their city in a different and unique way.
The second time we met we went for coffee. I brought along my computer so that I could show him the map I’d made and pictures of all the Kork-Yogis (that’s what Foos called them) I’d found. He was excited to see that some of them had survived numerous winters.
We surfed his webpage, which highlights various street artists around Neukölln and Kreuzberg, and he talked about the ones he’d met face to face and those he’d had email contact with. I was excited to discover that he too engaged in his own little urban treasure hunts. He would stumble upon some street art tucked in behind an apartment entranceway, go about finding more of the artist’s creations, and sometimes he’d find the person who made them.
One of his favourite creations was by “Dave the Chimp,” who painted what he called “Human Beings”, little orange beans with arms and legs in various poses. Foos had spent a day wandering his Kiez trying to track them all down and told me that he was overjoyed when he succeeded. As he became more involved with the street art scene, he started making little cork men as an homage to his fellow artists with a series entitled “Street Artists in Action” in which the Kork-Yogis recreated either a scene, or an artistic method, used by other artists.
One yogi on Unter Den Linden called “Flix in Action” is a nod to the Argentinian artist Flix. Way above the bustling street, the cork man is holding a brush, and pasting a small picture to the pole of Flix’s well known print of a kneeling young woman blowing dandelion seeds into the wind which trail off as hearts. Sometimes, Foos would add a little paper drawing of a cork man to someone else’s work, and I started to spot these too. Foos, I realized, was contributing to the collaborative street art scene in a way that I’d imagined doing myself.
It’s an odd thing when you meet your idol, and in a way, that’s what Foos was to me – albeit a mostly anonymous one. At times I was a babbling fan, exuding un-coolness as I told him in nervous German that I’d always wanted to meet him.
But sometimes it was Foos who was the fan, of other street artists who he was inspired by and followed. We talked for quite a while about his methods, his interactions with police and his street-art name.
It was an interesting insight into a hidden culture in Berlin, but instead of divulging too much here, I feel the need to keep much of it a secret.
Meeting with Foos took away some of the excitement, the draw of the unknown, and my internal storytelling about what kind of a person the cork-man-maker was.
I want to preserve that for people who have yet to discover his art. For me, he was no longer the black-clad figure in the dark. Now he had a face, a name, and a yoga studio.
Even though meeting with Foos brought an end to the cork mystery which had entertained my neighbourhood wanderings for so long, it added immeasurable excitement and wonder to the other Berlin street-art that’s scribbled and pasted onto every crumbling building, every pock-marked wall, and every sticky orange garbage can.
Suddenly, there was a person behind each of these creations, a person who might live around the corner from me, a person who I’d never thought to imagine before now.
Meeting with Foos opened up an entirely new world of anonymous idols to look out for and silently admire. In the end, Foos’ mission worked. These days, it’s impossible for me not to look (up) at this city in a completely different way, and doing so makes me incredibly happy.