Tam Eastley tracks down the creator of the city’s mysterious Kork-Yogis…
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 at least, was exciting and new.
‘What’s that?’ she asked, pointing towards the sign for Hertzbergstraße. Shielding my eyes from the midday sun, I looked up and saw a little cork figure perched on the street sign. He was about two inches tall and was leaning over his front leg with one arm reaching up towards the sky, in what appeared to be a yoga pose.
We laughed at the cuteness of the figure, then ducked into the dark interior of the pizza place. The next day, en route to the Turkish Market on Maybachufer, we spotted another cork figure on top of a different street sign. This one was also in a yoga pose: sitting down, legs out in front, arms stretching forwards to touch them.
Despite being placed just above eye level atop the city’s street signs and therefore easy to miss, once we knew the little cork men were there, we started to notice them everywhere, even from the farthest of distances. I found one about five metres from my house while walking to the grocery store, and another while biking to Görlitzer Park, perched on Weigandufer in front of a new little canal-side café. I started spotting them far outside my usual stomping grounds too: Badstraße in Wedding, for example, and Fritz-Erler-Allee in the Gropiusstadt.
I became obsessed. I began to take pictures and made a map, as if I were on some kind of urban treasure hunt. I started to analyse all the different yoga poses: Sarvangasana, the shoulder stand; Virabhadrasana II, the warrior pose; Ardha Chandrasana, the half moon — although it was sometimes hard to tell exactly what they were doing from down below at street level.
Often the little figures would be gone after a few days, and this transient aspect became part of their mystery. 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. I once saw a street sign with two little cork feet glued to the top, the rest of him having apparently disappeared.
Late at night, walking home in Rixdorf, I would dream about finding their creator. I imagined a black-clad man in a leather jacket, hard-edged but serene, teetering at the top of a rusty ladder, meticulously placing his little men for all to find.
But how would I ever find him? I considered luring him out with reciprocal acts of tiny but ingenious street art, thimble-sized top hats, flags in their hands.
I thought about peppering the city with stickers begging the artist to come forth – ‘Where are you, cork man?’ – to start a cat-and-mouse game. In the end I posted a picture of the cork men on Twitter and asked if anyone knew anything. I was quickly directed to an article about the maker in the newspaper Tagesspiegel, and my excitement slowly turned to disappointment that someone else had found him first.
In fact the mysterious creator, Josef Foos, was a name I knew well: 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 calls 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 e-mail contact with. I was excited to discover that he too engaged in his own little urban treasure hunts. Stumbling upon some street art tucked behind an apartment entranceway, he would try and find more of the artist’s works, and sometimes find the person who made them.
Not only that, but as he became more involved with the street art scene, he started making little cork men as an homage to his fellow artists, recreating either scenes or artistic methods used by other artists, a series he called Street Artists in Action. One yogi onUnter Den Linden, for example, is called Flix in Action, a nod to Argentinian artist Flix.
Way above the bustling street, the cork man is holding a brush, and pasting a miniature Flix print to the pole. The print – well-known to many Berliners – is 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.
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 maximum 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 that inspired him and whom he followed just as ardently. We talked for quite a while about his methods, his various interactions with the police and his street art name, but I felt – and still feel – an urge to keep some of our conversation a secret in order to preserve something for those who discover his art in a more personal way.
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 to the other 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. Foos’ little cork men made me look (up) at the city in a completely different way; meeting him opened up an entirely new world of anonymous idols to look out for and silently admire.