Leslie Kuo decodes some of the funky signage on and around Karl Marx Allee…
Buchstaben! Letters! The heart of former East Berlin, the area surrounding Karl-Marx-Allee, is a wonderful place to encounter them; a close look around the streets and storefronts will also reveal living lettering specimens, from vintage neon to hand-written signs.
Karl-Marx-Allee itself, East Berlin’s first major building project and a showpiece of Socialist architecture, holds a number of treasures. Because much of this imposing boulevard is a registered historic landmark, special policies protect its signage.
As the owner of this Fleischerei (butcher’s shop) explained to me, official approval is required to make any changes or repairs to original East German-made signs, with their delicate mouth-blown neon tubes. So he’ll have to do quite a bit of paperwork before he can fix that dangling “e” on this beautiful script lettering.
Much of the boulevard’s historic lettering has been replaced as different businesses moved in —when Zierfische, an aquarium store, became a music shop, the Buchstaben Museum acquired the original sign and neon fish. But some new businesses coexist with the neon they’ve inherited.
Until recently, the lettering above decorated the Karl Marx Buchhandlung (bookstore), as seen in the closing scene of Das Leben der Anderen (2006). The small art press and the design agency who now share the space have retained the original sign.
Some newer businesses on Karl-Marx-Allee even adopt their names from the historic neon sign they inherit, although the signs often indicate only a general category (butcher, baker, groceries). Take the corner store space above: the previous tenant was a cigar shop and newstand that was not called Kaffee und Tee, despite the historic sign that continued to hang over the shop. But when new owners turned the cozy, wood-paneled space into a café, they proudly took the phrase as its name, emblazoning ‘Kaffee und Tee’ on the new awnings.
At this former Briefmarken (postage stamp) shop, a new business has gone even further to carry on the legacy of the original sign and shop. Although the new tenants have transformed the space into a wine shop and bar, which just opened a few days after this photo was taken, they have embraced the location’s history.
The shop is named Briefmarken Weine. Inside, along the original wooden shelves and counters, East German stamps are lovingly displayed alongside the Italian wines.
But it’s not all antique neon on Karl-Marx-Allee. Ever since the Computerspielemuseum moved in, with its archive of computer games from Pong to the present, it has been livening up the street with experimental signage of all sorts.
Starting with a huge scaffolding cube on which Donkey Kong and Mario cavorted and announced the opening, the museum has since delighted passers-by with Post-It mosaics of pixelated video game characters in its windows and, most recently, these hand-drawn, Haring-esque doodles.
Across the street, in the window of one of the neighborhood’s last remaining small grocers, a poignantly handwritten sign offers bargain prices on geraniums, petunias and lobelia, which in German carries the poetic name Männertreu, ‘the fidelity of men.’
According to the dictionary Duden, the name jokingly compares the plants’ petals, which readily fall off, with how briefly men stay faithful.
The side streets around Karl-Marx-Allee, itself rather quiet, may not be very flashy, but here and there, interesting sites and signs reward the attentive eye. On the large and somewhat unlovely Petersburgerstraße (called Bersarin Straße in East Germany), a scaffolding only partially hides a very old-fashioned clothing store, which seems to be from another time.
The three-dimensionally moulded lettering over its awnings is swooping and sassy. Here’s hoping it survives the renovations that appear to be underway.
Nearby, across the street from the former slaughterhouses, this bar has an appropriately meaty theme: Eisbein Eck means ‘pickled pig-knuckle corner.’ The Berliner Eckkneipe, or corner bar, is a dying breed in gentrifying neighborhoods like Friedrichshain, so it’s nice to see this one still going strong.
Its signage is unapologetically down-to-earth and hearty, with the chunky red script above the door, chalkboards advertising specials, and signs suspended in the windows promising freshly tapped beer.
Around the corner, Proskauer Straße offers a different atmosphere, with several craftspersons’ worshops (pottery, bookbinding) and this antique store crammed with old furniture and other odds and ends. This charmingly lettered, unpainted wooden sign is simply tucked among the other objects in the window.
Tonwerkstatt could mean ‘sound workshop’ or ‘clay workshop’; in this case, a peek in the window reveals a pottery studio. The letters are far more modest than the grand neon signs on the main boulevard, slightly wobbly and not really well spaced.
Yet their imperfection is also charming, a good fit for a place where people still take time to shape vessels and dishes with their own hands, rather than buying and selling slick, perfect objects, machine-made by the thousands.
Yet other signs display letters which are not part of any alphabet, yet can be read by everyone. In Germany, this simple symbol, with its one twist and three loops, can only mean one thing: here is a bakery.
If you spot this magic character, take the chance to pause and fuel up, whether with a crisp pretzel or a slice of yeasted cake with Streusel, before setting out to find more signage and lettering treasures of your own. There’s the whole rest of the neighbourhood to discover; and after that, the rest of Berlin.