Aug 20, 2013
Navigator: A Map With Meaning.
‘Beauty is boring. I always try to look below the surface of my hometown.’ - Frank Höhne.
Tourists may flock to Berlin for its edginess and openness, cultural richness, complex history, hipster art scene and medley of architectural styles. But the Berlin-based illustrator Frank Höhne loves his city for reasons other than those you’d read about in a guidebook, and for places beyond those museums and monuments marked in bold on a standard-issue city map.
“Beauty is boring,” says Frank. “I always try to look below the surface of my hometown. It’s Berlin’s idiosyncrasies – its oddball people and places – that appeal to me. It’s imperfection, not perfection, that fires my imagination.”
On a hunt for inspiration for his trademark childlike illustrations – those naive, energetic splashes of colour that brighten the pages of magazines such as Neon and Vice – Frank likes to drive around the city, seeking out authentic places, digging up memories, experiencing its endless variety of moods.
On one such journey, armed with pens and a sketchbook, he sets off from home in Kreuzberg on a wide circular sweep of the city in a Cosmic Blue MINI Cooper S Countryman. Frank’s aim is to stay off the tourist trail, take map-making back to basics and chart and draw his very own Berlin. “I think a city map can be anything you want it to be,” he says, tossing a crumpled road atlas under the backseat. As, of course, can a city itself.
After saying goodbye to his girlfriend, Olivia, dropping off his daughter, Matilda, at kindergarten and stopping for his daily caffeine jolt at the local Bar Italia, Frank puts his foot down and heads east towards Friedrichshain. The roomy MINI Cooper S Countryman is a casual, effortless drive, as good for solo urban city cruising as it is for Höhne family trips to Grunewald and Kladow’s lakes, when it can make the most of the optional ALL4 all-wheel-drive system and impeccable safety standards.
At Warschauer Strasse, as Frank crosses the River Spree into East Berlin, an arresting industrial cityscape unfolds – a tangle of snaking train tracks, towering cranes, chugging riverboats and arched station vaults, and also the last remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall, now an artists’ canvas known as the East Side Gallery. “This is one of my favourite views of the city,” says Frank, “especially at night. It’s so urban, and strangely beautiful, with all its smoke and industry, and all those twinkling lights.”
As Frank drives deeper into Friedrichs-hain, the raw, industrial scenery of Berlin softens into graceful apartment blocks, the boutiques and cafés of Simon-Dach-Strasse and Boxhagener Platz and the sudden, surprising expanse of the district’s park. “These streets don’t speak to me in the same way as Warschauer Strasse does,” says Frank. “They’re too clean, too pretty. But I like the flea markets. Olivia’s parents were antique dealers, and we still come here sometimes, digging for old treasures.”
‘Prenzlauer Berg is one area of Berlin to which Frank does feel more connected; he spent the first five years of his life in this area of the former East Berlin, before unification. En route to Prenzlauer Berg, he drives along the famous Karl-Marx-Allee, a 2.5-kilometre-long showcase of stately Soviet success. Some other cars might appear dwarfed against the boulevard’s towering socialist classicist buildings, but the MINI Countryman holds its own.
After cruising up Prenzlauer Allee, Frank swings an instinctive left onto Raumer Strasse, pulling up outside the house where he was born. “My personal map would be a flimsy one without this street on it,” he says. “I’m so proud of my East Berlin roots. Although we fled the former GDR via Prague when I was five, my birthplace still feels romantic to me. I was too young to remember everything, but old enough for it to have shaped who I am.”
After moving to Wesel, in northwest Germany, with his family in the early 1980s, Frank didn’t return to Berlin until he was a student in his 20s, and Prenzlauer Berg – then still war-damaged and neglected, now the golden girl of Berlin real estate, with its restored WilhelMINIan houses and ornamental wooden doors – has since changed beyond recognition. But Frank’s memories remain intact.
Motoring along in the MINI Cooper S Countryman, Frank points out the places he remembers: the park where he learnt to roller-skate, the hospital his mum worked in as a nurse, the grocery store to which he was sent on errands by his grandmother, the spot where he fell off his bike and split his chin.
“Look!” he says suddenly, pointing to an inconspicuous doorway. “Before the wall came down, there were never any decent concerts in East Berlin, so my dad, a musician, joined a cover band. That’s one of the venues he played in, where he pretended to be Elvis or a member of The Rolling Stones.”
Alongside old memories of Prenzlauer Berg, newer ones have emerged, too, such as those sparked by the art shop Supalife Kiosk, which sold Frank’s screen prints when he was a student, and by the bar where he worked to pay his tuition fees. Just north of Prenzlauer Berg is Frank’s old university, the Weissensee School of Art. “My old school’s not attractive to look at,” he says, “but unlike other design schools in Berlin, it’s honest and unpretentious. I think of it as this little island of creative energy in an ocean of East German suburbia. I love it. It’s going on my map!”
Later in the day, heading back towards Kreuzberg via Mitte, Frank points out a vintage 1970s Photoautomat booth at Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, one of several rescued from the scrap heap by two entrepreneurial Berliners and given new life. “I love these throwback photo booths,” says Frank. “Olivia and I would get a set of photos done every month when we first met. We have the grainy black-and-white photos all over our apartment, so much more personal than the sterile ones you see in passports now.”
In one of Mitte’s pretty, leafy courtyards, Frank makes a quick stop at Gestalten, the visual art publisher that produced his book. The Book of Bock is a totally random, hilarious visual journey exploring life as an illustrator, which – with its crazy-looking character and childlike typography on the cover – stands out from the other volumes on the shop’s shelf. “I put this book together in a fairly haphazard way,” explains Frank. “But that’s just me. I don’t like things to be polished. I don’t like to plan.”
As Frank drives back to his Kreuzberg neighbourhood, his face lights up, and it’s clear that this is where he feels most at home. “Kreuzberg is a steady, integrated place,” he says. “You can stop for a chat with a shop owner. Your neighbours don’t move in and out every other week, and Matilda’s best friend lives in the apartment upstairs.” Home to a mix of creatives, punks, left-wing intellectuals and Turkish immigrants, it’s definitely an eclectic part of town, occasionally referred to as Little Istanbul.
On the way home to his apartment, Frank passes the grocery store Schwarze Olive, where the shop owner teaches him Turkish; the Willy Wonka-esque cake shop Mr. Minsch, with its dusty jars of eyeball gobstoppers lining the window; a favourite record store run by a “brilliantly nerdy music obsessive”; and a wool store, Fadeninsel, where Frank buys materials to crochet his daughter’s dolls.
“There wasn’t much to do in East Berlin as a kid, so I learnt to crochet with my grandma,” Frank explains. “The dolls I make for Matilda are usually strange and ugly-looking, but she likes them because they’re human. The world isn’t about princesses and unicorns, after all. Be natural, be flawed, be yourself, I tell her. Everyone else is already taken.”
Back at his colourful, characterful, high-ceilinged apartment – surrounded by quirky ornaments, photos and framed illustrations – Frank sits down to start on his map. Much like his drive today, the drawings come spontaneously and intuitively, unrestricted by forethought, upbeat and easy- going. “My illustrations are analogue, rather than digital, because I believe life is analogue,” he says. “You’ll never find me drawing a perfect circle. I like my pen to run off course, to compile sketch upon sketch. I always want to tell a story through my work.”
And, after a tour of Berlin from Frank’s perspective – a place not of trendy concept shops, galleries and shiny monuments, but of local characters, unassuming little details, family rituals, memories – it’s obvious that what Frank’s map will become, and what Frank’s Berlin has become, is exactly that. A story.