"Oh yes, I had a role model. One of our neighbours in the blockhouse was a punk. I was sixteen back then. When he had a party, the noise of the music would drift into our flat. I would always hang out the window and try to see what kind of exciting things were going on in the punk’s apartment.”
Justyna (name changed for this article) calmly explains how she chose to become a punk eight years ago in the Polish port city of Gdynia. Her Polish is soft and sincere and her graceful and gentle speech fits surprisingly well with her piercings and pink hair.
“I felt that this would best fit my character. For me, to be a punk means to be free”, says Justyna while sitting inside in one of the community rooms at Köpi’s.
At the entrance to Køpi, a legalised squatter’s collective near where the wall used to separate Berlin, ancient steel gates hang desperately from their hinges, partially blocking the entrance to the legalised squat. Inside the courtyard, dogs bark at those who enter it is hard to feel at ease as an outsider entering a squat like Køpi without invitation. Vines climb past manicured flower boxes, graffiti and political slogans printed on banners hanging from the windows. There are banners denouncing George W. Bush’s foreign policy, the gigantic head of a stone statue of liberty is mounted on a wall with the spines of her crown broken off and an arrow in her head. The building that supports this haunting display is the dilapidated yet defiantly surviving half of an industrial site that did not manage to remain intact through Germany’s tumultuous history.
The punks do not seem to be concerned that the general public may be intimidated by their aesthetic style and shy away from Køpi. Whoever is really interested in the free society of Berlin that surrounds Køpi, will be informed of its ideas and agenda just by keeping his or her eyes open: the walls of the collective rooms, the exterior of the building, the front gates and even the bathroom stalls bear messages to be transmitted throughout the whole community. Leftist postings in various languages call the counter-culture to action: Mieszkanie nie towarem (A Flat is Not An Object of Trade), says one Polish sticker of the Lewicowa Alternatywa, Poland’s Left Alternative; Stop Nazi Terror, insists another. Other posters call for political unity across national borders and an alliance between immigrants in Germany to alter the policy currently used to administer asylum seekers.
Does the disappearance of national identities and the co-existence of various languages and different national backgrounds really bring formerly incompatible groups together in a squat like Køpi?
“I’m not Polish, I am from Lithuania, I have learned Polish here in the squat,” says one Lithuanian punk. Justyna states: “Our communication takes place primarily in English and Polish.” As the Polish punk influence in Køpi has increased, even German punks are learning Polish so they can better communicate within the community.
The Köpi-collective schedules meetings to determine the direction of the community and to pay the bills. There is no clear hierarchy but different people represent competing interests in the discussions that are necessary to resolve issues ranging from character clashes, to agreements about rent, to ideological debates about the direction of the community and the punk movement as a whole. Lipa, another Polish punk, acknowledges that of course people with more experience in alternative lifestyle, or good communication skills may emerge as leaders but many times they are challenged by others who ask that they let other people think about the issues and air their opinions as well.
The punk endeavour challenges and confuses mainstream society for several reasons. It is hard to understand exactly how to define the concept of Punk or to assess its specific goals. The principal problem with trying to define Punk from the outside is that there is no spokesperson who can represent the varied interests, ideals or rules of different groups of punks. The idea of punk culture stands in defiance of such structured forms of expression or indirect representation. Punk culture stands for anarchy or perhaps more precisely as Lipa said, punks on an individual basis strive to become, in word and deed, “autonomist”.
The punk community in Europe comes together as a network of people who want to move beyond the constraints of today’s dominant social structures: nationalism, capitalism, corporate hierarchy, the Church and statehood in general. They rebel aesthetically, politically, economically and socially in an effort first to emancipate themselves, and then to reach the public with an unequivocal voice of dissent, living as an example of their ideals. The punk effort is not evangelical or expansionist, but more of a personal commitment to autonomy with the assumption that such passion for freedom is contagious. As Lipa says of Køpi, “We try … from the roots to make our own structures.”
Justyna is sitting in at the Sunday Volxsküche (German for “people’s kitchen” or a communal meal; Køpi spelling).The Volxsküche is arranged in a room that opens onto a back patio. There is an array of home-cooked dishes that cover a table where people who paid the ¤1.50 for a plate browse for another helping. The room is painted in dark tones and a huge red face painted on the wall behind the bar glares fiercely back at the clients. High up on one wall is written: “Everything that can be used to resist the culture of fear is the sign of our living culture.” The room is lit by electric lights that hang delicately from the ceiling, water flows from a tap at the bar, and there is a telephone within reach of the bartender who serves coffee to the patrons.
She tells of her choice to emigrate and her story indicates that in Poland the freedom to be a punk comes at the price of severe social ostracism. “For me it was already clear during my time in Liceum (High School) that after graduating I would have to move to Berlin.” Magda, another Polish resident in Berlin came to the city as an exchange student. She is not a punk or a squat resident, but she knows some of the Poles living in Køpi from her teenage years in Warsaw. Magda supports Justyna’s statement that Poland is not a very tolerant society: “It is a very monocultural country. Everyone wants you to look like all the others. During Communist times, in the schools they used to cut off the hair of students who grew it long. But the worst were the parents. It is not good in Poland to look different.” When asked if punks had trouble advancing through institutions of higher education, Magda replied, “Theoretically, no; in practice, yes.”
Justyna offers another example of discrimination by the authorities: “Coming across the border I have never had real problems with the German immigration officers. But going back to Poland, the Polish officers treat me sometimes very unkindly. They pretend they don’t believe it’s me on the picture in my passport. In truth, this has no negative consequences for me but it shows that I am not welcome.” Yet she does not admit to any sadness or nostalgia brought about by her separation from the culture into which she was born: “I would never go back”.
Justyna says of her punk friends who have stayed in Poland: “Well actually not many stayed. Of those who stayed, many stopped being punks after finishing high school. But some stayed punks even if they look like normal citizens. You can look like everyone else but be a punk in your head, or work like everyone else and be a punk at night.” Nevertheless, a great number of the Polish punks who want to retain their identity head West, joining an international network of punks linking the liberal urban centres across Europe, like Amsterdam, Barcelona and Berlin.
When asked why they did not choose to live in Poland, two punks at the bar in the Volxsküche responded quite simply by suggesting: “Just write down one sentence. Poland is a poor country. That’s why we are here.” Yet the motivations for Polish punks to come to Berlin seem to be more enigmatic then one might assume.
It is a fact that the alternative housing projects and the surplus of apartments enable undocumented punks to find accommodation in Berlin with less difficulty and expense than they face in the cities in Poland that currently suffer from a tremendous lack of flats. This lowcost lifestyle offers punks more time to hang out and enjoy the punk experience. "In general, I very seldom work," states Justyna. "Why would I need a lot of money? Here in Køpi, we just have to pay for water, electricity and the telephone bills. There are many ways to organise food. Normally I get it from containers behind the supermarkets. It is all fresh undamaged stuff. They throw it away because the expiry date has arrived. If I need money I sometimes wash windshields of cars at intersections. You can earn 50 a day …"
From a punk perspective, the material potential offered by an environment could not be better than it is currently in Berlin. Compared to Poland, Germany is a rich country where many useful goods are discarded and are waiting only to be assessed and appropriated by whatever squatter happens to come along. The reunification of Germany has created many free spaces that only await new occupants. Ten years after the reunification the profits offered through commercialisation still have not reached the entirety of Eastern Germany. This co-existence of wealth and relative poverty makes Berlin a very attractive place for movements like Punk. Only here will they find both the material basis and the open space for living according to their alternative concept of life.
Web-Hints: www.squat.net/-alles über besetzte Häuser in Berlin, Europa und auf der ganzen Welt koepi.squat.net/– Køpi das grosse Kultur- und Wohnprojekt in Berlin, mit Konzerten, Kneipe, Vokü, Kino Cocktailbar, Wagenplatz. rigaer94.squat.net/– Rigaer 94 Wohn- und Kulturprojekt in Berlin-Friedrichshain. www.punkportal.de/-Punk Portal Der Wegweiser für Punks. 1000e Links zu Bands, Mailordern, Fanzines, Veranstaltern, Konzertorten, Labels und mehr. www.tomek.most.org.pl Hompegage über den Prozess gegen ein Punk in Polen free.ngo.pl/nw Hompegage von "NIGDY WIECEJ" – "NEVER AGAIN", der wichtigsten antifaschistischen und antirassistischen NGO in Polen.