Even if you are not aware of it, the chances are that you’ve already seen Just’s work all over the city. Since he moved to Berlin almost eight years ago he’s earned himself quite a reputation. He may not be the most obviously prolific graffiti writer but a preternatural gift for picking the prime spots, good connections and an in-depth knowledge of the right rooftops ensure that if you haven’t noticed his name by now, you should probably get out of the house more often.
Add to this his dedicated photographic documentation of the continuing explosion of graffiti and street art in Berlin, depicting the shadowy figures edging along icy window-ledges, haunting the city at night and in the early morning, and it’s not hard to see how this surprisingly unassuming graffiti writer became synonymous with a scene which has helped define the aesthetic of contemporary Berlin.
Just’s time in Berlin has coincided with often alarming and rapid changes in the city’s cultural and social landscape. The crumbling facades have been fixed up and repainted whilst the empty lots disappear. Within his field too, enormous changes have shifted the balance between graffiti and street art, pushing the latter into the Sunday supplement mainstream and attracting the eye of the advertising agency lizards.
Not that Just is overly concerned with the building-sized murals, paid for by Nokia, Sony, Nike and so on, springing up all over Mitte. “I think it’s cool actually” he explains “but I think one problem is that outsiders always see street art as rebellious and it’s not. I think graffiti remains the illegal part.”
His stance on the often fierce division between graffiti and street art is characteristically egalitarian. “I love street art as well because what I hate about graffiti is this closed circle. It’s 99% guys and street art is open for everybody. The development of street art was that anyone could express themselves.” However it’s equally refreshing to hear such a direct and honest appraisal of a scene that he has participated in for much of his adult life: “Graffiti is really against property, it really destroys stuff.”
With this in mind and as a result of the rather stagnant attitude among many of his peers, Just began to widen the scope of his painting. “I started to write political stuff without writing my name, as part of my history as a left-wing punk. I started to make stencils as a way of spreading political messages.” It was a logical step to graduate from the literal destruction and symbolic questioning of the value of property to the use of those same properties to actually push an ideology.
For someone so heavily involved in and influenced by punk and graffiti—two subcultures which have if anything became increasingly insular and exclusive as they have aged–Just comes across as remarkably open-minded. If there is any (quiet) fury in him it’s reserved for his fellow Berliners’ misunderstanding of the recent development of the city. In particular its the “xenophobia” prevalent in much of the rhetoric that causes concern because as well as being unacceptable in itself, he thinks it completely misses the bigger picture. It’s not merely offensive, it’s just plain stupid, he says to “complain about such small things when the root of evil is a much bigger problem.”
“What I see is that the city’s changing,” he explains, “especially from a leftist perspective, when you see the squats and the left-wing projects in the community disappearing. One good thing about Berlin was that it was so poor and that the city was totally in debt and they didn’t even have the money to buff graffiti, for example. But it’s now hyped and a lot of tourists are coming and bringing money into the city.”
He stresses that this, in itself, is not a bad thing, but that it’s up to the politicians to maintain some kind of balance and ensure that this new money doesn’t ruin the city, citing the decline of Barcelona as an example of how not to do things. The changes have to come from the top down in this case, or the vibrant, paint splattered walls across Berlin won’t be the only thing disappearing. Gradually though, he hopes, noting the recent Bar25 land purchase as proof, the people in charge are waking up and are he says, “realising that the big open spaces and places of non-conformity still bring people in, and it’s because of those that people from all over the world love Berlin.”
If anything should cause a refocusing of perspective however, it would probably be his recent experience of being driven across the Turkish border and on to the war–ravaged Syrian city of Aleppo. Just did exactly that in December 2012, finally realising a long-held desire to take pictures in a conflict zone, but nothing could prepare him for the situation he encountered there. In his first of four ‘Letters from Aleppo’, he sets the scene by describing how he noticed the tag on another correspondent’s Kevlar vest identifying his blood group and realised that not only had he neglected to put his personal protective covering on, but, in any case, had no idea what his own blood group was.
His new Stattbad Wedding exhibition ‘Letters From Aleppo’ is balanced between the documentation of the Berlin-based graffiti scene where he first made his name and photographs of the ongoing conflict in Syria between the military forces loyal to President Assad and the Free Syrian Army. Just’s shots of the sniper-riddled city and the huddled, heavily-armed resistance fighters show how close to the action he was but the stand-out work focuses more on the neglected repercussions of war such as the steadily growing garbage mountain–left to rot by city workers too terrified of Assad’s snipers–and the secret bread factory that keeps the locals from starvation. Through his lens the otherwise mundane and forgotten fall-out of the conflict is brought to the surface.
One shot from Aleppo shows part of a secret pathway to the frontline, which involved taking him through numerous people’s houses and backyards. For a seasoned urban explorer there had to be a little déjà vu but the similarities of course ended there. The shock was immediate and jarring “I was kind of sure” he admits, “that after the first day and evening that I wouldn’t try to go out again. I had all these diffuse fears.”
But of course he does go out again and the results are a remarkable series that show a people plunged into chaos amidst a besieged city. Aleppo was Just’s first conflict zone, so the sounds and sights were all part a new experience, but he says that he never lost the awareness that the passport and US dollars in his pocket ensured his way out. However close he got to the people, and however much trust he gained, a true understanding of their situation was inevitably impossible.
It’s only later, when he leaves Syria that his reaction to being in the conflict zone is thrown into sharp relief. “When we were back in Turkey, in our hotel, in this quiet and cosy room, there I felt like something falling off me. There finally I realised that all this time, in Aleppo I was in this state of high tension, a certain level of adrenaline.”