the city is us

Depending on which side we are standing on, a wall may enclose or exclude, protect, or pose threats.

Street Art, Graffiti, and murals may serve to remind us of this characteristic of surrounding walls. But do we still look? With a swarm of visual navigation systems and in the flood of advertising posters, our gaze is distracted; and with it, even murals as high as houses seem to get lost.

With the photo exhibition „The city is us“ we want to recapture some of the unobstructed views on the significance of walls and the meaning of wall messages. Based on the megacities of Tehran and Cologne, we trace the individual peculiarities – including those of the respective political periods and contemporary spirits.

Despite – and because of – the different cultural backgrounds of the two cities, we invite you to discover their similarities and not just contrasts. You are welcome to sharpen your own perspective and experience the diversity that ultimately lies in people – in all of us. A variety and diversity to which the walls of any city can testify when they stand in front of us and at the same time and for us.

As voice and canvas.

As a mirror of our coexistence.







This publication is released on the occasion of the exhibition „The city is us – Tehran | Cologne“.

Cinema & Talk

Documentary movie „Writing on the city“
„Writing on the City“ is a 60-minute documentary film about thirty years of Tehran’s murals.
Using historical footage of the murals, wall slogans and graffiti, filmmaker Keywan Karimi traces the historical-political evolution of Iranian society, from the Islamic Revolution in 1979 to the „Green Movement“ in 2009.
On 04.09.2022 at 15:00 and on 24.09.2022 at 17:30 we will show the film at Filmhaus Köln followed by a panel discussion with authors and photographers who participated in the exhibition – we are looking forward to a intresting
Our guests are :
  • Maryam Zandi (Photographer and Author)
  • Johannes Stahl (Art Historian)
  • Shanti & Signl – Captain Borderline (Streetart Trio)
  • Robin von Gestern (Artist)



The questions from the walls and the answers to them  

Johannes Stahl

The Bible says that God once wrote on the wall in Babylon when it came to the rather negative evaluation of Nebuchadnezzar. From Nebuchadnezzar, in turn, it is assumed that in its time building inscriptions were put on Ishtar gate for its glory. 
It will always be an exciting question as to who writes, draws or paints on walls when and why. This is true across many cultures, and likewise an interrelationship could be traced through history: on the one hand, the commissioned design of official interpretation reading, and on the other, the self-authorized use of the wall. Or to put it differently: on the one hand the tendency to create a political or aesthetic consensus (or at least to claim this) and on the other hand the objection against exactly this request, which then is motivated by the desire to also exist in this world or simply to want to express one’s own opinion here.

Walls are by no means neutral places. They separate between public and private, their surfaces usually form barriers to a clear view, their material serves load-bearing, isolating, protective, or exclusionary functionality. So it’s rather obvious to perceive them as a means of constraint, especially when you see yourself on the wrong side. Such views tend to occur particularly often whenever power issues are brought up publicly and social or aesthetic consent becomes a subject of discussion. Historically, this can be traced for the French as well as the Russian revolutions, for the student unrest of the 1960s, the German Autumn in the mid-1970s, the revolution in Iran in 1979, the literarily noted year of 1984, or for the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In addition, there is almost always the discussion of real estate speculation and squatting (which, with quite deliberate references to war events, they called „Häuserkampf” [house-to-house fighting]).

Cologne’s political microclimate – with all the often and gladly claimed Cologne peculiarity – reflects such world-political events on the walls. Anyone who strolled through the Cathedral City in the 1980s saw exactly what was going on in world politics: NATO re-armament during the Cold War, disputes on the future of the former Stollwerck factory, the beacon of Chernobyl. Even the advertising industry’s campaign of conquest in public space, which can often only be perceived by comparing photos in the medium term, was already a topic on the walls in selected cases.

Stollwerck, Köln 1985. Foto von J. Stahl

A special venue for the Questions of the Walls was the Stollwerck Factory. It had been occupied in the late 1970s, after all, and there an alternative use of the space stood as a prototype against the urban planning of traditional housing. The imagery of punks, artists and ecologists opposed the idea of monument preservation, partial demolition and valuable inner-city living space. The compromise finally found tasted somewhat bitter: clearing of the site, relocation of the artists, extensive demolition, new construction (according to urban ideas, not exactly alternative), official documentation of the alternative imagery on the wall by monument preservation services before demolition, establishment of the Bürgerhaus Stollwerck.

The fact that such mementos are disappearing from the collective memory is partly due to the fact that the image culture of drawing gestures on the wall and slogan culture, which was still predominant in Cologne at the beginning of the 1980s, began to be pushed back. American-style Pieces spread rapidly from around the mid-1980s. Media reinforcement via magazines, books, films, and videos generated a new and catchy idea of what „Graffiti“ means. The appeal of this entire cultural complex of Hip Hop can easily be understood by anyone who looks at advertisements from that time. This was helped not only by the inclusion of Breakdance and Rap, but also by the fact that Pieces can be marketed as a style and as youth culture, something that’s much more difficult for individual drawing manuscripts or for political messages.

In dealing with the wall, fundamental questions arise in terms of design: Those who use it as a mere painting surface and cover it up in a two-dimensional way kind of negate the wall, giving it a new identity. The fact that our world can be deceptive has always inspired mural painting: Illusionistic effects and surreal worlds of strongly effective color surfaces have driven many clients to let their own view of things take shape here. The danger exists that artists then become illustrators of official views or at least soften them with dream worlds. Especially in repressive systems, one will then have to practice the skill of reading between the lines in pictures, in addition to the official or decorative effect of Potemkin houses, beautiful strong men, or other polished conditions. But which distant views in the mural hold secret alternatives, what is the symbolism of balloons, vehicles, stairs or secret passages which open up, especially in relation to the walls?

Situation mit Sprayzeichnung von Harald Naegeli und Reaktionen darauf, 1985. Foto von J. Stahl

Old school, wortwörtlich: Universität Köln, Lehrsaalgebäude. Foto von J. Stahl

Places become particularly exciting when the officially commissioned design and the wild, self-authorized practice collide. This was already the case when the figure sprayed by Harald Naegeli without permission on the portal of the former Caecilienkirche in Cologne was legitimized by a restauration and competing sprayers took on the situation.


Then the authenticity of the situation is to be rather questioned. Is the wall on which there is a message really as badly neglected as it seems? After all, even artificial ruins exist. Does the inscription refer to the wall and its appearance, does it perhaps even use its texture, does it ”design-ate“ the situation?


And last but not least: to whom is the appeal of the drawing, the writing directed, and what happens behind the eyes of the viewer? As is well known, eyes are windows to the soul, and possibly more translucent than walls. But I do not want to start with this topic here. Elsewhere you’ld already be in trouble just by having asked about it.

Further links: Jentsch, Thunar; Riedt, Vikaso: Cologne Graffiti, Dortmund (Harenberg) 1985 Stahl, Johannes: An der Wand. Graffiti zwischen Anarchie und Galerie. Cologne (Dumont) 1989


Curator: Leila Cheraghi

Photos: Maryam Zandi, Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln, Mehdi Ghadyanloo, Reza Nadji, Keywan Karimi, Helmut Nick, Morteza Nikoubazl, Tim Ossege (seiLeise), Philipp Pongratz.

Design and layout of the publication: Jan van der Most
Texts of the publication: Johannes Stahl, Amin Bozorgian, Maryam Vahdati, Stefan Lindlahr
Website ( Jennifer Hartmann
© 2022  Artists, Photographers und Authors and also CO³ cologne | contemporary | concept
CO3 Farbe

Our thanks go to everyone mentioned above for their great contribution to the exhibition and this publication.

Many thanks also go to Nina Lindlahr, Dr. Pouya Majdpour and Reza Nadji for advisory support as well as to the Kultuamt of the City of Cologne and to the Ministry of Culture and Science of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia for their sponsorship.

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Leila Cheraghi
CO³ cologne contemporary concept | c/o Leila Cheraghi | Thürmchenswall 66 | D-50668 Köln


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