Raubdruckerin Art Collective Makes Guerilla Souvenir Art

A Berlin art collective relies on a city’s unique infrastructure to create authentic souvenirs.

WORDS Boyd Farrow
March 2020
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Photos by Opheas Tziagidis

Enterprising artists in neukölln,  a particularly hip part of Berlin, have created an unusual fashion business by taking a literal approach to streetwear. The guerrilla art collective Raubdruckerin is fulfilling demand for authentic souvenirs of the city by painting its manhole covers and transferring the designs onto shirts, hoodies and bags.

“The design details are really beautiful and unique to a particular place,” explains Orpheas Tziagidis, one of the three artists currently working on the project. “We also like that the customers become part of the artwork.”

Manhole covers are completely different in each neighborhood, Tziagidis explains. The ones in the city center display Berlin landmarks, such as the Brandenburg Gate and the iconic Berliner Fernsehturm (or TV Tower). The ones in Neukölln have a geometric pattern and a blocky inscription of the borough’s name. This design, apparently, is the trendiest.


Designs from a manhole cover being transferred onto a shirt

In fact, the prints have become so popular that the project has spread to the streets of other cities, such as Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Porto, where Raubdruckerin’s founder, Emma-France Raff, first came up with the idea while studying textile design.

“Raubdruckerin means female pirate printer in German,” says Tziagidis, “but everyone is welcome to join.” He also works as a photographer, which chimes well with his urban printmaking. “With both, you’re always looking for something interesting that best represents the city,” he says. “In Porto, the manholes are not that special so we took a detail from the tram tracks, which are very cool.”

Avoiding oncoming trams is only one challenge facing the pirate printers. The weather is obviously an issue, and they never know how local law enforcement officers will react to rollers and ink. “Often the police don’t understand that we’re making art and not causing damage,” says Tziagidis. “In Barcelona, the police were really angry until we explained that we always spend an hour cleaning the manhole cover when we are finished. Then they were fine.”


Designs from a manhole cover in Berlin are transferred onto a bag

As the Raubdruckerin project grows, the artists increasingly participate in street art festivals, where people often bring their own shirts for the artists to print on. “We do encourage people to go out and make their own urban prints but very few people bother,” says Tziagidis ruefully. “Maybe they think ours have some sort of cachet.”

Not everyone is so appreciative though. One T-shirt, featuring a Copenhagen manhole cover inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, irked the original designer, whose permission the artists had not sought. “She was mad at first, but later she realized that we were introducing her work to a lot of people,” says Tziagidis. “I think she now has her own T-shirt.”

This month Raubdruckerin will launch a numbered series of art prints on paper starting with the street patterns of Lisbon. Upcoming projects include a trip to London, another across America and, eventually, one to Japan, where manhole covers feature everything from cherry blossoms to Pokémon characters.

“Europe and America have some beautiful manhole covers,” sighs Tziagidis wistfully, “but Japan really is the dream.”

Boyd Farrow

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