Shaping Our City: Yasha Young – Director of URBAN NATION

Yasha Young

Recently we kicked off a new series of interviews about the movers and shakers of Berlin inspired by the Shape Your City campaign by Heineken, a competition for city shapers in the making who aspire to help create a bar built on the basis of their personal concept. In the first part we introduced you to party and festival organizer PANSY who spoke with us about the changes and prospects of Berlin’s nightlife.

For the second edition we want to venture from the nightlife into the daylight and bring up one of our favorite topics on the blog: Street art. Berlin is full of it and cherished for it. Especially in the last couple of years so many new incredible works have been added to the walls of Berlin making it huge open air gallery for contemporary art. What many people might not even know is that a big part of the new murals in Berlin were organized by Berlin-based contemporary art platform Urban Nation. We spoke with director and curator Yasha Young about the development of this project and their plans to open the world’s first big street art museum.

iHeartBerlin: How would you describe the general goal of Urban Nation as a network and initiative?

Yasha Young: The goal is to build and maintain a non profit platform for education, networking, development, research and archive for urban or new contemporary art. The idea is to become a living and breathing institution that supports artists, curators and collectors as well as other institutions that have an interest in becoming a part of a movement and connect with likeminded creatives and the people living in cities across the globe.

How many murals has Urban Nation organized here in Berlin and in other cities so far?

About 120 murals all over the world including our home Berlin.

D*Face & Shepard Fairey for Urban Nation

When you started Urban Nation did you have any idea or expectation that it would lead to opening the first big Urban Art museum? What will change for Urban Nation with this new place?

Yes, indeed I did. I wanted to build this house for a long long time. I wrote the concept based on my experiences for over 20 years as a gallery owner, agent, collector and curator. My goal was to build a launch pad for careers and a space for established positions to rethink or discover new ideas or fine tune existing ones. I always found it tough that a lot of institutions naturally had to charge high entry fees for certain shows which held people back from experiencing exhibitions or lectures etc. and I found often that gallery environments were incredibly intimidating for visitors and artists alike. There was a lot of fogged-up mystery surrounding the world of galleries and how to become part of that club. So I wanted to rethink this concept and connect platforms and create opportunities for both worlds. The established ‘traditional‘ art world and the lowbrow, street art, new contemporary crowd. I was incredible thrilled to find support for my concept with the Berliner Leben foundation.

What will change for us at the Urban Nation is that we have a residency program that can host up to 10 artists and we can truly become part of the creative journey. We can inform, educate and learn ourselves. We will have lectures that are for free and we will hopefully stay true to our idea to be a hub for creatives from all over the world.

Is there a line between “art in public” and “street art”, and where would you place the Urban Nation projects?

I think all this is the culture of labels. People need them – I don’t think they are always necessary. If you label something you exclude it from something else and I am still trying to learn why that is and what can we do to keep things fluid. Street art happens in the street. Hidden, visible, loud or silently. It’s art in public either way. Just “public” art often is commissioned while street art maintains its free voice. Urban Contemporary art is the extension of street art, the cross over into the four wall space.

Rendering of Urban Nation Museum

Before you started Urban Nation you owned the Strychnin Galleries in Berlin-Friedrichshain, New York and London. Was it hard to have to close your own place (that was quite successful) to be able to start this new project? Is there an overlap between the two?

Yes, it was very hard. Probably the hardest thing I had to do in my professional life ever. I had run my biz successful in NYC , London and Berlin, built it from scratch for 15 years. Blood, sweat and tears. You can imagine it was not easy. Lots of artists had become family and the shows were what made me feel alive as a curator. The development of the concept and the execution working with the artists and producing the events was my every day task. But I always knew that my ideas and vision for these artists and the movement I had been a part of since my punk rock days needed more space and more range of motion than a gallery would have ever been able to offer. It needed the backbone of an institution. The ability to house all parts of the idea for international development under one roof. It needed more space and more reach and acknowledgement in the world than I would have been able to deliver. So I gave up what was established to take what I had learned and the network I had built with me to the next level and into a museum. The logistics are the same in some aspects so there is overlap for example on show planning and production. But for me this is what I will give in the capable hands of my wonderful staff in order to fully be able to focus on research and development with focus on the residency program in the future.

The many new murals have pretty much changed the face of Berlin and turned it into a huge open air gallery. But art is also something that provokes. Putting art into the public, can this also cause friction with the inhabitants of the area?

Of course it can and sometimes it does. Sometimes it even should. It’s a fine line between provoking and raising awareness and I work under strict guidelines and basic common sense rules, e.g. no offensive images no defamation etc. But art will always polarize. Inside a museum, a gallery or on the street it doesn’t matter. It is just more visible to all and everyone in the streets and that powerful reach can create powerful reactions. But it can also change minds and open doors and touch hearts. It’s all about communication with the inhabitants, with the artists, with the city.

Rendering of Urban Nation Museum

Some murals are only temporary, either because of external factors or because of constructions. Does it hurt you as a curator to see one giant piece of work vanish forever?

It does, hahahaha, yes! Sometimes I just love the work so much that I forget this temporary aspect. But that also is the beauty of it all. The constant change with the seasons, the city and the genre itself. Techniques change too and we will be seeing a lot more projection work or work that will already be incorporated while a building is conceived architecturally not as an add on but as a strong part of city planning and evolution. I have seen plans for buildings change in order to preserve work, as I have seen work being torn down a day later to be prevented from being seen. It is all a creative journey and the nature of the genre. Another testament why our archive is very much needed and the photographers are a solid part of the documentation and archival work of the museum.

What is your dream building in Berlin that you would like to grace with a mural?

The ICC. With many artists I have already approached the architects and the city. I have a strong concept of changing the building into a public art park and recreational center. So far not much support yet, but who knows… I am persistent 🙂

Are you cooking up any new murals in Berlin that will be revealed soon?

Yes, as we are in the opening year of the house we are in full planning mode for the Bülowstraßen events and that means a lot more art and color. The Art Park Tegel will get a phenomenal addition and we will help the children’s playground in our neighborhood to become ‘playable‘ art. We will also start to incorporate the building of the museum in several art projects. Lots to do!! So hopefully we will see you at one of our events and of course at the big block party!

Most definitely! Thank you for your time.

Collin van Der Sluujs & Super A for Urban Nation “One Wall”

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To keep yourself updated on the Shape Your City project and the Bar Shaping process in Cologne have a look here.

Thanks for the support by Heineken

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<a href="" target="_self">Frank</a>



Frank is the founder and editor-in-chief of iHeartBerlin. He takes photos, makes videos, and writes texts mostly about what's going on in Berlin. His vision and interests have shaped iHeartBerlin since its conception back in 2007 - and he hopes to continue bringing you the best of Berlin for many years to come.