I was the least cool person in the bar by three facial piercings.

My friends and I had wandered into Clash by cosmic accident. The Berlin bar was recommended to us by a friend of a friend, and we were attracted to its proximity to a late night fast food destination. So we plugged the address into our respective iPhones and rode the tram 30 minutes to what we believed was an upbeat bar with easy access to 2 a.m. currywurst.

What we found was a dark, smoky dungeon, pulsing with punk rock. I held the hand of my nearest friend and pushed through a dense crowd of flannels, dreadlocks, and tattooed forearms. People were standing, sitting on tables, sitting on the floor, blowing thick, silver smoke from their cigarettes. Finally, we stumbled into a sticky wooden bar. “A mojito, please!” Monica called over the loud music. The bearded bartender raised an eyebrow at her.

“We don’t make f–king cocktails.”

After fumbling to order a few beers we found seats, and I was finally able to take in the scene in its entirety. The cigarette smog gave Clash a hazy, dream-like effect, but the cloud was full of life. People stood and sat closely to one another, laughing and singing and poring over smartphone screens. The music was loud and heavy, riddled with aggressive lyrics. I closed my arms self-consciously across the front of my black tank top, feeling un-hip and overdressed.

But even in my discomfort, I was engrossed in my surroundings. Clash and the Germans that filled its walls were not even close to what I’d expected of Berlin. Everything I knew about the city was learned in US high school history classes and a long walking tour I’d done that afternoon. I had anticipated the grandiose churches, powerful memorials, and delicious schnitzel, but the vibrant subculture took me by surprise.

When I expressed my surprise to Jordan, a boy on the stool to my left, he smiled and shrugged.

“We have character,” he agreed.

Jordan was Lebanese, but his large family relocated to nearby Germany when he was very young. Now, he goes to college in the capital. As a New Jersey native who normally attends college halfway across the country and currently halfway around the world, I couldn’t understand Jordan’s decision to stay so close to home. He held up his hands by means of explanation, gesturing the surrounding room and its obvious energy.

“Berlin is unlike anywhere else.”

Like the bar, Jordan was another German enigma to me. He was not stern and serious, as I imagined the German people, but warm and eager to talk.

Over the course of the night, I became completely infatuated with this underground scene and its club members. They were artsy and interesting, so foreign from the harsh German exterior I had expected. Even after my 2 a.m. currywurst, I hadn’t shaken my fascination. Upon returning to our Airbnb, I talked my friends into an “alternative tour” for the following day.

“We invented the Alternative tours concept in Berlin to show other responsible, respectful and open minded people the raw and artistic side of this great city,” the website explained.

The next day, we met our alternative tour guide, Dave, in front of a central Starbucks.

“The irony of this meeting place is not lost on me,” he assured us.

Dave was originally from Scotland, but he too had fallen in love with Berlin subculture and relocated to the city two years ago. He works full time giving alternative tours, promoting and celebrating his favorite people and locations.

Dave began by explaining the difference between graffiti and street art. Graffiti is exclusively lettering, and it is more focused on the internal graffiti community. Conversely, street art incorporates images, and it is meant to be enjoyed by everybody. The most popular method of street art in Berlin is called “paste-ups.” If artists are caught directly writing or painting on a building they are charged with vandalism, but if they are caught “pasting” images onto a wall, they are only charged with an equivalent to littering. As a result, the latter is much more popular.  More unusual methods of street art include “train bombing,” in which groups of street artists stall a train long enough to put art up inside it, and “granny graffiti,” street art installations that have been knitted.

Learning to identify the Berlin street art and its artists was like learning a new literacy. The colorful streets transformed from confusing chaos to a decipherable code. Many of Berlin’s street artists are politically motivated. They make socioeconomic statements about both the external world and internal art scene, which has complex politics of its own. There is a strange, tense relationship between Berlin subculture and the mainstream. Street artists are constantly at war with large corporations and other agents of gentrification. Dave often shook his head at construction machinery.

“Cranes are like the gravestone of anything cool,” he said solemnly.  

But as Dave cut down the anti-alternative elements of government and big business, I began to wonder if the issue was more muddled than simply artists vs economists. As much as the art scene voiced contempt for its oppressive opponents, wasn’t it also a little dependent on the animosity? Street art is rooted in rebellion. It’s arguably most attractive for its thrill. Would the pretty pictures on the walls be equally engaging if they were legal?

I tried to ask Dave about this, but I was afraid that suggesting his beloved street art and its largest enemies were codependent would offend him. Dave, however, remained characteristically cheerful:

“Totally fair question,” he assured me.

Dave does not believe that street art relies on its resistors. As supporting evidence, he went on to explain one of the most interesting institutions I learned about on our tour: Urban Nation.

Urban Nation is an initiative funded by the German government. It commissions artists from around the world to improve Berlin’s most run-down neighborhoods. Urban Nation’s website claims that the organization “has been inviting international luminaries and aspiring talents of Urban Contemporary Art (UCA) to Berlin to show their works within the urban fabric: building facades, house walls and shop windows.” To Dave, Urban Nation is a sign of hope that the government and street artists can happily coexist. At the very least, it’s a sort of validation. Whether they fight it or fund it, Urban Nation confirms that the government recognizes street arts’ influence.

Sooner than I would have liked, our tour came to an end, and shortly after saying goodbye to Dave, it was time to say goodbye to Berlin. I boarded my bus home in complete awe of the world around me. It was like I’d seen the other side. Underneath every impossibly large city in every impossible large country there was a scene, a subculture I knew nothing about. An intricate network of Clash bars and Jordans and Daves and paste-ups, too vast to even begin imagining. There is something scary and overwhelming about this endless possibility. There is also an undeniable excitement.