Yurts, kittens, theological radio stations, whiskey, Berlin, jean shorts, shamisen, water rats, squatter politics & traffic-light juggling shows.
On the first day of Berlin’s gold-soaked summer, I simultaneously lost my job and my apartment and found myself suddenly unattached in a city I had called home for the last three years. Walking out of the office I had just been fired from, I immediately crossed the street to seek a home in one of the city’s many squats.
Teepee Land, as the name suggests, is a village comprising crudely constructed teepees and yurts, gleaming white along the banks of the River Spree. A core group of resident “Teepeelanders” is supplemented by a constantly changing population of guests and travelers. The dynamic in the squat community swings wildly from drunken camaraderie to screaming matches. I lived there for three months over that summer, before the cold set in and the communal tensions began to wear on me.—Jazz Meyer
These two kittens were born on the day that I asked for refuge. As long as there is space, Teepee Land will accept anyone for a probationary stay.
The kittens provided much-needed comfort and comic relief in what was sometimes a tense environment. Playing amongst the teepees and piles of accumulated and abandoned building materials, they were oblivious to the politics playing out around them.
On one of my last nights in Teepee Land, the black kitten was given away. His owner could no longer afford to feed both of them.
Alba and Jazz
After being accepted as a probationary guest, I was given a key to a teepee, to be shared with a Spanish girl, Alba, who had moved in five days earlier. We had never met. By a lucky coincidence, Alba was also a filmmaker and photographer, documenting life in Berlin’s underbelly, and we struck up a friendship—a benefit when sharing a single bed in a ramshackle teepee.
At night, one or the other of us would often be woken by the scuttling sounds of a water rat searching for food and shelter in our home. More than once we woke up to the even more disconcerting sound of someone attempting to open the door.
Alba had given up a stable but unfulfilling source of income to follow her passion of filmmaking, and as the summer rolled on she spent almost all of her time working on her documentary. At the same time, she was eating through the last of her savings and felt more and more stuck in a squat that was fast affecting her mental health. As often as possible, she would stay with friends rather than get caught up in the aggression and tension she experienced in the squat.
Oliver is one of Teepee Land’s core residents, having lived there for five years. He’d spent much of his life moving between different communities in Europe, looking for home. Before moving to Teepee Land, he was on the path to becoming a Christian monk in a monastery in France. By this time he was spending most of his time chain-smoking in the squat’s kitchen while playing online games on his phone and listening to an American theological radio station. Although he’d discovered that monkhood was not for him, he still held strong Christian views, peppered with conspiracy theories.
Oliver built most of the teepees in Teepee Land himself, as well as the communal kitchen. Beneath his cynicism and depression he had a yearning for community and connection. This came through in the projects he involved himself with—building a new fence for the neighboring kindergarten, joining up with a local collective to create a community garden, hosting monthly comedy nights—but he became disappointed and incensed when others didn’t offer the same investment. He seemed to have a love/hate relationship with Teepee Land.
Sophie, who sometimes went by the name of Mirhou, was a French-Canadian woman who approached the world with child-like naiveté. She’d moved into Teepee Land around May and wanted to use the summer to find her path. Sophie talked to strangers like they were her best friends, which often meant pushing the boundaries of personal space. She had a constant wild look in her eyes, as if she’d just discovered something for the first time, even if to others it seemed banal.
Around July, she and Oliver had developed a relationship, and the couple subsequently bore the brunt of an attack by Oliver’s former partner, another Teepeelander, who threw boiling water on them. The offender was consequently banned from the squat. Sophie’s companionship had visibly lifted Oliver from his depressive state.
Eventually, the teepee that Sophie was living in was reclaimed by its original owner, forcing her to move out. At the end of the summer, she temporarily moved into Oliver’s unfinished second teepee, perched atop the roof of the kitchen. In this photo she’s cutting up old carpets to use as insulation, stuffing the spaces between the floor joists. Not long after, she was planning to ask the core residents permission to stay in Teepee Land over the winter.
This was to be Jimmy’s third winter in Teepee Land, even though he’d constantly been trying to convince people he’d be leaving soon. He’d spent the last 15 years working as a juggler and circus performer, making most of his money putting on shows at traffic lights and collecting donations from the drivers that composed the makeshift audience of his miniscule shows. A year ago he’d injured his arm, putting a halt to his juggling endeavours. Instead, he spent his time collecting bottles for the eight-cent deposit and rescuing treasures from the curbside trash that litters the streets of Berlin. With these treasures, he beautified his yurt and the surrounding gardens, which he proudly presented to anyone who came to visit.
His arm had healed months ago, but he hadn’t yet returned to the traffic-light juggling shows.
Hailing from Estonia originally, Vladko was a calming presence in the tumult that was often an undercurrent of the community’s day-to-day interactions. His enquiring blue eyes and easily forthcoming laugh were enough to ease the atmosphere most days and occasionally break up conflicts with a patient demeanor. He had pitched his tiny one-man tent on the roof of the dilapidated pizza-oven building that looked like it was once host to better times. It had long since been abandoned by the community.
As the summer drew to a close and October’s chill began to seep in, Vladko was thinking about finding an apartment with some coworkers at his job as a food-delivery cyclist, or moving into a community housing project on the outskirts of the city. His outlook was one of optimism and faith, trusting the forces around him that his housing situation would all work out, whether that meant staying in a teepee over the winter or finding a regular apartment to call home.
Over the course of two years, Ko single-handedly built the wood-frame Japanese temple that stood out as an anomaly amongst the teepees and yurts draped in recycled advertisement banners. Painted orange and white on the outside, the inside had not yet received the same attention.
Ko worked full-time in a Japanese/German trading office and had another apartment in the city. He came to Teepee Land to escape the stressful nature of his other life and while away his hours sitting in the temple and playing his shamisen, sending haunting, pensive melodies down the path leading into the teepee village. To him, the squat was a refuge, and his romanticised notions of the place echoed the hopes of many of the guests upon their arrival in Teepee Land.
The opportunity to leave the tight bounds of society as we know it, to build something new, to live rent-free and commune with other misfits and hippies, is an attractive prospect to those with little to lose and nowhere to go.
Fritz was hard to miss. His ever-present denim short-shorts and yellow-tinted glasses made him the most recognisable of the weekly jam-night patrons. The layout of the Teepee Land grounds centred around a stage purpose-built to host open-mic nights. Two or three evenings a week, the communal areas were filled with revellers—both residents and the general public—and the performers pumped out a cacophony of noise across the village. Reggae was a staple, as were the cheap beers served on donation from the Teepee Land bar, dubbed the Sorry Café.
Fritz was there every time without fail. Before he’d pitched his tent in Teepee Land three months earlier, he had been living in a camper van. One night it was set on fire and he lost most of his belongings and his home. His tent was now filled almost exclusively with musical instruments. He didn’t know where he’d go when the winter set in.
Janis had lived in his yurt for five years. The first three years, he left in the winter, but the last two he’d stayed year-round, although his home had no heat. Other teepees included wood ovens, but he weathered the cold by way of layers.
This photo was taken on his twenty-fourth birthday, in between sharing a celebratory whiskey with another Teepeelander. His family was in Estonia and he felt they were constantly questioning him for his life choices. Just before this photo was taken he had gone back to visit for the first time in a few years.
He felt at home in Teepee Land and had marked that sense of belonging with a tattoo of the squat’s symbol, visible on various surfaces around the teepee village as well as on the skin of several other members.
Teepee Land had many faces, and, like its residents, it was a place in constant flux. To some, it was an idyllic anarchist utopia; to others, it was a stop along the way to something else; to others still, it was a last resort. During my time there, I was impressed by the complexity of community—how to create a coherent whole from a smattering of individuals, each engrossed in his or her own journey. One thing, at least, is clear: the yearning for a place to belong is a universal facet of the human condition. Teepee Land was that place for some.
Jazz Meyer is a born creative, totally preoccupied with interpersonal dynamics and the myriad ways those can be explored. Her avenues of choice have primarily been visual storytelling and the written word, and over the last ten years she’s honed both her craft and her curiosity to better explore and present all the wonderful ways there are to be human. (All photos © Jazz Meyer)