Heinrich Zille (1858-1929), famous for his depictions of the proletarian environment full of coarse humour and biting sarcasm, came from a humble background himself. His family was heavily in debt when they moved from Dresden to Berlin in 1867, where his father found a job at Siemens & Halske. Zille completed an apprenticeship in lithography and worked for the Photographic Society for 30 years. Only when he was let go in 1907 did he begin to work as an independent artist. Zille was a member of the Berlin Secession and joined the left-wing Arts Working Council in 1920. In 1924, at the age of 66, he was accepted into the Prussian Academy of Arts following his nomination by Max Liebermann.
Zille's focus was the lives of normal folk, their miserable living quarters, their daily fight for survival and small Sunday treats. He had an eye for the details that say a thousand words, depicting cramped basement flats, squalid attic rooms and dirty backyards, unerring in his characterisation of their different inhabitants, from the haggard brushwood collector to the phlegmatic tramp or insolent brat. If you want to see how the urban working classes lived in Berlin at the turn of the 20th century, you should take a look at Zille's drawings, photographs, etchings and lithographs – for example at the Zille Museum in Nikolaiviertel. The museums Stiftung Stadtmuseum, Nationalgalerie and Kupferstichkabinett all own graphic works by him, whilst the Berlinische Galerie has preserved his photographic legacy.
The light-coloured limestone monument, portraying the artist with a fixed stare – as if he is capturing a new motif – and the ubiquitous cigar end clenched between his teeth, was created by the sculptor Thorsten Stegmann from Essen. It was consecrated in 2008 on the occasion of Zille's 150th birthday.