Art or not? Cabbie snaps topless female passengers

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"I didn't think I could become an up-and-coming artist at my old age," says taxi driver Hans-Jürgen Watzlawek, 68, whose photos of passengers' breasts have gone on display at a Berlin gallery.

By Carlo Angerer, NBC News

MUNICH, Germany – A Berlin taxi driver whose pictures of women exposing their breasts in the back of his cab are being displayed at a local art gallery insists that the black-and-white photographs are nice not naughty.

"It's not about eroticism or sex, but about the breast as a female attribute," cab-driver-turned-artist Hans-Jürgen Watzlawek told NBC News.

Known for its hip and cutting edge exhibitions and galleries, the Berlin art scene sees many edgy pieces of art. Nonetheless, in Europe's self-proclaimed art capital one can always find a new twist on modern art.

It all started four years ago on a night shift when a regular customer told Watzlawek that she suspected she was pregnant because her breasts had grown.

When he said he didn't believe her, she lifted her shirt and exposed her breasts. The cab driver, an avid amateur photographer who always carries a camera, asked if he could snap a picture. She agreed.

How does the 68-year-old explain this openness? 

"The cabin of a taxi has a certain intimacy, it's like in a confessional box," Watzlawek said. "Passengers often share their stories – especially during journeys at night."

So over the last four years, he took 50 pictures of topless women. They posed for him after he asked a few who showed an interest in his photography, Watzlawek said, who added that he had never photographed their faces.

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"The project lives on anonymity; no woman I have asked has ever complained of sexism," he said.

And he denied that some of the women were drunk when he pictured them, as tabloids have suggested.

About half of the passengers he asked to pose agreed to do so after he told them that he hoped to run an exhibition.

"I was surprised myself, but they told me that I seem trustworthy – maybe you could even call me a lady whisperer," he said.

'A provocation'
Compared to Berlin Art Week, which took place in the city's illustrious galleries earlier this month, Watzlawek's exhibition, which opened on September 20 at the Galeria Casablanca, is a low-key affair although it has attracted considerable attention.

Gallery owner Zoltan Labas said the show, "Flash Berlin 0.1", has been well-received, especially by women, but admits it has been controversial.

"Of course, it's a provocation and it touches the border between art and non-art," he said.

"While the breasts are in the center of the pictures, the backgrounds tell the stories," Labas added. "You see the clothes and posture of the women, or who else is sitting in the cab – at times it's the boyfriend or husband."

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Watzlawek is not alone in his unconventional approach to routine places.

Recently, garbage collectors in Hamburg remade a waste container into a pinhole camera to snap the city's streets. It was a successful public relations stunt that won a silver lion at the Cannes International Advertising Festival.

Watzlawek, who is retired but returns to the steering wheel for a couple of nights each month, insists that his exhibition was not a public relations stunt.

"I just want to finance my expensive photography hobby which is difficult with my small pension," he said.

So after several decades working nights as a baker and cab driver he seems to have found his calling, although he doesn't think he's destined to become the next Damien Hirst or Andy Warhol.

"I didn't think I could become an up-and-coming artist at my old age," he said.

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