In Berlin, a place where remnants of war-burnt buildings live next to modern apartments, parts of the infamous wall still stand—though without the guarded and electric barbed wire-fenced “death zone” separating the city. Now the hulking concrete slabs exist purely as reminders, of both the political strife that hovered over post-war Germany and the jubilation that followed the wall’s fall on November 9, 1989. One of its three remaining stretches has been converted into a tourist attraction and near-mile-long memorial known as the East Side Gallery, showing off murals painted after Berlin and Germany’s early steps towards re-unification. And though these works have lasted the longest and received the most fanfare, painted as they were on the prohibitively inaccessible eastern side only after the wall’s fall, they are far from the earliest instances of the wall having been used as a canvas—and perhaps were not even the most important marks to have been made.
French artists Thierry Noir and Christophe-Emmanuel Bouchet claim to have been the first to have truly painted the Berlin Wall’s west side in the 1980s. Noir lived in a youth center right off the wall and, as he told Street Art London in a 2013 interview, he was not interested in art in France, but he soon found himself surrounded by artists and influenced by the “melancholic life” of living with a windowed view of East Berlin’s death zone. He described this zone as “very aggressive against the brain,” and his work on the wall emerged out of wanting to fight against that feeling: “I thought I was getting a little bit crazy with this life by the wall…. In 1984 I decided spontaneously to start to make something on [it].”
This was around when the wall had been rebuilt to be 14-feet high, and “there were no big paintings…. Everything which is new is a little bit disturbing.”
Noir explains that the paintings initially had to do with only these feelings and not with any particular politics: “I had no idea about the political aspect of the wall, because at school in France we never learned anything about [it]…. I had no idea what it was all about…. Some people were very aggressive because they thought I was paid to make the wall beautiful. I had to stop sometimes and answer them, saying, ‘No, you can’t make the wall beautiful because it is a deadly border.’”
At the time, painting the wall was forbidden and considered largely to be, as Noir describes it, “a revolutionary act.” But over the years, attention to the practice loosened, and Noir became far from the only person whose work flecked the West Berlin side of the wall.
The Berlin Wall Art project documents, in photographs taken by Edward G. Murray, the state of the wall in May 1989. Murray’s photographs show the West Berlin side of the wall right before its fall later that year, how it became smothered in art and tags, in variously languaged scribbles that were often layered to the point of illegibility. They ranged from Noir’s doodles and others’ stenciled visuals to humorous non-sequiturs (“Hail Zombies!” in French, “Don’t Fuck With the Wong’s” in English), from simple declarations of existence (“K.H. Dobson Passed This Way 1988 XXX”) to poignant political statements (“THIS IS BUT ONE ALTER IN THE CHURCH OF HATE,” “Fear + Loathing East/West”) and personal aphorisms (“To search for perfection / all very well / but to look for heaven / is to live here in hell”).
And while the West Berlin side of the wall functioned as a Roman-style sounding board of graffiti, the East Berlin side, blockaded as it was by the no man’s land covered in obstacles to prevent migration of people or goods, was kept starkly free of any marks. One person noted on the western side in German that the graffitied wall had become a “Diary of the zeitgeist,” and truly the range of voices among Berliners and visitors is made immediately clear in the volume of layered information. The mix of frustration with circumstance—existential angst like that which Noir had spoken of when he decided to start painting—and the desire to be seen as individuals with identities amidst the political tumult suggests that Murray’s photographs caught the populace at a tipping point past which it was clear the wall could not stand.
And indeed, tensions came to a head later that year when a series of peaceful protests in East Germany known as the Monday Demonstrations and the resignation of the longtime East German leader Erich Honecker unsettled the previously strong hold the region had imposed on its population. After a flood of people made their way over the Eastern side of the wall and into West Germany, the regime was considered to be on its deathbed, and the wall too began its march towards collapse on November 9, 1989.
As the country unified, so too did the aesthetics of the wall with the descent upon the untouched East German side by “a motley international group that included [pop artist Jim] Avignon.” They weren’t the first big-deal names to put their marks on the divider—the New York Times reported in 1986 of an excited crowd gathering around to watch Keith Haring paint a mural on the western side—but they were the start of a wave of non-graffiti artworks on the eastern side that quickly developed into the East Side Gallery. Thierry Noir participated in painting this side of the wall, too, noting that “the East Side Gallery is completely different because it was done in 1990 after the fall of the wall…. It was not a border anymore, so you can’t compare it.”
When he was working on the western side, Noir had needed to create a quick way to paint—something he called “fast form”—that would allow him to get his work done without being caught by authorities or the critical comments of those who encountered him working. (The paintings by Noir and others were so contentious that in 1986 “a group of former East Germans painted a white stripe at eye level on the western face to ‘wipe out’ the images,” arguing that “the wall has to be seen as a wall again [and] should not be a tourist attraction.”) But the curated post-fall painting of the eastern side had none of this danger or opposition, functioning instead as something of an exuberant expression surrounding long-desired unification. Indeed, it was permitted by city officials—largely because of artist David Monti who, the LA Review of Books, writes, “secured the rights to paint on the [Eastern] strip” and then quickly dropped off the project as a Scot named Christine MacLean took over. The neatly demarcated murals, a far cry from the Western section’s haphazard mass of feelings, were not all made by professional artists—some were “hobby artists,” and others simply individuals who wanted to take part in an important project—but they were all allowed to be there.
The East Side Gallery quickly became a protected memorial, the public favoring the demarcated, captured euphoria over the haphazard and conversational nature of the West Berlin side. The murals are a crucial reminder of a particular moment in
European history, but they are also a more sterile image of only the post-struggle relief, lacking much of the tension and pain inherent in the caked on layers of agony and self-attribution that had made up the western side. Tourists now come to look at the gallery and see only one element of the experience of the wall—the arguably neater one, somewhat organized and certainly more joyful than the literal flipside. Some see the remnants of the wall in and of themselves as a painful reminder of the years of struggle the wall’s existence caused—but the preserved and memorialized side, the one that speaks largely of relief, is in some ways less heart wrenching than its uncensored and under-celebrated public counterpart.
Ironically, the rough graffiti that had been painted over by East Germans in the mid-80s to avoid tourism was what had actually grounded the wall in objecthood, in terror and emotional disarray, in linguistic attempts to free the people from the oppressive nature of the wall itself. Meanwhile, the opposing side, which had once been starkly blank amidst a deadly and dangerous no man’s land, has become the attraction. The East Side Gallery, though decrepit in areas, has had restorations performed and safety gates placed around sections, and a locale that once housed squats and youth homes has now become gentrified into condominiums. It has become the antithesis of the wall’s original intentions—for the better, of course, and yet is still dangerously inching towards erasing the past by making it palatable.