#mauerfall30: Thierry Noir

In January 1982, an unemployed and broke French artist moved from Lyon, France to Mariannenplatz in West Berlin.  His inspiration for the move was the music and cultural scene in Berlin – David Bowie and Iggy Pop both called West Berlin home at this time.  His tiny one bedroom rental faced the Berlin Wall, and every day for two years he looked at the Wall and the East German guards patrolling on the other side. The area around the wall was always empty and abandoned. An idea began to grow in his mind, and in 1984, in a revolutionary act of defiance he started to paint the wall. With that defiant act, Thierry Noir became the world’s first graffiti artist. 

Fast Form Upside Down – a Fast-Form Manifest

Painting on the wall was illegal, because the wall itself was set a few feet within the dividing line, and was actually in East Berlin. Noir would paint, and quickly run away from the wall as soon as the East German guards saw him. Over time he developed a style that allowed him to paint quickly; simple figures with three colors that he could finish fast and run at a moment’s notice. He calls it the Fast Form Manifest and we have large simple cartoon like figures in yellows and pinks. From 1984, until the wall fell, Noir painted many miles of the wall. The Elephant Key, which looks to Picasso, Miro, and Basquiat for inspiration was one of his first paintings on the wall. Some figures, like the dinosaurs, represent an unnatural mutation – like the wall was an unnatural mutation in the city.

Another section of the wall was painted in 1985, “Red Dope on Rabbits,” – an homage to the hundreds of rabbits that lived along the wall. 

Thierry Noir opened the floodgates and inspired thousands of graffiti artists to paint the wall, and between 1984 and 1989, the wall was covered with layers upon layers of artwork and graffiti. 

From 1984 to 1989 the Wall had layers upon layers of art work and graffiti .. here a protest takes place on top of Noir’s artwork.

Noir said painting the wall made him feel stronger than it.  By painting the wall he changed something oppressive into something that became a symbol of the 80s, of the young – their passion, energy, creativity, and unfailing hope for a better future. The East Side Gallery, and the many pieces of the wall all over the world are, in my mind, some of the greatest works of art in the world. And for this we have to be grateful to the young unemployed artist who looked at the wall from his apartment window, and dared to dream, and dared to hope

Noir with his most iconic and well known figures (1986).
Noir finally gets to paint on the East German side of the wall in 1989.

(All images coutesy thierrynoir.com)

#mauerfall30: 1980s Graffiti

The 1980s seems like a special time – it was the decade of Queen, Band-Aid, the rise of graffiti art, and of course the decade capped itself off with the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Berlin was like a small island in the middle of an ocean – except the ocean was the German Democratic Republic (DDR), and every road on this isolated island led to the wall. The wall which encircled them, also provided the rebellious youth with a massive, blank canvas.  And on this canvas, they recorded their thoughts, likes, dislikes, ideas, in the form of written word and art. It was as though a dam suddenly burst in the 80s and an entire generation filled the wall with their musings; all the while defiantly defiling the property of the DDR whose brutal police marched inches away. 

These youth were not unaware of the police marching inches away on the other side of the wall, nor were they unaware that the DDR police would not hesitate for one second to shoot at them. It was this fear, this thrill, this defiant attitude of using the wall as a canvas, or a community notepad, that gives rise to the raw energy that emanates from the graffiti on the walls.  I found this raw energy lacking in the section of the wall that can be seen in the East Side Galley in Berlin.  While it has amazing and meaningful art and murals done by artists from all over the world, for me, it lacks the heart and the passion seen in the graffiti from the 80s.  It lacks the urgency of the graffiti from the 80s, and graffiti without urgency and youthful defiance is just art that grew up and became something your parents can buy at a gallery to frame and hang on newly painted walls.  

I spend hours with the images of Berlin Wall graffiti that I find online.  I zoom into the images, read the messages, and find connections. One prominent writing in red says “27.86 HHS of Moorburg,” which is a neighborhood in Hamburg, West Germany.  Below that in black, “FACIST PROTECTION WALL,” and to the left, a black heart with the words, “From Russia With Love.” The black and white image has the words, “Realitat,” which is the German word for facing facts.  A German fan pays homage to a favorite band – Raga Rockers 83 – a Norwegian band that recorded their first album in 1983.  In Italian a “Viva Librealismus,” while a German “Mu̇ll” – which suggests to throw something in the trash – quite apt for what most Berliners wanted to do with the wall.  There’s a rocket with the word USSR on it, and what seems to be Reagan 60 written next to it.  To the right, what I’m sure was a powerful antiwar sentiment – unfortunately the tree is covering some of the letters.

……This is the story of the falling wall. What is important is not the fall, it is the landing……

Another section of the wall says, “C’est l’historie d’un mur tombant. Mais l’important, c’est pas la chute. C’est l’atterrissage,” meaning, “this is the story of the falling wall. What is important is not the fall. It is the landing.” The quote is from French filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film La haine, which of course means this is an image from after the wall fell – regardless, I think it’s a great quote about the unification of Germany.

…There is only one reason for art …to ??…

An artist boldly writes, “Take a walk, On the Wall,” and below that another  writes, “Graffiti is like a drug.” At the bottom of the wall one sentence reads, “There is only one reason for art….to keep that” and sadly I can’t make out what the rest of it says.

Each one of these remained for probably less than a day; the next day someone else would come along and paint over it to or write directly over it. Some were captured in images for posterity, while most were erased even before, as they say, the proverbial ink dried.  Yet, these images show us what made Berliners tick in the 1980, what they thought about, how they related to and lived with the wall. These images have captured real, honest, unrehearsed snippets of moments in time before the wall fell, and that’s why they fascinate me to no end. (All images courtesy Massimiliano T.P. Instagram). 

#mauerfall30: Leipzig’s montagdemonstrationen

Another town I went to during my trip to Germany this summer was the beautiful, and for me the mysterious, town of Leipzig.  Like Dresden, this town too was part of the German Democratic Republic.  The town has amazing architecture, and the long corridors and arcades with shops and cafés inside the old buildings were beautiful.  Some of the newer buildings around the train station are covered in fantastic murals that light up the town with their glorious colors.  Every corner of Leipzig seems to be brimming with history – either from the Soviet era days or prior.  Composers Johann Sebastian Bach, Richard Wagner, and Felix Mendelssohn all called Leipzig home, and the town center opera house stands in testament to the city’s musical past.  German writer Goethe wrote his famous Faust in Leipzig.

Leipzig played a prominent, though often overlooked, role in bringing down the Berlin Wall and dismantling the German Democratic Republic.  The church stands in the center of a cobblestone square and was built in 1165 with the gothic tower being added in the 1600s.  Every Monday, in the autumn of 1989, the Nikolaikirche, or the St. Nicholas Church hosted a prayer meeting that was followed by peaceful, candlelit protests for democracy and justice.  

For three months in the autumn of 1989, on every Monday, ordinary East Germans, religious and the not so religious, young and old, gathered in front of the church and demonstrated peacefully. On Monday, October 9, 1989 over 70,000 protesters gathered peacefully, and, and the number swelled to an even greater 120,000 the following Monday.  Not one gun was fired, and these peaceful demonstrations became the DDR’s swan song.  One month after the first major demonstration in Leipzig, the Berlin Wall came down.  A simple white palm topped column in the middle of the square commemorates the peaceful demonstrations.

#mauerfall30 countdown

As the 30th anniversary of the fall of Berlin wall approaches, I wish I was in Berlin to join in the celebrations.  I can just imagine how lively the city must be right now – well maybe I can’t because to me it was so lively even without the celebrations – the atmosphere must be electric as the city approaches this anniversary.  Since I can’t be there I decided to do my own countdown with a blog every day between now and November 9th on Berlin Wall, or some aspect of it.

Thousands of miles away from Berlin, in the most unexpected place – in the peaceful and leafy campus of Kennesaw State University campus there is a piece of Berlin history. A section of the wall, with a particularly cheerful graffiti lies on this campus.  Well, perhaps not completely unexpected because I’ve realized that Georgia has quite a few sections of the wall. Apart from the one on the KSU campus, there is one in Suwanee (which I wrote about previously), there’s one at the Atlanta International School  (I am so envious!!), the National Infantry Museum in Fort Benning has three sections of the wall on display in their Cold War gallery, and Freedom Park in Fort Gordon has two sections of the wall on display.

Berlin Wall Fort Gordon GA (image courtesy Fort Gordon Freedom park)

The wall in KSU was donated to the college by Chuck Clay who is a former senator of Georgia.  Mr. Clay’s grandfather, General Lucius D. Clay commanded the American forces in Europe after World War II and organized the Berlin airlift.  The wall was given to his grandson, Chuck Clay by a grateful city in 2000.  He donated the section of the wall to KSU in 2010. 

The bottom plank of the wall was in the East Berlin side.  It was included with the second generation wall after a soldier with a tank broke through the first generation wall and escaped into the West.  With this plank at the bottom, the wall would have fallen on the tank rather than on the other side. This stopped people trying to escape by breaking through the wall with cars, tanks etc.

The West Berlin side of the wall is where the original graffiti would have been found, and the graffiti on this wall is a particularly cheerful one.  The bright yellow, smiling sun or sunflower with almost perfect petals against the deep blue background is simply stunning and would have brought a smile to many West Berliners in the 1980s.  There seems to be some green grass at the bottom, and words that I couldn’t really make sense of.  The grey of the wall is visible on top where the white backgrounds paint ends, and I imagine there are many layers of graffiti underneath.

In this section of the wall, the East Berlin side also has graffiti, something that was obviously done after the wall fell.  The top scene looks like a gondola in Venice, with a covered bridge on top.  Below that there’s some interesting graffiti going on but unfortunately, I can’t make out what’s going on.  There are layers of writings though none seem fully visible.   

The students of KSU are fortunate to have this piece of history in their midst. For some it might just be a concrete sculpture that they walk past everyday on their way to class, while others may pause and reflect upon the history that surrounds this section of the wall.  For me the Berlin Wall with its graffiti holds endless fascination; for me each piece of the wall is art, history, end of World War II, rise of Communism, cold war, fall of Communism, freedoms denied, freedoms regained, families torn apart, families united, unbelievably brave East Berliners, even more unbelievable miraculous escapes, and above all the resilience of the human spirit that has yet to meet a wall it can’t bring down. 

Berlin Wall – MADNESS

Since my trip to Berlin earlier this year, I have been my fascinated by the Berlin Wall (it might not have gone unnoticed considering the number of blogs I have done about it).  I am happy that I visited this year because since it is the 30th anniversary of the fall of the wall, there is a no dearth of information on the Wall, and lots of people are posting new and old images of the Wall on Instagram and other social media.

I am endlessly fascinated by the graffiti on the wall.  It captures the essence of the 1980s and while a majority of the wall and graffiti are gone for good, the images from the 1980s have captured and preserved the essence of that raw, youthful energy forever. This was art on the streets being used as protest. It was the voice of a generation that used the wall as a canvas to reduce some of its horror and make it less threatening. In the words of Thierry Noir, who is the first artist to illegally paint large sections of the Berlin Wall, painting the wall, “subverted this iconic symbol of war into a symbol of hope, granting it real human significance.”

Berlin Wall Graffiti by Thierry Noir (courtesy thierrynoir.com)

One of the remaining sections of the wall has the word MADNESS written in large black letters.  It remains to this day in Berlin in the Topographie des Terrors Center, and is visited by the millions of people that go to Berlin annually.  It would appear to have been done by someone protesting against the madness that was the Berlin Wall. 

However, it turns out the graffiti was done by a member of the British Rock Band called Madness when they visited the wall in the early 80s.  In his twitter feed, Dan Woody Woodgate (one of the band members) writes that in 1980 another band member, Graham Suggs McPherson, climbed on top of a van and wrote MADNESS on the Berlin Wall, which is the same one that exists today.  I was thrilled to see the origin of this fascinating and meaningful word that remains to this day. While most people that see the remaining graffiti naturally conclude that it was a teenager’s commentary on what was going on with the wall and the East German regime, it was actually a band member of a popular 1980s band writing his group’s name on the wall. 

Woody Woodgate’s tweet sheds light on the mysterious MADNESS

In another fascinating find, as I was scouring Instagram for images of the wall, I actually found this word written on the wall from a 1980s image.  What an interesting coincidence – first I found the origin of the word, and then I found an image of what appears to be the same writing from the 1980s.  What do you think? Is it the same writing or another one?

Berlin Wall Graffiti Image from the 1980s (courtesy Instagram Massimiliano T.P.)

I want it to be the same, but I see the differences in placement and letter sizes.  So maybe not the exact same writing but still an interesting find. 

Berlin Wall – Suwanee, GA

On November 9, of this year, it will be 30 years since the Berlin Wall came down.  The wall stood for political beliefs and ideologies, it divided an old city, tore apart families, but apart from all that the wall fascinates me as a piece of art.  On the West Berlin side of the wall, artists used the wall as a canvas, which was painted over and over by artists who defied DDR soldiers patrolling on the other side of the wall and made their own political statements using spray paint.  Some artists became famous for their Berlin wall art, among them French artist Thierry Mugler (who I will write about later), and sometimes internationally famous artists like Keith Haring, drew attention to the wall by using it as their canvas.

Graffiti painted over Keith Haring’s graffiti (Tate Modern)

But for the most part, it was the thousands of ordinary West Berlin citizens, most likely teenagers, that defiantly painted the wall over and over again, spray painting messages of defiance, freedom, and even messages of the everlasting promise of young love on it.  Much of this was lost, crushed by huge machines so the concrete could be used to rebuild East Berlin at a fast pace – the same concrete that the DDR government s got from the ruins of bombed out buildings was once again being used to rebuild East Berlin. 

Section of the Berlin Wall from the 1980s (The Guardian)

Many pieces did survive intact and now can be found in various parts of the world – New York, Los Angeles, Boston, London, Miami and many more small town have sections of the wall in their museums, public art displays, and private ownership. Orlando has one too near the Hard Rock Café on Universal City Walk.  Georgia has quite a few in the army base, perhaps the army bases in Georgia had personnel stationed in Germany and so were given sections of the wall by a grateful West Berlin government. 

Suwanee, which is part of metro Atlanta, has a beautiful downtown area with restaurants, ice cream parlors, boutique shops, and central park with a baseball field in the middle.  The edge of the park is lined with statues and other works of art, one of which is a section of the Berlin Wall. Suwanee acquired the wall as a donation from a grateful local businessman who was born in a communist country.

During the summer, I went to see this section of the wall.  The West Berlin side of the wall is painted in bright colors, and shows an East Berliner trying to jump over the wall to escape toward the West, which is depicted with a high rise building and an American flag.  It’s a beautiful piece of art that captures a moment in time; the dark blue sky in the background with the majestic stars and stripes, the booming, capitalist West with its luxurious high-rise building, the wall itself with graffiti, and the East Berliner trying to escape toward the West.  It’s fascinating that the artist painted the East Berlin side of the wall with graffiti – perhaps unaware that the wall on the East side was blank.  I think it’s a brilliant piece of art, which captures everything the wall stood for perfectly on a single canvas. 

Enigmatic England: Bletchley Park

Eighty years ago on August 31, the German army invaded Poland and started World War II.  I was watching some movies about World War II and came across “The Imitation Game,” which was about scientists and mathematicians that worked at top-secret Bletchley Park. As a student in London, my sister was lucky enough to visit Bletchley Park, and wrote the following vignette:  

The really striking thing about England, particularly to an outsider, is how much of its national character is shaped by the two world wars, particularly World War II. It seems that no family was left untouched by the war, and every sacrifice, great and small, that can be made for a nation, was made. The number of young lives lost is incomprehensible, and the number would have been much larger but for the brilliant people who worked at Bletchley Park. 

It is often said that truth is stranger than fiction – it is at least true in the case of Bletchley Park.  If you put all the spy movies, thrillers, and novels together, they would still not match the intrigue of Bletchley Park, its intense secrecy, its brilliant people, and the unbelievably intelligent decoding and deciphering work that was done here during World War II.  The fact that toward the end of the war over 8000 people worked here and yet its existence was not disclosed until decades later, gives an inkling of the level of secrecy maintained, and the characters of the people that worked here.  The mathematicians at Bletchley Park were deciphering Germany’s war time communication codes, and to do this they built the world’s first computers.  These brilliant people were able to decipher Germany’s supposedly indestructible codes and in the process saved many lives including at Dunkirk, D-Day, and were instrumental in finding Germany’s most powerful warship Bismarck so the British Navy could drown it. 

Women at Bletchley Park (image courtesy of http://www.bletchleypark.org)

After the war, Bletchley Park and its brilliant people all went home, and never spoke a word because of the oath of secrecy they had all taken. Many had parents that died without knowing their son or daughter’s immense contribution to the war effort.   Clearly this was a generation of greatness. How did we get from there to our current generation of selfies, Facebook, Instagram – we can barely drink a cup of tea without informing the whole world about it. Over 8000 people. Over three decades.  Not one word.  Let that sink in, and perhaps one begins to understand England.

(Both images from http://www.bletchleypark.org)

What did you do during your lunch break today?

This summer, I participated in a New York Times Reading contest which involved reading an article and writing a personal reflection to the article. The article I wrote about is by Alex Vadukul, “How Big Mike, a Barbershop painter, Broke into the Art World.” Mike Saviello works at a barber shop and during his lunch break he paints. Here is my reflection on this article:

If you scroll past all the stories of immigrants, dreamers, migrant crisis, political debates, you will come to this truly heartwarming story of Mike Saveillo, a barber from New York who has become a sought after artist. This too is a story about America: about the opportunities that still exist, about simple working class people, about cities like New York with long lasting barbershops, about wives who get cancer and husbands who get shattered, about barbers who dare to dream and use bold colors and have art showings at big name galleries – all of this is possible because Mike Saveillo lives in America.

There is a Mike in most people. People often give up on something they are passionate about because it is the practical, sensible thing to do. We stop playing the cello because it interferes with math tutoring, we give up singing for science fairs. Mike gave up art for football, and then a well-paying job so he could support his family. But his passion for art never left him, and in the end he found a way to paint. That’s why I liked this story so much. Because in the end, Mike found a way to do something he had always wanted to do since he was a child, and because he lives in a country where he could dare to dream, and to be, in the words of his wife, “a disrupter.”

All paintings from Michael Saviello’s Instagram

The Things They Longed For

In the Blue Ridge Mountains, near Tallulah Gorge in Georgia, there is a piece of America that transported me into one of my favorite books, Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”.

Sometimes on a regular day out – well this one was a daytrip to see waterfalls in the mountains of Georgia – one comes across the most unexpected people and places. While driving to see the Tallulah Gorge, I took a last minute side detour to a scenic overlook. For me, there was so much more than the overlook here – by the side of the road there was the kind of place that I think Tim O’Brien and his platoon would have made for themselves in Vietnam, a place that would transport them, if only momentarily, to the America, the home, and the things they longed for so desperately. It was almost a mise-en-scene for a play or a movie about the longing for Americana that the boys in Vietnam must have felt – except this was real, and the boys were – well – middle aged bikers by now.

The roadside shack, with a flag and a bald eagle on its roof, proudly calls itself “Hillbilly’s Hot Nuts & BBQ.” The shack was adorned with every possible American thing a boy would long for in Vietnam –all kinds of Harley Davidson models, banners, and paraphernalia, music records, Coca Cola bottle cut outs, a smiling Marilyn Monroe, a sexy Marilyn Monroe with James Dean, Elvis Presley, and Humphrey Bogart in a café, a sultry Rita Hayworth selling Coke, Coke selling Coke and hot dogs for 15 cents, Big foot crossing sign, a Native American chief with a glorious feathered headgear, a faded Uncle Sam, a black and white electric guitar – it was all there. And to the right was a place to sit, relax, chitchat, and as the picture shows – enjoy a Coke. Here a large flag covered the entire back wall, and a welcome committee, in the form of a faintly Asian looking mannequin, stood in front of the shack.

A third shack with a tin roof provides a welcome respite for the riders.

The entire space seems more like a setting for a Vietnam war movie than a roadside shack next to a scenic overlook. But there it was, and bikers rode up to it, bought their roasted Georgia peanuts and Coke and hung out for a while chatting with each other. One of them even happily posed for a picture when I asked if I could get a picture of his bike.

Happy to pose

And I was reminded of Tim O’Brien and his platoon; young American boys longing for the comforts of home in Vietnam, and I imagined that this is what they longed for. Suddenly, this place took on so much meaning for me – it was not just a roadside food shack, but a place for the boys who returned home, and for those who did not. None of us will ever understand what they went through in Vietnam. They have only each other to turn to; the shared experience is theirs only, the rest of us are outsiders looking in, trying unsuccessfully to understand. And places like the Hillbilly Nut & BBQ Shop, make it possible for these brave men to stop for a few minutes, talk to each other, perhaps reminisce about someone who didn’t make it back – before they ride off into the mountains.

“The Way of The Red Flag”

Dresden is almost too beautiful to be real. When the late afternoon sun shines on its churches and palaces, it almost takes your breath away. The Frauenkirche (Lutheran Church) sits in the middle of the old town center like a beautifully iced cake on a platter; just one of the many baroque architectural gems in this town which, until 1989, was part of communist German Democratic Republic (GDR). The city was completely devastated by Allied bombings in 1945, practically every building was demolished. For 45 years after that, Dresden and its old town lay in ruins. Mountains of rubbles lay everywhere, untouched by the communist government, as a propaganda about the devastation of capitalist warfare.

 The Frauenkirche in Dresden Old Town was rebuilt after the fall of Communism

The GDR constructed numerous buildings around the old town, punctuating the once baroque town with low and wide glass and concrete buildings that are quintessential socialist and communist architecture. The Kulturpalast (Palace of culture, 1962) at the edge of the reborn old town is a classic example of communist architectural expression of social order. One side of the building is decorated with a striking mural called “The  Way of the Red Flag,” adding color, albeit a symbolic red, to an otherwise grey concrete exterior.

The Kulturpalast (Palace of Culture) was built by the GDR government in 1962 and is a classic example of communist architectural expression of social order.        

The long narrow mural, is approximately 95 feet high and 325 feet wide, and tells the history of socialism. Almost to the center stands its most striking feature, a woman with a scarf typical of the socialist working class, her left hand stretched out in a welcoming gesture, while her right hand holds a red flag. The raised flag leads the eye toward the hammer and sickle symbol of the GDR. The story starts on the left half of the mural where Karl Marx (with a document in his hands) can be seen standing with Freidrich Engels. Below them a group of three men arm themselves in protest, and to the right we see the Red Star a sign of the Russian revolution of 1914. World War II, and its suffering, is depicted to the right of the flag bearer. The victory of socialism is seen in the depiction of groups of men of various professions, some holding guns while others raise their right fists. All seem to be looking towards the central figure of Walter Ulbricht the communist leader of GDR.

  The Way of the Red Flag : The mural on the Kulturpalast tells the history of Socialism  

I discovered the mural almost by accident and stood in front of it for a long time, marveling at it, and shocked both by its existence and its contrast with the baroque architecture of Dresden’s old town. The fact that the Kulturpalast and the mural exist to this day, 30 years after the fall of communism, is a testament to the people of Dresden. The people of this Dresden have rebuilt their town back to its former Baroque glory from the debris that remained after World War II. Their love for art and architecture is evident from the fact that despite the passage of time, almost 40 years passed before communism fell, they started rebuilding brick by broken brick as soon as they could after reunification . It is only a city that has suffered and lost so much that will not be quick to tear down art, even if it is communist art. And we, the visitors, leave  Dresden enriched, by both the people and the art and architecture of this beautiful city.