Sometimes you notice little things in cities that are unique to the city, and you remember them fondly if they brought a smile to your face. The Ampelmannchen or Little Traffic Light men on the streets lights in Berlin and Dresden made me smile. These are the really charming and happy red and green men that are cut out into pedestrian crossing lights.
The Ampelmann was designed in 1961 by East German traffic psychologist Karl Peglau. This cute traffic light symbol appealed to everyone the GDR – especially children and older people. The point was to reduce traffic accidents by having a light that people liked and almost respected, and would tend to obey more than regular lights. The Ampelmann was chubby so more light would come through. The almost straw like summer hat adds to the overall charm of the Ampelmann.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the two cities united, and West German started to slowly remove all signs and remnants of the East. But there were protests to save the beloved icon, and today almost 64% of lights in Berlin have the Ampelmann on them. A souvenir industry has started around the beloved icon.
Karl Peglau explained the popularity of the Ampelmann, “It is presumably their special, almost indescribable aura of human snugness and warmth, when humans are comfortably touched by this traffic symbol figure and find a piece of honest historical identification, giving the Ampelmannchen the right to represent a positive aspect of a failed social order.”
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.
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.
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
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 tothrow 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.
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.
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).
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.”
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.
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?
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.
It fell with almost the same speed and surprise as it had risen 28 years earlier. From the evening of August 13, 1961 to the evening of November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall encircled West Berlin, effectively cutting it off from East Germany which surrounded it on all sides. The wall was a physical barrier that cut through a city dividing friends, neighbors, and family, but more importantly it was an ideological barrier between capitalism and communism, and a powerful symbol of the Cold War.
This summer, I traveled to Germany, a country I have wanted to visit since I first read about the Berlin Wall in world history. The wall was constructed almost overnight on the night of August 13, 1961 by the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR) communist government. The wall was called “Antifascistischer Schutzwall” by the GDR government who claimed that the primary purpose of the wall was to keep the West German fascists, who wanted to undermine the socialist regime of the east, out of East Berlin. In reality though, the wall was built to stop the mass defections that were occurring daily with people leaving East Berlin for the west. The GDR government was concerned about their dwindling population and the impact it would have on the East German economy.
With the slow demise of communism in parts of Eastern Europe, the GDR government too, in a most unexpected and unplanned way relaxed the barrier and on November 9, 1989 announced that “effective immediately” East Berliners would be allowed to travel to the West. The euphoria that followed this unexpected announcement was such that people started to climb the wall and started chipping away at it the same night. Within a couple of days, Helmut Kohl, then Chancellor of Germany, started to address the issue of “German Reunification,” thus putting events into motion that have eventually led to the Berlin of today – a city that seems to be bursting with life; still celebrating reunification.
While most of the wall is gone for good, an almost 1.5-mile-long section of the wall remains standing along the river Spree in the Friedrichshain section of Berlin. This longest intact section of the original 90-mile-long wall has become the world’s largest outdoor museum of sorts. The 105 sections of the wall have been painted by artists from all over the world, each one a unique showcase providing its own commentary on the wall, its fall and freedom.
Unlike the graffiti artist of the 1980s, these artists painted by invitation and had no fear of getting shot by the East German guards patrolling the wall. So while the East Berlin Gallery is an incredible piece of art that celebrates freedom and humanity, it does not have the intensity and rawness of the street art that covered the wall prior to 1989. The first artist to paint the wall was French artist Thierry Noir, who lived along the wall and painted sections of it with incredible street art almost on a daily basis. The amazing gallery that stands today is because of pioneer street artists like Thierry Noir who by painting the wall attempted to psychologically destroy it.