Evening of November 9, 1989, Day 10316
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
(All images coutesy thierrynoir.com)
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.
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.
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.
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.