Evening of November 9, 1989, Day 10316
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.
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.