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)