#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). 

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.