2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which stood for 27 years as a representation of the physical and political divisions between East and West Berlin. The wall went up on August 13th, 1961 and became a canvas for Berliners to express their angst towards the government through graffiti, murals, wheatpastes, and stencil pieces. Now extant in memory alone, the Berlin wall is remembered for the major role it played in the development of modern-day street art as a medium for artistic expression and freedom of speech.
History of the Berlin Wall
In the aftermath of WWII, the peace conferences at Yalta and Postdam split Germany into four allied sections. Germany’s eastern half went to Soviet Russia, while the USA and France claimed its western half. Although Berlin resides in the country’s east, the city remained a predominantly capitalist city, and a source of continual dissonance. As Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev described the situation, West Berlin stuck out like “a bone in the Soviet throat.” As time went on, the resistance only grew stronger. In 1948, the Russians tried to drive French and American allies out of West Berlin, blocking off all roadways and access to the west side of the city. For the next two years, the United States and its compatriots would airlift supplies to the city in a movement that is now known as the Berlin Airlift.
Their efforts proved successful. The Berlin Airlift warded off the Soviets and eased tensions until 1958, when Soviet nationalism spiked after the success of the Space Race and an influx of immigration. Nonetheless, thousands of refugees continued to move to and through West Berlin in search of political freedom. On August 12th, 1961, Khruschev gave the GDR permission to seal the border between East and West Berlin for good. His blockade halted all existing commerce. People were no longer able to shuttle across the boundary for work or play like they once did. Twelve checkpoints went up along the wall, where Soviets rigorously screened diplomats and officials who did try to cross. In the 27 years of its existence, 171 individuals were killed during their attempts to cross the border.
The tighter the government choked its noose around the city, the more Berlin as a whole unraveled into chaos.
The ever-present Soviet stronghold on East Berlin caused the city to fall into extreme poverty. Public centers were neglected, stores’ shelves were bereft, and many who commuted to West Berlin for work became unemployed. Though allowed a considerable more amount of freedom than the east, West Berlin dealt with its own pandemonium. In conjunction with the onset of the Vietnam War, younger generations lost all faith in their government. Resistance towards authority figures increased and police violence was common, especially on the western side of the border where squatters often occupied abandoned buildings to protest the government buildings slated to take their place. These sites became hubs for drugs and prostitution, eventually earning Berlin the reputation of a major drug capital by the end of the 1970s. The tighter the government choked its noose around the city, the more Berlin as a whole unraveled into chaos.
A Canvas for Political Conversation
The wall reached its physical peak in the early 80s, standing 14 feet tall and 87 miles long. Restless anarchists, settlers from allied countries, and Vietnam draft resisters grew tired of its perpetual threat. The concrete slabs became a blank canvas on which they expressed their dissatisfaction regarding Berlin’s socio-political state. The wall became a meeting place for artists from all over the world. First-generation graffiti writers, often children of U.S. servicemen, brought with them the spirit of New York’s graffiti scene, which had gained momentum around the same era. One of the first, French artist Thierry Noir, felt that painting the wall gave him power. He remained a consistent participant in painting the Berlin Wall until its fall in 1989, working alongside artists like Keith Haring and Christophe Bouchet.
Painting the Berlin wall was no easy feat. As Noir explains on his website, he had to paint quickly given the dangerous circumstances of the guarded wall. By using his Fast Form Manifest recipe – putting two ideas and three colors together into one piece – Noir was able to work quickly and efficiently, resulting in his famous cartoon heads and an elephant with a key. Others used the wall to call for political subversion, writing phrases like “make love not wall,” or “doubt is the substance of nothing” to show their resistance. Soaking in the voices of the west, the Berlin wall was as much support for the cries for liberation as it was a barrier. Conversely, the east side of the wall remained sterile. East Berliners were separated from the wall by a wide strip of land that was known as the Todesstreife or “death strip.”
While still illegal, graffiti is an omnipresent entity that bolsters the steady tourism Berlin’s economy relies upon.
The Berlin wall fell on November 9th, 1989 when East Berlin’s leader declared residents of the GDR were allowed to cross. Berliners from east and west flocked to the wall in celebration, breaking the barrier that once divided the city. “Only is the war really over,” someone spray-painted, signifying that the wall was just as damaging to the city as physical warfare.
Though much of the art was destroyed with the wall, the city’s spirit of artistic expression only strengthened. Artists from both sides of the city began to paint murals in celebration of Berlin’s unification. In 1990, the city invited artists from all over the world to paint the blank remains of the wall’s east-facing facade, which is now known as the East Side Gallery. Today, it is the largest memorial dedicated to the Berlin Wall. The East Side Gallery is also a cultural landmark that serves as a testament to the importance of street art in Berlin’s DNA.
Berlin is renowned for its urban art scene. In 2006, UNESCO named Berlin the city of design, which can be attributed to the art that cakes its streets. While still illegal, graffiti is an omnipresent entity that bolsters the steady tourism Berlin’s economy relies upon. Once fueled by revolution, the call for artistic expression still pulses throughout Berlin, attracting street artists from all over the world to make the pilgrimage to one of the world’s most famous pillars in street art history.