Thierry Noir was the first to daub the ultimate symbol of communist repression with cartoonish graffiti, and his creations became world famous. Here, he talks about playing cat and mouse with the death strip guards, meeting Wim Wenders, and what happened when the wall came down.
A patrol of the Grepos (or border police) of the GDR on the ‘death strip’ between the two walls, the border of East and West Berlin. I took this from the window of the squat I lived in for 20 years. Nothing really happened at the Berlin Wall. There were no cars, no shops, no noises. I never saw any ‘actions’ with the Grepos, never saw any soldiers shooting at anybody.
Has culture ever recovered from the fall of the Berlin Wall? Seriously. The division of Berlin and state surveillance endured by people trapped in the eastern half of the city was the most visible and symbolic anguish of the cold war. The end of the Wall in 1989 was a sunny day for humanity. But in its monstrous strangeness, this scar running through a city had provided artists, novelists, musicians and film-makers with a dark subject matter and surreal inspiration so often lacking in the safe, consumerist world of the postwar democracies.
A retrospective of work by the graffiti artist Thierry Noir that opens on 4 April at the Howard Griffin Gallery in Shoreditch, east London, transports the visitor back to Berlin in the last days of the Wall. In the 1980s, Noir became the first artist to daub the long, bleak expanse of the Wall, starting a movement that is today one of the most famous things about the structure. His blocky cartoon paintings have become part of the mythology of the Wall, and appear in the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire.
Part of the Berlin Wall is recreated in his gallery show to try to bring to life that moment in the 80s when cracks were appearing in the edifice of the Soviet Union and its satellite states, and artists, led by Thierry Noir, were comically transforming the ugly symbol of the Cold War that ran through Berlin with a carnival of bright colours and visual gags.
But the Wall’s demise was the end of that artistic outpouring – literally, as large chunks of Wall covered with Noir’s paintings were sold off and smaller fragments (or fakes) became souvenirs – like the one I have at home. The art of the Berlin Wall has all but vanished, along with the symbol of oppression it mocked.
This elephant was one of my first paintings on the Berlin Wall. I started painting outside because I wanted to say that it’s good to put art in the streets and not solely in museums and galleries. At the time my influences were everyone from Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, plus musicians like David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Kraftwerk, Led Zeppelin and Nina Hagen. This painting represented the key to success – heavy work every day. If you wait at home for inspiration, you can wait a very long time.
This is me painting the wall along Waldemarstrasse in Kreuzberg in 1985. The dinosaurs represent a mutation of nature – because the Berlin Wall and the paintings I created were like a mutation of culture. Where else to find kilometres of painted concrete wall in Europe other than in West Berlin? I used to paint the Wall every day. All my ideas came to me not from the head to the hand but from the hand to the head. From the beginning, we used to collect leftover paint and materials from the renovation of houses in Kreuzberg. We made do with whatever we could find. We had no money to buy materials.
A homage to Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 New York exhibition and the enormous scandal provoked by him exhibiting a urinal. I put this up in April 1984, shortly after I started to paint the Wall. A few days later I also showed a hand basin.
Other art forms, too, have Wall-shaped holes. Where can today’s brooding musicians go to find inspiration that compares with the sinister, decadent 1970s west Berlin visited by Lou Reed and David Bowie?
The Wall froze time. It prevented Berlin from becoming a neat post-war city, kept it semi-ruined and shadowed by its past as well as present. Reed’s album Berlin mooches musically in an atmosphere of nightclubs and self-destruction that echoes the older Berlin of the Weimar era as much as the 70s melancholy he experienced. Similarly, such cold-war novels as Funeral in Berlin and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold are set in a city of ghosts and nightmares, a dangerous and fascinating furrow in time.
This Dada metropolis had a final explosion of black magic after the Wall came down. The eastern part of the city, suddenly opened, was revealed as a collage of urban utopias and terrors where the concrete visions of communism mingled with walls still bullet-riddled from 1945. It became an anarchist playground. Meanwhile, the no-,man’s land left by the Wall’s destruction was a raw archaeological zone where surviving bits of graffiti stood beside Nazi bunkers.
This fantastic shadowland quickly got turned into a shiny, happy city, fit to be the new Germany’s capital, with expensive, flashy and often very exciting architecture rising up.
Art flourishes in 21st-century Berlin, but does it matter as much as it did when the city was a cold-war danger zone? Thierry Noir reminds us of Berlin’s faded lipstick traces of dissent.
I painted this in August 1985. It was dedicated to the thousands of wild rabbits that used to live on the ‘death strip’ around Potsdamer Platz. The fall of the Berlin Wall was like an exodus for them. They had nowhere to go as their habitat had vanished and thousands of people were trampling across the ‘death strip’. Most of them died.
My early paintings on the Wall were very different to my later style. My style changed out of necessity, because every day hundreds of people would come up to me and ask me questions. So I had to adapt to be quicker, which became my Fast Form Manifesto. The Fast Form Manifesto is a good recipe for people who have to paint fast in dangerous environments, or with constantly interruptions. You need two ideas and three colours. It was a way for me to show people that this mythical wall was not built for ever and could be changed.
This is a collaboration with Christophe Bouchet, a remake of the Tortoise and the Hare fable. In our version, the hare wins. Bouchet’s piece was called Homage to La Fontaine, after the most famous French fabulist. Mine was called Red Dope on Rabbits. We painted these on 13 August 1985, for the 24th anniversary of the construction of the Wall. I met Christophe Bouchet in Berlin in 1982. He used to paint on the city’s main avenue, Kurfürstendamm. At the end of 1982, he moved into my squat. From that point on we worked together on the Wall.
This portrait was taken in 1986 by my first wife Gabi. I was wearing a suit that day that I found in a bag of old clothes on the street. At that time, West Berliners often left furnishings and clothes on the streets to recycle. I would paint the Wall all day then travel to the centre of West Berlin to sell canvases in restaurants. That is how I survived back then.
This shows my paintings that featured in the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire. I met him every two or three days in a restaurant where I used to sell small paintings. Wenders was a patron there. This part of the Wall was an important location for the film. You can see me painting on a ladder. These sections of the Wall are now in a private courtyard at 520 Madison Avenue in NYC and the ladder I used is in the permanent collection of the Wende Museum in Culver City, USA. What a destiny!
This was taken in 1986. You can see a GDR [East Germany] pioneer cleaning squad clearing away waste from West Berlin. In those days, people threw everything over the Wall. For some, it was a political act and people would scream ‘Scheiss DDR’ (‘fuck the GDR’) at the same time. I never threw anything over the Wall. It wasn’t my style. Often, soldiers would come over with a megaphone to tell me to stop painting and to step back inside West Berlin. I would do so without any comment, but they would often try to catch me.
It was the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, so I found some spray cans and with Christophe Bouchet made a two-metre-high stencil. It was made from a plastic napkin fixed on a wooden frame. On the Fourth of July, we put up 42 Statues of Liberty on the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie. It was well guarded and dangerous to paint there. We did not have enough money for more spray paint to do more the next day. As David Bowie said in his 1982 song Heroes: ‘You can be heroes, just for one day.’
On 23 October 1986, I heard on the radio that Keith Haring was in Berlin to paint the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie. I went there and saw that my Statues of Liberty had all been painted over with yellow paint. I talked to Keith and he was embarrassed and apologised. He said: ‘In New York you can get killed for that’. He was invited over and the section of Wall had been pre-prepared for him. The yellow was very transparent so you could see my statues through it. I was angry, but it was not his fault. Keith was a great guy and a great artist.
Here I am painting on the other side of the Berlin Wall in the ‘death strip’. The photo was taken while the Wall was falling down in 1989 and people were hammering through it. Some holes were so big you could pass through. It was great to paint this side after so many years of harassment by the guards. The guards were no longer allowed to shoot people. But while I was painting they would still scream: ‘Hey you, I see you, stop that.’ I always painted as long as possible, and at the last moment I jumped back to West Berlin. It was time to show those soldiers that an era had finished. With only a spray can or two, I would play cat and mouse with them for hours.