Finally reunited on 9th November 1989, the German nation enjoyed renewed exchange and the wall lost its dividing function. At the same time, parts of the wall were kept intact to highlight this new-found freedom as well as the city’s former oppression. More recently, parts of this so-called East Side Gallery were demolished against the stated will of the city’s own residents. For new insights and perspectives on this matter, we decided to contact Thierry Noir, one of the metropolis’ first artists to paint the Berlin Wall. Join us to find out more about his peaceful protest and his thoughts on recent East Side Gallery developments.
Thierry, you are part of a very special generation of Berlin-based artists. Could you describe the vibe when you first came to Berlin in 1982?
On January 21st, 1982, I left France by train, from Lyon to Berlin. I did not have a return ticket. If so, I might have gone back to France immediately because when I arrived at the West-Berlin train station ‘Bahnhof Zoo’ at 6am – after 21 hours on the train – my first impressions were the smell of the urine inside the station and the cold and gray morning outside. I could not understand a word. I was really frightened. At the end of the first week, I realized that everyone around me was an artist. Then, when somebody asked me if I was an artist as well, I simply said: “Yes, of course.”
Which artists influenced your creative work at that time – and why?
At the time, it was like I fell into a big box of creativity that was West-Berlin. Indeed, to protect yourself from the artificial life of West-Berlin, surrounded by a wall, it was necessary to be creative. I had never painted before I came to Berlin. I remember how, at school, the art teacher said to me that I had no talent. After two years of living close to the Berlin Wall I felt the need to do something against this boring wall. It was a sort of physical reaction against the pressure of everyday life near the Berlin Wall.
How did people react to your artwork back then?
From the very beginning, people asked a lot of questions about the murals. “Why did they want to make the wall beautiful? Why did they want to ornament the Berlin Wall?” And each time, I would answer that “I am not trying to make the wall beautiful because, in fact, that is absolutely impossible. 136 people have been killed trying to jump the wall to escape to West-Berlin, so even if you cover this wall in hundreds of liters of paint, it will stay the same. Initially, the Berliners were surprised, then annoyed by this guy – after all, a foreigner – who dared to defy the prohibitions to enter into direct dialog with the killing machine. It is important to mention, too, that a lot of emotion was in the air surrounding the wall. The atmosphere was violent, very heavy. But in spite of all the screams and insults, I went ahead with the painting, every day and without respite.
Could you tell us more about the symbols and icons that appear in your paintings? What do they signify?
I never try to give a “message to the world.” I let everyone interpret what they see by themselves. I find it funny when some people think they recognize an uncle or a cousin in my paintings. I never tell them that they are wrong.
What are your thoughts on the latest developments around the East Side Gallery?
It was necessary to paint those 1.3 kilometers of the wall at the East Side Gallery to tell later generations, “do not repeat the mistakes of your parents. If you forget your past, it will come back one day, but a lot more forcefully.” Right now, they are planning a big highrise, 65 meters tall and 14 floors up, just behind the wall on the former death strip. How can you explain that to the younger generation .
You once stated that your aim was to make the wall ridiculous in order to destroy it. Are there any other walls left to be destroyed with humor and color right now?
Since the Berlin Wall has gone, new walls have sprung up all around the world. And every wall builder says: Please do not compare us to the Berlin Wall. Our wall is good, while the Berlin Wall was something bad. Local artists should paint their own walls. I painted the Berlin Wall because it was just outside of my house.
What are your wishes and hopes for Berlin’s future artistic development?
I hope that Berlin will keep some space for the artists that have made this city one of the most attractive ones in Europe.
Are you working on something special right now? And could you tell us about it?
I am working on a couple of interesting projects at the moment. For example, I have just finished some large wall paintings inside the new Berlin-Mitte Generator hostel. These paintings are inspired by my works on parts of the Berlin Wall and spread out across a combination of colorful graphics. I hope that this artwork will help to give visitors a sense of the place and that incorporating this symbolic artwork will help to educate the young travelers who will stay here.
If you could change something with your paintings, what would it be?
If I could change something with my paintings, it would be great to see all of Berlin’s buildings filled with color. Berlin is a gray city – especially during wintertime. I would love to change that.
Thanks a lot to Thierry Noir for his answers and insights. Check out some of his photographic memories of the Berlin wall as it was in the past.
Interview. Claudio Rimmele
All pictures by Thierry Noir