The Art on the Berlin Wall: Sentiments of East and West Berlin

The Berlin Wall is often considered an iconic symbol of Cold War division. By the time of its demolition in 1989, the art on the Berlin Wall embodied the sentiments of the city’s population.

Feb 19, 2021By Daniel Grither, BA Art History
world's people shimal gimayev
World’s People by Shimal Gimayev, 1990; with The West Side Wall and Death Strip, via Thierry Noir


The Berlin Wall art of the 1980s was an artistic representation of the events of the Cold War in Europe. The fifteen years following the Allied Victory of World War II were marked by a massive movement of migrants from East to West Germany, as East Germans became increasingly dissatisfied with the lack of economic opportunity in the Soviet-controlled Eastern Bloc. Realizing the potential of losing its human capital, Soviet and East German officials decided to build a barrier separating East and West Germany, as well as East and West Berlin.


The Berlin Wall was essentially two walls with a “death strip” in-between. This barrier strip had guard towers, searchlights, and electric fences threatening anyone that attempted to cross the border. While the East Wall was heavily guarded and would remain untouched throughout the Cold War, by the mid-1980s West German artists began to decorate the West Wall. The art on the Berlin Wall was often characterized by subversive symbolism that critiqued the wall and what it stood for.


Art On The Berlin Wall: The Beginning 

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The Berlin Wall during the early Cold War photographed by Paul Schutzer, via Life Magazine; with The Berlin Wall in 1989 photographed by Andree Kaiser, via The Guardian


The Berlin Wall’s role as a public art piece began in the mid-1970s when the wall was upgraded to a taller, smoother surface that was a perfect canvas for street art. Artists began coating the wall with political slogans, jokes, and art pieces throughout the mid to late 1980s as an underground urban street art scene began to grow throughout Berlin’s population. 


What was once considered the “wall of shame” by West Berliners increasingly became an artistic public display of the sentiments and ideas of the city’s population. Many visitors of the city would leave their own marks on the wall, making the Berlin Wall art a diverse display of different languages and cultural ideas from around the world. 


Methods Of Art On The Berlin Wall

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Graffiti on the Berlin Wall, via Deutsche Welle

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Artists of the West Wall often had to be quick when painting upon the wall. They usually brought only a few different colors to paint with and worked swiftly to avoid being caught by East German authorities. Though West German police usually turned a blind eye to wall artists, the wall was considered a part of East German territory and was continuously patrolled by East German authorities looking for escapees and people vandalizing the wall.


The necessity to paint undetected would lead to graffiti being used extensively across the West Side Wall. This new art form was largely brought over by American artists who were a part of the burgeoning street art scene in New York City during the 1960s and 70s. This method would prove as the primary means of painting the wall for many artists as it was a quicker, more discrete method of covering the wall without being caught. 


This graffiti-craze would continue amongst Berlin artists following the collapse of the wall, as a massive street art scene enveloped Berlin throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. There would also be an increase of large murals and other urban art projects that characterize the city today, continuing the legacy of the art on the Berlin Wall. 


The Symbolism Of Art On The Berlin Wall

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No Europe Without Berlin, 1988, via The Local


Artists often made their artwork symbolic of the wall they were painting on. The art on the Berlin Wall was a form of rebellion against the repression and division the wall brought to the everyday lives of Berliners. It was a way for artists to express their contempt for the wall and its meaning by transforming the drab stone wall into an artistic display of expression and rebellion. It gave the city’s artists the ability to have a semblance of control in a situation they seemingly had no control over. 


By the late 1980s, the two walls represented the enormous contrast between life in West and East Germany. While the East Wall remained blank, gray, and empty throughout its entire duration, the West Wall slowly became a miles-long canvas, capturing the freedom of expression that West Berliners possessed in their daily lives. By 1989 the walls had become much more than just barriers, they became contrasting products of two opposing systems of governance, culture, and artistic expression.


Thierry Noir: The Pioneer Of Berlin Wall Art

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A 1984 homage to artist Marcel Duchamp, via The Guardian; with Thierry Noir standing in front of a wall mural of his iconic cartoon heads, via Cultura Colectiva


Thierry Noir is a French artist who is often credited as the leading pioneer of art on the Berlin Wall. After dropping out of university and being fired from a string of jobs, he moved to Berlin in search of an artistic outlet. Starting in 1984, Noir made painting the wall a nearly daily ritual. His artwork was characterized by cartoon-like paintings made from a minimal pallet of colors, done in quick painting sessions in order to evade East German authorities. By 1990 Thierry had painted more than 5 kilometers of art on the Berlin Wall.


Many of his paintings are often considered today as the iconic style of Berlin Wall art. His artwork has been seen on numerous forms of media beyond the wall, from art galleries around the world to the cover of the band U2’s 1991 album, “Achtung Baby.”


Art On The West Side Wall

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Berlin Wall mural by Keith Haring, 1986, via Zach Neven; with Ron English and his mural, 1988, via Ron English’s Popaganda


In 1986, American artist Keith Haring was invited by the Checkpoint Charlie Museum to contribute to the growing scene of Berlin Wall art. Haring painted figures that were interlaced together with the colors of the German flag, representing the division of the German population. Unfortunately, the mural was painted over within days by other artists whose motives remain a mystery. This portion of the wall would become a focal point for Berlin Wall art for the rest of its duration.


Painting on the same stretch of the wall as Haring had two years prior, artist Ron English painted an expansive mural on the wall in 1988. Using nearby East German dissidents as lookouts, he was able to complete the mural in a week and a half.



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West Berliners leaving their mark on the wall photographed by Tamás Urbán, via Timeline


Aside from the examples of focused mural projects, much of the wall looked like the photos above. The art on the Berlin Wall became a collage of diverse ideas and artistic expression from people of all backgrounds and technical ability.


The East Side Gallery

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World’s People by Shimal Gimayev, 1990, East Side Gallery, via Pinterest


After the wall was torn down in 1989, artists David Monty and Heike Stephan met with GDR (German Democratic Republic) officials to discuss creating an art piece out of the Eastern Wall. It was agreed that the Mühlenstrasse section of the wall would be kept up as a public art exhibit. Artists were invited to create art pieces on the wall, with many still being on display today. This artwork was largely centered around the freedom and liberation that East Germans felt after the demolition of the wall. By the end of 1990, over 100 artists from around the world had created artwork on the East Wall. 


The East Side Gallery is the prominent modern exhibition of the Berlin Wall today, located on the Spree River in what was once East Berlin. The 1.3-kilometer-long gallery is one of the world’s largest open-air art galleries and one of the premier tourist attractions of Berlin. 


Art Of The East Side Gallery

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My God, Help Me to Survive this Deadly Love by Dmitri Vrubel, 1990, East Side Gallery, via NPR


My God, Help Me to Survive this Deadly Love was painted by Russian artist Dmitri Vrubel in 1990. It depicts a socialist fraternal kiss between Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev and East German President Erich Honecker in 1979.


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Test the Rest by Birgit Kinder, 2006, East Side Gallery, via Martin Bay Photography


Test the Rest was painted by Birgit Kinder. This painting depicts a Trabant, the most popular automobile of East Germany, breaking through the East Side Wall. This painting was repainted by Kinder in 2006.


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It’s Happened in November by Kani Alavi, 1990, East Side Gallery, Berlin


It’s Happened in November was painted by Kani Alavi in 1990, depicting the faces of East Germans that flooded to the west after the wall’s collapse. This painting was inspired by the range of emotions Alivi saw on the faces of East Germans while he was watching the demolition of the wall from his Berlin apartment. 


The City’s Street Art Scene

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Modern Berlin public art, via Europe Up Close


The art on the Berlin Wall inspired a wave of street art both during the Berlin Wall’s duration and during its aftermath. Berlin is known today as one of the street art capitals in the world, with expansive murals painted on numerous walls throughout the city. 


Many of the artists of the Berlin Wall like Thierry Noir inspired an abstract, minimalist style of art that was based on speed and deliberate lack of detail. Many consider the techniques used to create the art on the Berlin Wall an integral part of many of the city’s signature street art styles today. 


Art On The Berlin Wall: An International Legacy

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A piece of the Berlin Wall on display in the United Nations Sculpture Garden, via Michelle Young and Untapped New York


As the West Wall was torn down, the chunks of art were auctioned off to people and institutions who wanted to own a piece of Cold War history. There are today hundreds of the wall’s remnants on display around the world. 


Three pieces are on display in the garden of the United Nations’ headquarters in New York City. There is also a slab of the wall outside of the European Commission’s headquarters in Brussels. The Berlin Wall art being placed in such highly esteemed locations illustrates how important and iconic the wall is as a symbol of the 20th century and the Cold War period. 


The Berlin Wall art lives on today in museums, universities, galleries, parks, and other locations around the world. While the wall may have toppled down over 30 years ago, the international reverence for the Berlin Wall artists today shows the tremendous power of their art, as it managed to outlast the Soviet Union, the Cold War, and ultimately the wall itself. 

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By Daniel GritherBA Art HistoryDaniel is a contributing writer based in North Carolina. He received his bachelor’s degree in history from Western Carolina University and is particularly interested in 20th century geopolitical, environmental, and military history. Along with writing, he enjoys mountain biking, music, and hiking.