Berlin Wall Photo Essay

Checkpoint Charlie

It was a unique experience to live in West Berlin in the 1980s surrounded by a wall and in the middle of the GDR. West-Berlin had a special status, because its administration was formally conducted by the Western Allies and there was of course a strong military presence.  There was a also strong cultural scene in the city. West Berlin was the centre of the New Wave movement and everybody I met when I came from France in January 1982 seemed to be an artist.  A little like when I came to Shoreditch, East London in 2013. It was also intriguing to see the American GI’s with a big ghetto blaster on their shoulders, listening to Grand Master Flash or Sugar Hill Gang near the US military bases.

Grepos

Here you can see a patrol of the Grepos (Grenzpolizei/Border Police) of the GDR on the Death Strip between the two walls, the border of East and West Berlin. I took this photo my window in the squat where I lived for 20 years (1982-2002).  Nothing really happened at the Berlin Wall. There were no cars, no shops and no noises. I never saw any “actions” with the Grepos. It was a big long routine: Every day, 3 times a day, the two Grepos who were inside the watch tower on the Death Strip were changed and that was one of three highlights of the day. I never saw any soldiers shooting at somebody during the time I used to live in the house.  The squat where I lived was called the Georg von Rauch-Haus, the former Hospital Bethanien on Mariannenplatz in Berlin-Kreuzberg. The Georg von Rauch-Haus was the first squat in West-Berlin to be legalised in 1978. It was a former hospital with long corridors and left and right a lot of doors with small rooms of 4.5 metres by 3 metres. . Almost every person who had a room here had a small room with electricity but no water. We had 7 bathrooms in the house.

Elephant Key

This elephant was one of the earliest paintings that I made on the Berlin Wall. I began to paint outside because I wanted to say that it is good to put art in the streets and not solely in museums and galleries. At the time my influences were taken from many directions. By the Painters: Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Fernand Leger, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Gaston Chaissac, Jean Dubuffet, Alberto Giacometti, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring. By the musicians: David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Kraftwerk, Led Zeppelin and Nina Hagen.  This painting represented for me the key to success – heavy work every day. If you wait at home for inspiration, you can wait very long.

Fast Form Manifest

My early paintings on the Wall were very different to my later style. I changed my style slowly out of necessity because each day I was faced with hundreds of questions from people coming up to me. I started to realise that I was speaking to people for more time than I was actually painting. I adapted my style to be quicker.  It became what I called The Fast Form Manifest.  The Fast Form Manifest is a good recipe for people who have to paint fast in dangerous environments and with people constantly interrupting them.  You need two ideas and three colours.  You mix them all up and the painting is finished. It was a way for me to show people that this mythical wall was not built for ever and could be changed.

Dinos

This is me painting in 1985 the Wall along Waldemarstrasse in Berlin-Kreuzberg.  I was painting these dinosaurs to represent a sort of mutation of nature because of the Berlin wall and the wall painting I created were like a mutation of the culture. Where else to find kilometres of painted concrete wall in Europe other than in West Berlin? I used to paint the Berlin Wall every day. That was how all the ideas came to me: not down from the sky, not from the head to the hand but from the hand to the head. From the beginning, with Christophe Bouchet, we used to collect left over paint and materials from the the renovation of the houses in Kreuzberg, for the 750th Anniversary of Berlin in 1987.  We made do with whatever we could find on the streets as we had no money to buy materials.

Tortoise & Hare

This is a collaboration with  Christophe Bouchet at Potsdamerplatz. It is a remake of the fable “The Tortoise and the Hare”. In our version the hare wins in the end.  Bouchet’s piece was entitled ‘Homage to La Fontaine’ after La Fontaine, the most famous French fabulist of the 17th Century.  My work was entitled ‘Red Dope on Rabbits’.  We painted the works in one day on August the 13th of 1985, for the 24th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961. I met Christophe Bouchet in Berlin in 1982. He used to paint on the main Avenue of West-Berlin (Kurfürstendamm). At the end of 1982 he moved into my squat. From that point on we started to work together on the Wall as friends and collaborators.

Portrait

This photo was taken in 1986 along Bethaniendamm in Berlin-Kreuzberg.  It was taken by my first wife Gabi Noir.  I was wearing a suit that day that I had found in a bag of old clothes on the street.  At that time West Berliners often left furnishings and clothes on the streets.  It was a recycling process.  During this period I would paint the Wall all day and then travel to the centre of West Berlin to sell canvases in restaurants.  That is how I survived back then.

Metal Door

On May 16th, 1984, myself and Christophe Bouchet planned to fix a metal door on the wall with screws. We had found an old cellar door, abandoned not far from the wall. A team of the West Berlin Television (SFB) were there around 5.30 AM in order to conclude a report about the Berlin nights and film the two artists at daybreak as they were fixing their door to paradise.  An electric drilling machine was in action, piercing four holes into the concrete which alerted the border guards.  Suddenly, over the top of the wall one could see the head of a GDR soldier looking across. Straight away the TV team decided to stop shooting and ran away.  Then four soldiers using an iron ladder climbed over the wall to inspect the “damages”.  Two of them carried machine-guns which they pointed at us while a third, the chief, gave orders to a fourth. A government photographer was also there, taking pictures of us and the paintings and objects that had been fixed on to the Wall.

Fast Form Manifest

My early paintings on the Wall were very different to my later style. I changed my style slowly out of necessity because each day I was faced with hundreds of questions from people coming up to me. I started to realise that I was speaking to people for more time than I was actually painting. I adapted my style to be quicker.  It became what I called The Fast Form Manifest.  The Fast Form Manifest is a good recipe for people who have to paint fast in dangerous environments and with people constantly interrupting them.  You need two ideas and three colours.  You mix them all up and the painting is finished. It was a way for me to show people that this mythical wall was not built for ever and could be changed.

Dinos

This is me painting in 1985 the Wall along Waldemarstrasse in Berlin-Kreuzberg.  I was painting these dinosaurs to represent a sort of mutation of nature because of the Berlin wall and the wall painting I created were like a mutation of the culture. Where else to find kilometres of painted concrete wall in Europe other than in West Berlin? I used to paint the Berlin Wall every day. That was how all the ideas came to me: not down from the sky, not from the head to the hand but from the hand to the head. From the beginning, with Christophe Bouchet, we used to collect left over paint and materials from the the renovation of the houses in Kreuzberg, for the 750th Anniversary of Berlin in 1987.  We made do with whatever we could find on the streets as we had no money to buy materials.

Tortoise and the Hare

This is a collaboration with  Christophe Bouchet at Potsdamerplatz. It is a remake of the fable “The Tortoise and the Hare”. In our version the hare wins in the end.  Bouchet’s piece was entitled ‘Homage to La Fontaine’ after La Fontaine, the most famous French fabulist of the 17th Century.  My work was entitled ‘Red Dope on Rabbits’.  We painted the works in one day on August the 13th of 1985, for the 24th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961. I met Christophe Bouchet in Berlin in 1982. He used to paint on the main Avenue of West-Berlin (Kurfürstendamm). At the end of 1982 he moved into my squat. From that point on we started to work together on the Wall as friends and collaborators.

Portrait

This photo was taken in 1986 along Bethaniendamm in Berlin-Kreuzberg.  It was taken by my first wife Gabi Noir.  I was wearing a suit that day that I had found in a bag of old clothes on the street.  At that time West Berliners often left furnishings and clothes on the streets.  It was a recycling process.  During this period I would paint the Wall all day and then travel to the centre of West Berlin to sell canvases in restaurants.  That is how I survived back then.

Door To Freedom

On May 16th, 1984, myself and Christophe Bouchet planned to fix a metal door on the wall with screws. We had found an old cellar door, abandoned not far from the wall. A team of the West Berlin Television (SFB) were there around 5.30 AM in order to conclude a report about the Berlin nights and film the two artists at daybreak as they were fixing their door to paradise.  An electric drilling machine was in action, piercing four holes into the concrete which alerted the border guards.  Suddenly, over the top of the wall one could see the head of a GDR soldier looking across. Straight away the TV team decided to stop shooting and ran away.  Then four soldiers using an iron ladder climbed over the wall to inspect the “damages”.  Two of them carried machine-guns which they pointed at us while a third, the chief, gave orders to a fourth. A government photographer was also there, taking pictures of us and the paintings and objects that had been fixed on to the Wall.

Homage To Duchamp

This piece was a homage to Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 New York exhibition and the enormous scandal provoked by him in exhibiting a urinal. I put this piece up in April 1984, shortly after starting to paint the Wall. A few days later I also displayed a hand basin.

Wim Wenders Wall Pieces

This photo was taken in 1986 along the Waldemarstrasse in Kreurzberg. It shows my paintings and the paintings of Kiddy Citny.  There were featured in the Wim Wenders film The Wings of Desire. Wim Wenders came back to Germany in 1985 after his success with the 1984 ‘Paris, Texas’.  Wenders wanted to make a film in Berlin about angels. I met wit him every two or three days in a nearby restaurant called Meeting Points Restaurant where I used to sell small paintings. Wenders was a patron there.  In the beginning of 1987 he decided to start the shoot of “The Wings of Desire” and this part of the Wall along the Waldemarstrasse in Berlin Kreuzberg was an important location for the film. In the film you can see my works and me painting the Wall on a ladder. If you pause the film at this point you will see that part of the wall in front of me. These 5 sections of the wall are now in a private courtyard at 520 Madison Avenue in NYC and the ladder I was using  is in the permanent collection of the Wende Museum in the USA. What a destiny!

Bruno Ganz

Here is a famous scene from Wings of Desire in which Bruno Ganz, an Angel sees colour for the first time.  On the day of filming, 17th February 1987, it was minus 13 degress.  The scene, which I was also in, was repeated eight times until the director Wim Wenders was satisfied with it. Bruno Ganz would always be in the caravan waiting for the next take. A couple of day before I had painted all the big heads you can see behind in the film. It was just too cold to stop so I would paint for hours each day without a break.

Protest

This was a protest against the Population Census Boycott. Most of the citizens of Kreuzberg were against the population census of 1985 and the repetition of the heads makes the message stronger. That is why the person painted it there in the middle of my painting.  I was very upset when I saw that in 30 seconds one stupid guy put his name just in the middle of the painting I made in three hours. Then I thought. What shall I do? Shall I sleep in front of the wall? Shall I call the police? In the end  I just decided to repair the painting as quick as it was destroyed and this is what I continued to do.

Clean Up

This image was taken in 1986 at Bethaniendamm in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Here we can see a “GDR Pioneer” cleaning squad clearing away waste from West Berlin. In those days it was popular to throw everything over the wall: empty bottles, refuse bins and diapers!  For some it was a political act and people would scream at the same time “Scheiss DDR (fuck the GDR”).  I myself never threw anything over the Wall. It was not my style. Often soldiers would come over the Wall with a megaphone to tell me to stop painting and to step back inside West Berlin.  I  would do so without any comments. The wall was not the actual border but set 5 metres within the real East-West line. By painting the wall I was officially in East Berlin and the soldiers would often try to catch me.

Work Brothers

This painting is called “The Gebrüder Arbeit (The Work Brothers)”.  It is a homage to the hard toil of painting the Berlin Wall every day. I created this work as a way of answering the questions of passers-by.  Unbelievably, people would sometimes think that I was a spy from France in the employ of the Berlin authorities to make to wall beautiful.  I would tell people that I was not trying to make the Wall beautiful because in fact that was absolutely impossible. 136 persons were killed trying to get across into West Berlin. No matter how many kilograms of paint that I covered the wall with, that fact remains the same.

Statues Of Liberty

It was the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty in N.Y.C. 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 4th of July, we put up 42 Statues of Liberty on the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie.  It was well guarded and dangerous to paint here.  We did not have enough money for more spray paint to finish the entire project and paint more the next day.  As David Bowie said in his 1982 song Heroes: ”You can be heroes, just for one day”.

Keith Haring

On 23rd October 3rd 1986, three months after I had painted the Statues of Liberty, I heard on the radio that Keith Haring was in Berlin to paint the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie. I went there and I saw that my statues were all gone, painted over by a huge amount of yellow paint. I talked with Keith about this and he was embarrassed and apologised to me. He said that: “in New York you can get killed for that”.  He was invited over for just a couple of days and the section of Wall had been preprepared for him with a yellow base that went over the Statues that I had painted.  The yellow colour was very transparent so it was possible to see my Statues through it. I was angry but it was not his fault.  Keith was a great guy and a great artist.

Painting in the Death Strip

Here I am painting on the other side of the Berlin Wall in the Death Strip. The photo was taken by the Associated Press photographer, Hans-Jörg Krauss, who was a war photographer.  It was taken while the Wall was falling down and people had hammered heavily on the wall, making holes in it. These holes were so big in some spots such as near to Checkpoint Charlie or the Reichstag, that it was possible to pass through the holes and paint the other side of the wall. It was great to paint this side after so many years of fear and harassment by the border guards even worse, in Christophe Bouchet’s case, arrest.
The border guards were, at that time no longer allowed to shoot people.  However, while I was painting on the back side of the Wall they would scream at me: “hey you there I see you, stop that immediately.”  I continued to paint as long as It was possible, and at the last moment I jumped back to West Berlin. It was not revenge, but it was just time to show those soldiers that one era had finished.  With only a spray can or two, I would play cat and mouse for hours with the soldiers. To paint a lot of big heads, one after the other, very quick.  I would always jump back through the hole into West Berlin territory before they could reach me.

The Berlin Wall Fallen

This is a so called Wall Graveyard in 1990 in Berlin Kreuzberg. A pile of blocks from the remnants of the Berlin Wall. These were put into special machines which ground them down and separated the metal bars and the concrete in order to reduce it all down to tons of granulates, perfect to build new roads in the former GDR.