Graffiti and other art
at, with, about, next to the
Berlin Wall

Johannes Stahl
Based on a lecture given 13.8.09 for Goethe-Institut Stockholm
Photos (if not mentioned otherwise) (c) Johannes Stahl
Go to German version

Borders have precise functions: they should show where one area stops and the other begins. They can control the exchange between two areas. From the originator's point of view the border should protect the good (which mainly is the own) against the bad (which normally is the other's). Last not least walls often have the task to protect against insights. Pictures on walls may have the opposite function. There are few cases where this can be seen as clearly as in the case of the Berlin wall. This wall had to do with Germany in different ways including some cultural items: a typical case for the Goethe-Institut.
Berliner Mauer, Ostansicht 84
Brandenburger Tor, as presented in an official GDR tourist guide, about 1984.
A tricky photographers standpoint makes the wall nearly unseen

In 1985 the City of west-Berlin used the twilightical monument officially for self representation. Citation from a tourist expo in Marburg, Western Germany, breathing cold war in 1984:
"The bald plains are spaces for artists and litterers,for slogans pro and contra, for predictions and nonsense. Bold roughness against tristesse. The colourful scribblings sharply accentuate the sterile, cold-heartedly planned concrete which searches the perfection for the line in the sand. Behind the colourful liveliness lies the death belt."1

As early as 1964 Joseph Beuys had forced an artistic overcoming of the wall suggesting „Elevation of the Berlin wall by 5 cm (better proportion!)“ This is to be found as a notice for the ministry of inner affairs of the GDR. In explaining this strange-seeming suggestion, he stated: „This is a picture and should be looked at like a picture.” In two so called "questanswers" he explained that his item was not the real wall but the inner wall. „Looking at the Berlin wall from a point of view which only takes regards of the proportion should at least be allowed. It unloads the wall at once. By inner smile. Extincts the wall. You don't get fixed at the real wall. It is being directed to this wall in spirit and to overcome this is but the main point. (...) If I come to Berlin, after 5 minutes someone urges me „Have You been to the wall?“ Yes, I know this wall by inner experience. I know for certain what it is, this wall. (...)“2 Beuys' statement leads us in several directions: the wall as a parable for visibility, the question of art, the political question of Germany and, with a certain stress, the questions of ourselves.

The so-called german question

Modell Deutschland, 1983
Modell Deutschland, 1983.

In 1983 this special statement could be found. It pronounces the rubbish, construction waste and extinct fire in front of the wall with an arrow and crowned this scenery with the label "MODELL DEUTSCHLAND". Asides that it was a parody citation of an election slogan in 1980, it seems to give a clear view of what is called officially „state of the nation“. Question is if one always can see the state of the nation at the way how it treats its borders (or its walls). In 1983, west Berlin officials began to rediscover the potential of this inner-city ground; same paradigmatic architecture models were put up and the situation was designed a little cleaner.
In January 1990 the wall became transparent.

Pictures: objects You can see
This leads us to the second question: visibility. Of course many pictures landed on the wall. What they tried to make transparent are very different purposes. It was a notable fact how many graffiti made the Berlin wall and the situation to their own item. Asides statements like "this is the Berlin wall" some Graffiti focus on situations, where the state border wall was confronted to a church wall next to it. Here you would find the sentence: "This is a wall too".

Geld gegenüber Mauer, 1985
Geld, 1987

Even more laconic the statement "Geld" at a factory wall. It turns the small way between the two walls into a tension space: at one side the "anti fascist protection wall", at the other side a wall protecting "capitalist" property. It might be worth citing the juristic sentence to Harald Naegeli, in these days definitely the most prominent European spraycan artist from 1981: Harald Naegeli has – for years and with special sharpness, consequence and regardlessness - managed to make the Zurich inhabitants insecure and to shatter their faith in the invulnerability of property which is based in our law." 3

Politics: Cold War
Other projections on the wall show it as prison wall (we have to remember we are in the cold war and asides art propaganda was a daily procedure).It is not only open, if GDR or Westberlin were prisons but which were the inner prison walls.
Gleichungen 1983
Ansichten, 1983

One possibility is the equation GRD=concentration camp / FRG=House for the Insane.
Even if it is a typical cold war confrontation, it is a system reflection at least. Prisoner clothes show Westberliners their existence. Or does it claim the East to be imprisoned?
Other Graffiti have the item of the killed at the wall. GDR Border soldiers had a command to shot at "Refugees from the republic".

How to overcome

Anarchist, 1983
Anarchist, 1983

Asides this, the wall was seen as a real obstacle in the way, resulting in many, many ways how to overcome it. Naive balloon travels or an anarchist self portrait on a ladder, with stones in his hand, tell the wall “I'll pass You one day”.

Land den Kindern

Some Graffiti constructed life before or after the Mauer or a wide landscape, with the comment: leave the land to the children.

Gegenperspektive, 1987
Counter perspective, 1987

A small Graffito at the Wedding wall deserves a special mention among the mass of graffiti constructing insight. Signed and titled "Das druebensche Berlin", it takes the counter perspective to the normal wall projections and represents Westberlin seen from the eastern Part of the town. The Silhouette of the Western part is given in a technique like a woodcut and in style like many town pictures forming something that was called "Berliner Schule" in the East German academic art world.

Art history ; Art conceptions

Graffiti cultures often offer a multi focus history of art. In the Case of the Berlin wall, there are literal approaches, a slave-like or monk-like transcription word by word. Political tendencies can easily be found in the art competitions of the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie. As Ideologists had erected the wall it always remained object for other ideologists. Michael Nungesser called the wall a “chaotic Gesamtkunstwerk”4
As the wall and its Graffiti are history, even more traditional art historians begin to be occupied with it. They have now a historically locked research field. But there are arguments: Have the objects been treated in a correct way? Did the art aspect and the historical importance have their proper shares? Is what they call research depth adept to the item? And, more methodically: Do our perspectives, our methods need borders themselves – which can be an explosive question specially to this research item?

Mauerkunst = Lebenskunst; Is Wall art equal to the art of living?
There have been quite a lot artists who were occupied with the Berlin wall. Representations by artists like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Oskar Kokoschka, Wolf Vostell, Karl-Heinz Hödicke, Shunkichi Tajiri or Rainer Fetting, this is a wide field. Even though we should focus on graffiti-related phenomenons, it is worth taking a look to a postal card being sent from east to west these days (and no one knows which trouble this might have caused).

picture follows

Christina Pohl: Postcard to the author, march 1986

It shows a barrier of wooden soccer players, known as “Mauer”. In the centre, a then-common eastern stamp is placed, reading: “On the watch for peace and socialism”. The reading between the lines might be even more interesting. Specially in critical circles of GDR, things like this marked a special way of cultural communication.

The berlin Wall / USPs

Away from this art-related statements why we are still occupied with this wall today has to do with the rare state that it was a wall of widely free access and free expression. Of course it created not only aphorisms worth being transferred to our presence, but also many very ephemere notes.

Jonathan Borofsky: Running man, 1982. State in 1983

American artist Jonathan Borofsky painted his "Running Man" 1982 for the art exhibition „Metropolis“ in Martin-Gropius-Bau . With black outlines and white fillings, he occupies four wall segments. A man runs towards the wall and looks around like being fleeing. The wall doesn't offer any coming through; his attempt is damned to fail. Whether you point at the political impact or the private situation: it is a definite tension between the picture and the urbanistic situation it has been placed in. But change is a basic fact to these pictures. In 1983, someone had added a bubble saying “Ick steh uff Berlin”, a then popular New Wave Hit with rather few political impact.

Thierry Noir: Reparatur

We know what was fresh yesterday might have been overpainted or at least changed the next day. Thierry Noir is worth being mentioned in this question: reparing and conserving the state of his things, he could remain one of the more lasting people at the wall.

Peter Unsicker: Working at the rotten, March 1987

A different approach can be seen in Peter Unsicker dealing with this factor. For example, with his plastic use of the wall in “Arbeit am Verdorbenen”, he changed the appearance, giving the process a both artistic and political sense.

Painting Over 

Haring, 1987

1986 the late Keith Haring worked for "Arbeitgemeinschaft 8. August im Haus am Checkpoint Charlie”. His big mural next to it had been announced as a public event. An American military helicopter surveyed this illegal procedure. Haring sprang during his painting several times back, with an notable impact on the journalists, and pronouncing the 3 meters between wall and real GDR state border. HARINGs mural shows a peoples chain made of red and black pictographs. On yellow ground – that had been prepared before and covered Thierry Noir's Miss Libertys it symbolizes an all German fraternization. For "Haus am Checkpoint Charlie" it gave a very popular piece of art that was represented widely since then, with foreseeable effects in the art world and the public views.  
Maybe more relevant are the nearly unknown drawings HARING made at the less frequented Weddinger Mauer, possibly in 1984, when he left similar drawings in Cologne. In a witty way they deal with existing Graffiti, capture them and lead them to totally different meanings. If You consider the partly aggressive behaviour among other Graffiti at the Berlin wall one of its values is that Haring brings a pictural communication to life.

ZEPHYR, 1983
ZEPHYR: Style, 1983

Both sensuel and intellectual is a "Piece" of New Yorker Spraycan artist ZEPHYR at the wall as early as 1984. His word "STYLE" uses a key argument of the New Yorker writers. By putting it in the context of the Berlin wall it widens the inner discussion among writers and it enriches the discussion about the design and the purpose of the Berlin wall. Since 1986 the impact of "Pieces" following New York cults have widened.

Style, 1987
Style, 1987

Even if the Berlin wall seemingly wasn't as attractive as having pieces running on rails somewhere, some rather prominent writers have been enriching the Berlin wall. Even here You come over the key term of New York Spraycan art: Style. But of course this inner nomenclatura was ironized. Even Jenny felt able to be part of the movement.

Jenny, 1985
Jenny, 1983, 1985


Fekner/DAZE 1985
John Fekner / DAZE, 1986

New York artist John Fekner has been occupied more often with the Berlin wall. On occasion of the 1986 exhibition "Stadtsichten" by NGBK Berlin he interpreted the wall as "Beton Puzzle", collaborating with artist and writer DAZE 5
Together with his cologne Collegue Peter Mönnig he constructed a piece of wall next to the Berlin wall. Mönnig contributed flash-like wooden sculptures that spread over the wall whereas Fekners Part was the words "Wall", "Hall" and "A". As "Wallhalla" they refer to nordic myths and the traditions of cultural, political and idealistic loaded Hall of Fames. In writers circles the „Hall of fame” has a different sound.

Berlin Wall: some transfers

The Berlin wall was a perfect mixing place for all sorts of wall uses. This special mixture and the changes one could see every time he came to the wall made it unique – and this divides it from other places where one pictural culture could be dominant.

Style wars
John Borofsky's running man an his surroundings in April 1986.
Maybe “wild style”, following the idea of “Gesamtkunstwerk” could be like that.

As a perspective how to handle the wall an eastern Berlin artist Christina Pohl told me in 1985: If our leaders find out which important artists have been painting on the wall and what the financial value of it is now, they will replace those parts by new ones and sell the painted ones in foreign countries, like the Nazis did with what they called „Entartete Kunst“. 


As we all know, today the situation is different. The wall underwent a change of medial styles, from architectur via painting and (thanks to the “Mauerspechte”) sculpture and finally edition. Now it seems to be missing, at least for the touristic conception of a city which still uses many pictures of it. It is not only a problem to produce new sacred relics. For tourist masses, localizing this extended monument is complicated. Relocating it elsewhere – or at least correcting the traffic-hindering position? Focussing on East Side Gallery? Joseph Beuys knew about some inner walls. In this concern there are remains much higher than the original proportions made You think. Before too much consensual thinking sweetens this evening too much, let me cite a drawing by Markus Vater, representing the wall and some bowed lines over it.
Markus Vater, 2002
Markus Vater, The Problem is not the wall. The problem is the rainbow made of shit. 2003. Oil on Canvas, 100 x 130 cm. From: Markus Vater. Black Mountain. Ausstellungskatalog Museum Baden, Solingen 2007, S. 28.

1 Promotional campaign of Land Berlin (i.e. Western B), Marburger Schloß, Juni 1984.

2 Citation translated, following »Westkunst - Zeitgenössische Kunst seit 1939«, Exhibition Catalogue. ed. by Llaszlo Glozer. Messehallen, Köln 1981, p. 269.

3 Obergericht Zürich vom 19.6.1981. after Thoss, Peter: Muß der Sprayer von Zürich ausgeliefert werden? In: Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Strafrecht 1983, S.215-225. following: Frankfurter Rundschau Nr. 281, 3.12.83, p. 14f.

4 Nungesser, Michael: "Ich sprühe - also bin ich". In: Elementarzeichen Urformen visueller Information. Ausstellungskatalog Neuer Berliner Kunstverein 1985. S.180.

NGBK Berlin.

6 Style Wars (1982) is the title of the legend documentary film by Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant about New Yorker Graffiti.