In August 1961, the first pieces of barbed wire were added to the Berlin Wall, which served as a physical barrier between Soviet controlled East Berlin and West Berlin of the Allies until 1989. Trapped on the eastern side, one would see a barren wall without human interaction due to the fact that individuals in East Berlin faced imprisonment if they were caught even attempting to mark the wall (Tzortiz) . Conversely, the western side was covered inch by inch with colors, images, words, and overall life and zest. The two sides of the walls could not have more starkly contrasted each other. To graffiti artists of West Berlin, the wall was their Mecca—the ultimate, unobstructed canvas in which they could freely express themselves to an audience of the entire public. Moreover, there was no better medium to express political ideology that the physical representation of grimness, oppression, and a harsh geopolitical reality. Graffiti may have associations with criminal activity and vandalism, but the political context of the Berlin Wall’s art suggests the possibility of political activism through graffiti (Schmemann).
In East Berlin, the Wall represented an obvious obstruction of basic human freedom, but its Western-facing side became a broadly recognized medium for political activism in the form of graffiti during the 1970s until the fall of the fall of the Wall. The final stage of the Wall’s construction led to the wall being regarded as a “white canvas” that encouraged artistic proliferation and political expression. Moreover, one of the most critical elements of graffiti as a form of art and activism is its purpose as a form of mass communication. By using a public space exposed to an entire community, the art can be used to reach an extensively wide and even global audience.
In looking at certain pieces of graffiti, the political aspect of the art is often openly apparent. Nevertheless, the overall existence of graffiti throughout the entire western-side of the wall serves another political component—the citizens of West Berlin may not have been able to make the wall disappear, but by covering its surface they could demonstrate to the government that they did not approve of its existence. The art and graffiti on the wall draws attention to and highlights the absurdity of the wall’s existence, and encourages a global audience to stop ignoring the disturbing reality of the wall’s presence as a physical and political barrier. Often called protest art, this theory of using art to reject or challenge a political idea, policy, person, or entity suggests the ability of replacing violent protest with activist art. Within the realm of civil disobedience, art such as the Berlin wall has the power to draw attention to, reach, and educate an audience on a horrifying reality that most people may otherwise strive to ignore. Yet, ignorance can be seen as acceptance, and the graffiti artists refused to accept the political situation that they had the influence to challenge through the aesthetic. “The Wall provided a compass that seemed to define the directions and tensions of the cold war,” but political expression through graffiti represented a statement in the rejection and disapproval of the oppressive regimes world-wide (Rothstein).
As in the case of both the PPU and the ACT UP movement of the 1980s, the politicaly active art of the Berlin Wall informed and ignited a mass audience on political issues. These various forms of art served as the connection to an audience that may not have been politically aware or active. Additionally, they allowed for communication and a political medium when others may have been restricted or absent. “Contestation of power in public places really matters. If repressive regimes cannot control public space, they are shown to possess neither efficacy nor legitimacy” (Roberts, Ash, 274). As a society, and also individuals who identify as artists, from these examples we can learn about and appreciate the power of art in educating people who would have otherwise been uninformed. Within the tradition of nonviolence, art replaces violence as a medium of expressing political ideas and promoting social change.
1. Rothstein, Edward. “There Once was a Wall of Shame.” NY Times. April 22, 2009.
2. Tzortis, Andreas. “Bombing Berlin, the Graffiti Capital of Europe.” NY Times.
3. Roberts, Adam, and Timothy Ash. Civil resistance and power politics: the experience of non-violent action from Gandhi to the present. Oxford England: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
4. Schmemann, Serge. Berlin Journal; In Search of a Work of Art to Overcome the Wall. NY Times. November 13, 1987.