Its destruction, nearly three decades ago, sent waves of joy across the globe. And yet, tourists of all nationalities still come to photograph its remains. The object of this paradox is none other than the Berlin Wall, the historic Cold War symbol that became an artistic symbol, even after its fall on November 9, 1989.
Because of its size, duration and what it represented, the structure attracted many artists versed in graffiti and mural painting. Today, it has evolved to become an open-air museum. This, after all, was the wall that was supposed to end all walls. Little wonder that it inspired so many graffiti artists across the world, some of them from places with their own concrete barriers in place.
Frescos and graffiti are, in fact, a frequent response to walls of separation, be they signed by anonymous or well-known names. And, like it or not, there are more than enough walls for art of this kind to blossom. In 2016, the French radio station France Culture listed 65 such walls built around the world. Here are a few examples, starting, of course in Berlin.
The Berlin Wall
The history of the artwork on the Berlin Wall is divided into two phases. From 1961 to 1989, tags flourished on the west side of the wall — the only accessible side — left by whoever was able to foil surveillance. Many of these were messages of peace or anger. The concrete, in that sense, offered a way for people to blow off steam.
This type of muralist expressionism is linked to the very concept of a border, as materialised by the concrete wall. “Whether it’s graffiti by anonymous people or works of art by famous artists, there is a desire to deny the border, to blur it with artwork that goes beyond the wall,” argues Stephanie Lemoine, a journalist and author of several books about urban art. “This allows for the circulation of ideas, of words. It is means of protest, a way of saying: ‘This wall doesn’t stop anything.’”
The second phase began after the fall, when artists were quick to cover the east side of the wall. It was then that the most emblematic artworks were created — pieces that, after undergoing several restorations, can still be seen in the German capital today.
Belfast’s Peace Walls
Built from 1969 on, the “Peace Wall” or “Peace Lines” of Belfast separate the Catholic and Protestant sections of the capital of Northern Ireland. About 100 portions can be found around town today.
The city has always had a historic relationship with graffiti artists, who created politically charged murals, conveying the long-running divide between unionists and nationalists. This tradition still lives on in recent works that continue to display political messages linked to the conflict.
“Border walls are places with strong symbolic value,” says Oliver Landes, author of “Street art Contexte(s)” and artistic director of the Art en Ville association. “Border walls hint at a whole political context,” he adds. “Artists intervene by reacting to current affairs, by making them visible through the works of art they put on the wall.”
The West Bank Wall
Arguably the best known border wall still standing, the physical dividing line between Israel and the West Bank owes its fame, to a certain extent, to street artist Banksy. From the early 2000s on, the mysterious, England-based artist stenciled his works on the wall many times.
For Banksy himself, quoted by the BBC in 2005 with his usual sarcasm, the wall between Israel and Palestine is “the ultimate activity holiday destination for graffiti writers.”
Language choice is an important element in the graffiti found there. Local artists are more likely to write in Arabic, in order to address the local population. English words or phrases are used to address a more international audience.
The Mexico/US border
JR, the French artist known for his monumental photographic installations, chose this specific location for his latest work: an optical illusion representing the face of David Enrique or “Kikito,” a 1-year-old child born in the border town of Tecate, in northern Mexico. Unable to install the work directly onto the wall, he created an optical illusion with the help of the inhabitants of Tijuana, another nearby border town.
He is one of numerous artists — sometimes with the participation of the local population — to create artwork along the US/Mexico border, which has drawn increased attention in recent years due to calls by US President Donald Trump to physically reinforce it.
The streets of Cairo
Though it is not a border wall, strictly speaking, the streets of Cairo during the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt were yet another example of the artistic reflex generated by the construction of a physical separation.
Near Tahrir Square, in 2012, Egyptian authorities raised several walls around the city to block demonstrations. Activists and artists responded by using the barriers as canvases.
“Certain artists used optical illusions to covey a broken or chipped wall, or even a window in the concrete. It was like a tentative kind of destruction, metaphorical but destruction nonetheless,” says Clemence Lehec, a researcher on street art.
The Instagram effect
With changes in technology, the boundaries of border-wall art are expanding. No longer limited just to local populations or visitors, the artwork can now be shared on social media and thus live on through space and time.
“The internet was a game changer,” says Lemoine. “Walls, used as an art medium, now allow for the diffusion of opinions and ideas to many more people.”
Mexican artist Enrique Chiu, for example, regularly posts photos and videos on his Instagram account of artworks created at the border between Mexico and the United States, in order to increase their visibility.
Social media sharing is also a way to highlight the clever ways artists adapt their works to the wall in question — to the setting, in other words. “It’s what makes the brilliance of artists stand out,” says Landes. “The contextualisation of these artworks reveals a certain kind of genius. Urban artists are those who take into consideration the context before having a work in mind. It’s the place that creates the work of art.”