Thierry Noir, The Artist Who First Used The Berlin Wall As His Canvas To Defy Repression

For decades, the Berlin Wall was a symbol of repression and control. For artist Thierry Noir, it was the perfect canvas to ridicule the regime.

When we talk about the Cold War, there's always talk about the space race and the constant nuclear threat, among other things, but perhaps the best physical representation of that world divided by cultural, political, and economic differences was the Berlin Wall. Along its almost one hundred miles dividing East from West Germany, the wall didn’t only become a symbol of repression and separation, but also the breaking up of families, realities, and lives. At the same time, from the time of its construction in 1961 to its fall in 1989, thousands and thousands of people wished for nothing else but to topple the regime. Many attempted to cross it in the hopes of a better and freer life. Some accomplished it, while others lost their lives in the attempt, but what is true is that the wall would have to come down at some point.

One of the first people who chose to deface that symbol of suppression and control was French artist Thierry Noir, who, inspired by Lou Reed’s song “Berlin,” decided to move to a house in West Berlin that faced the mighty wall. As he recalls, it was the early 1980s, and back then, everybody claimed they were artists. So, he decided he wanted to be one too. Along with some friends, he started collecting wood and fabric from garbage disposals and the streets, and the few paints he could find at construction projects. He had the materials and the will, but he needed a meaningful idea or at least a concept he could explore. 

He had already seen some doodles painted at some points of the wall, but nothing really memorable or with something to say. So, the wall became his canvas and his chance to challenge communist repression with what would become his classic signature: cartoonish graffiti that clashed with everything that the wall represented. He saw that most Germans on the Western side of the wall did all they could in their everyday life to ignore that gray and long wall, so he wanted his work give another image of the wall, more of a reminder that it wasn’t going to prevail forever. So, over the course of five years, he got to express his concept over five kilometers of the wall.

Without a steady income to pay for materials, he ended up using anything he had to create his art, becoming not only one of the first to do so, but also the one who gave others the idea to ridicule both sides of the wall. Many even claim that he’s one of the forerunners of social street art. What's interesting about his work is that he never thought of it as a real artistic expression. His work on the wall wasn’t for people to see it as public art, but as a comment on what was going on at the time. As he explained, he “could not make the wall beautiful because, in fact, it would have been absolutely impossible to do so.”

In those five years, he would paint something every single day, risking his life while doing so. Since what he was doing was illegal, he had to come up with quick ideas and techniques that would give him the chance to portray a whole idea in a very short amount of time before he got caught or even shot. This was what inspired him to develop his "Fast Form Manifest." It consists of visual techniques and styles that wouldn’t require many colors nor complex lines that would take him a lot of time. For that reason, most of his work on the wall was simple cartoonish designs with no more than four colors. This style would become his signature over the years, and also perfect for many street artists creating in dangerous places around the world.

As the GDR came to an end, many people started creating big holes along the wall to escape to the other side. For Noir, this became an opportunity to bring his work literally to the other side of the wall. He would go through these holes, start intervening on that side of the wall and run away as fast as he could. As he recalls, in the late eighties, guards were no longer allowed to shoot people near the wall, but still, he was risking detention on that side, something he wasn’t willing to allow. He would do some quick designs, and as soon as he heard the guards, he would run away to the safety of the Western side. This was when his "Fast Form Manifest" really took shape.

He’s constantly asked if he was sad or angry to see his work destroyed when the Wall fell in 1989, to which he’s always answered there's no way he could feel that way. The purpose of his work over the years was precisely to show people that this wasn’t permanent and that eventually, either by symbolic ridiculing or a political defeat, everything it represented would be over. As soon as the wall was destroyed, he just found other canvases and means to continue working in that style that represented him and his ideas.


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