Berlin’s East Side Gallery: Urban Art & Old Memories

IMG_1808In December 2015, I spent several days in Berlin, Germany. It’s a beautiful city; but December is not its finest month. It was dark and dreary. Still, in a particularly Berlin way, it was also cozy, creative and colorful: bicycles strewn about, Christmas markets in full swing, and plenty of hot wine and cold beer to warm the spirits. Despite the city’s charm, its history feels always present. Berlin (3.5 million) has had a complicated history over the last century. It was a seat of war, a seat of division leading to the erection of the Berlin Wall, and thankfully Berlin was also a seat of reunification. It’s messy complex history has provoked a certain affection for the city. Artists, activists, academics, actors, businessmen and politicians flock to Berlin, as a center of history, power, possibility… Equally it houses spaces to escape city life: cozy corners, artsy boutiques, cafés, and numerous gardens. Much of Berlin is also surrounded by forests. After all, for 30 years (1961-1989), the city was a de facto island.

IMG_1731Berlin is open about its complicated history,  reflecting on its past, while building a more colorful and hopeful future. While much of the Berlin Wall was (understandably) torn down, there are silent reminders throughout the city. Often this is just a small sign on the pavement, or a change in the bricks used on the streets and sidewalks; past reminders of the Wall’s former stance. Some 1.3 kilometers of the wall were purposely left in tact, dedicated as a giant urban art project, known as the East Side Gallery. Artists flocked to the eastern portions of the Wall in 1990 soon after its fall, painting life-size murals, which serve as a capsule of the sentiments of the city at the time. The gallery, now protected, includes 105 different paintings from global and local artists, and is thought to be one of the longest running open air galleries in the world.

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Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker kissing, painted by Dmitri Vrubel. It reads, in Russian, top: “God, help me stay alive.” At bottom, “Among this deadly love.”

 

On a cold winter’s night, I walked with a friend along the East Side Gallery, taking photos of the beautiful pieces from a unique moment in history; all the while remembering that at one point, crossing this wall meant certain danger, possible death. Today tourists stand, placing feet on both sides, sometimes laughing and usually playful. This playfulness offers a sense of hope. No matter how desperate or hateful times may be, we can change.

Berlin is this; it recognizes its past, is hopeful of its future, and meanwhile colorful and playful in its present. Certainly, the Berlin Wall, and other walls going up in Europe, the US and elsewhere are far more complicated than this. (The ongoing refugee crisis, the European Schengen common visa scheme on the brink of collapse, are but a few issues which challenge a more open society…) Still, for just a few moments, it was nice to think positively that the great and mighty walls that we build can also be broken, even repurposed such as in the East Side Gallery. From representing a symbol of division, walls can become a symbol of hope. It is Berlin’s artistic side and its activist sprit, its hope, that is the most moving component of this fascinating city.

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“Many small people do many small things, that can alter the face of the world.”

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