A mural on Berlin’s outdoor East Side Gallery. International artists have created more than 118 murals on a section of the former Berlin Wall that divided East and West Germany during the decade’s long Cold War. Photo: Henry Lewis

This week Berliners have been celebrating the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This concrete barrier, which split the city into a West Berlin – controlled by the USA and its allies, and an East Berlin- where the Soviet Union dictated all aspects of daily life, was one of the most poignant symbols of the decades-long Cold War.

A series of events across Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe earlier in 1989 led to the eventual breaching of the Wall in central Berlin, allowing throngs of East Berliners to stream freely through the broken barrier and into the streets of West Berlin on the evening of November 9th, 1989. It was a pivotal moment in history that sent shock waves around the world and set the stage for peaceful revolutions all across Eastern Europe, finally leading to the break-up and decline of the Soviet Union.

Berlin’s open-air East Side Gallery has become a huge draw for tourists visiting the reunified German capital. Photo: Henry Lewis

A young Iranian immigrant and artist, Kani Alavi, watched that evening’s jubilant chaos in the streets from his apartment window, just opposite the famous central Berlin border crossing known as Checkpoint Charlie. What the young artist witnessed that night, and on those that followed, moved him to spear-head an effort to preserve a portion of the wall in order to create an open air gallery where artists could celebrate the triumph of freedom over oppression.

As you might imagine, this was no small effort. When the wall came down and East and West Germany began the process of reunification, developers descended on the prime city-center parcels of land that had remained dormant for decades. In the end, Alavi and his allies were able to persuade the government to set aside an almost mile-long stretch of the wall where they created the East Side Gallery.

Artists from all over the world were recruited to come to Berlin and paint sections of the still-standing wall. In total, there were 118 artists from 21 countries who came to share their own personal images, a true reflection of the freedom of speech and self-expression that had once been forbidden on the wall’s eastern side. Alavi’s own work, It Happened in November, is one of the most prominent scenes now viewed by around three million tourists each year.

Kani Alavi’s “It Happened In November” is one of the most popular murals on the walls of the East Side Gallery. Alavi’s dramatic work celebrates the rush of East Germans who poured through the gap into West Berlin on November 9th, 1989, the night the Berlin Wall was permanently breached. Photo: Henry Lewis

The efforts of Alavi and his group to create the East Side Gallery resulted not only in preserving a rich piece of history, but they also established one of Germany’s most visited tourist sites.  Alavi’s concept, and the smashing success of Berlin’s East Side Gallery, has also been used as a model for other cities across the globe who sought to create outdoor street art districts.

Note: I shot these photos of the East Side Gallery in 2015 and it will be obvious to the viewer that the murals painted twenty-five years earlier in 1990 have not all aged well. Nonetheless, this section of the old Berlin Wall has continued to provide a space for self-expression, regardless of critics’ opinions.

Note the warning in the bottom right corner which reads “It is forbidden to deface or damage the wall. Offenders will be prosecuted. ” Uhh, I don’t think there’s much enforcement happening :-). Photo: Henry Lewis

This is possibly the most widely-recognized mural on the wall of Berlin’s East Side Gallery. It recreates a socialist fraternal kiss between East German leader Erich Honecker and Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev in 1979. Written in Russian above the mural is ,”My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love.” This guy insisted on being in my frame on the very busy day I was at the wall. Photo: Henry Lewis

And, additional selections:

I love the blue pipes of the public works that framed this section of the wall. Photo: Henry Lewis

Photo: Henry Lewis

Photo: Henry Lewis

Photo: Henry Lewis

Photo: Henry Lewis

Note the ‘Tag Berlin’ billboard in the upper left. Photo: Henry Lewis

Photo: Henry Lewis

I believe this is the face of Helmut Kohl, who was West German Chancellor at the time the wall fell. If you have other suggestions, please leave them in the comments section below. Thanks! Photo: Henry Lewis

The art sometimes spreads from the wall to include other surrounding structures such as this cool brick chimney. Photo: Henry Lewis

Travel Tip: If you find yourself in Berlin and decide to visit the East Side Gallery, go in the early morning. The light will be angled for the best views, plus you’ll be far more likely to snap shots of the murals without unwanted tourists crowding your lens. I went in the afternoon, the light wasn’t good and there always seemed to be at least one tourist posing in front of the most interesting murals.

peace~henry

Posted by Henry Lewis

Unconventional artist, writer, videographer and teacher. Personal Quote: It isn't easy being me ;-)

22 Comments

  1. Reblogging this to my readers at sister site Timeless Wisdoms

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  2. That is such a better use for that wall. Maybe someday we can turn whatever is left of Trump’s wall into public art.

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  3. A wonderful way to put to good use. Each and every mural, conveys their own unique message.

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    1. Make love (and ART), not war…as they say.

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    1. Hi Robert,

      Personal stories such as Kani Alavi’s give me some small degree of hope for humankind. Let art lead the way!

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  4. Thanks for the photos.

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    1. And thanks for stopping by Jim!

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  5. What foresight by Iranian immigrant and artist, Kani Alavi! His painting is striking for his depiction of humankind’s desperation for freedom from ideologies that imprison us. To think that we are now building walls to keep others out.

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    1. Hi Rosaliene,

      Yes, it seems impossible for humanity to learn from past mistakes. We simply keep making the same bad choices over and over. The bright side (and there has to be one) is that artists are being presented with ever increasing inspiration for new work.

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  6. Great photos! You got me reading up on the Berlin Wall and the East Side Gallery. Been doing that for the better part of the past hour. It really is inspirational to see how the creative spirit has transformed that symbol of repression.

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    1. If not a cure, then art is surely a soothing salve for our human condition.

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  7. Excellent post. I can’t believe it’s been 30 years. That’s amazing.

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    1. 30 years ago…I know. That was a wonderful moment in history!

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  8. What an interesting read! And such amazing photos too.

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  9. So glad to see your photos. What a wonderful celebration of the end of that division 30 years ago. I like that it is preserved for posterity so we do not forget the folly of dividing people with walls; learned in so many locations around the globe: China, England and Germany. Where might the Jericho horns trumpet next? -Rebecca

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    1. Hi Rebecca,

      Yes, I agree that the preserved sections of the Berlin wall serve as testament to human folly as you say. Thanks so much for sharing your insights!

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