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Berlin To Bethlehem, When Art Takes Over Border Walls

'Fraternal Kiss' graffiti on the Berlin Wall
"Fraternal Kiss" graffiti on the Berlin Wall
Blandine Le Cain

PARIS — 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 Nov. 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 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 materialized by the concrete wall.

There are more than enough walls for art of this kind to blossom.

"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 Stéphanie 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-Berlin 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 an 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/U.S. 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 one-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 U.S./Mexico border, which has drawn increased attention in recent years due to calls by U.S. 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 Clémence 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 contextualization 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."

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Right now, according to a joint survey of Israelis and Palestinians, hopes for a peaceful solution of coexistence simply don't exist. The recent spate of violence is confirmation of the deepest kind of pessimism on both sides for any solution other than domination of the other.

An old Palestinian protester waves Palestinian flag while he confronts the Israeli soldiers during the demonstration against Israeli settlements in the village of Beit Dajan near the West Bank city of Nablus.

A Palestinian protester confronts Israeli soldiers during the demonstration against Israeli settlements in the West Bank village of Beit Dajan on Jan. 6.

Pierre Haski


PARIS — Just before the latest outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, a survey of public opinion among the two peoples provided a key to understanding the current situation unfolding before our eyes.

It was a joint study, entitled "Palestinian-Israeli Pulse", carried out by two research centers, one Israeli, the other Palestinian, which for years have been regularly asking the same questions to both sides.

The result is disastrous: not only is the support for the two-state solution — Israel and Palestine side by side — at its lowest point in two decades, but there is now a significant share of opinion on both sides that favors a "non-democratic" solution, i.e., a single state controlled by either the Israelis or Palestinians.

This captures the absolute sense of pessimism commonly felt regarding the chances of the two-state option ever being realized, which currently appears to be our grim reality today. But the results are also an expression of the growing acceptance on both sides that it is inconceivable for either state to live without dominating the other — and therefore impossible to live in peace.

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