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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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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