20 years after, Berlin Wall gets facelift

November 3, 2009 7:16:42 AM PST
Stroke by stroke, Gerhard Kriedner applied pink acrylic paint with a small brush on a 14-yard stretch of the Berlin Wall, recreating the mural he first painted months after the Berlin Wall came down on Nov. 9, 1989.

Kriedner and 90 artists from around the world have gathered again to repaint their original creations on the concrete slabs, bringing new life to images that have been eroded by the elements over the last two decades, on the longest remaining length of the wall that once split Germany's capital.

"This is a very emotional thing for me," Kriedner, 69, said, adding that he escaped from communist East Germany to the West himself as a young man. "The Berlin Wall stands for the total lack of freedom we had at the time."

While Berliners were initially eager to tear down the city's most detested symbol, in recent months there has been a major effort to restore the 3/4 mile-long (1.3-kilometer) dilapidated East Side Gallery - a major tourist attraction with 106 different paintings and graffiti.

"The wall was rotten through and through," Kriedner said on a recent chilly, overcast autumn day as he put the finishing touches on his mural - a dark, barren landscape with bursting soap bubbles colored pink and light blue, his interpretation of the promise of Socialist dreams colliding with reality.

"In order to restore the wall, the entire artwork was scraped off, the concrete was chiseled down to the steel insides, and then everything had to be reapplied, but this time with waterproof acrylic paints," the Bavarian artist said, adding that he'd been working off a photo of his original piece to ensure the new version mimicked the original.

Kani Alavi, the head of the East Side Gallery's Artists' Association, has been the driving force behind the restoration work that started in October 2008. Alavi lobbied for years to collect the euro2.5 million ($3.7 million) from the city, state and federal governments needed for the restoration process. That included room and board for the artists, who otherwise worked for free.

Of the initial group of artists, only five declined to participate in the renovation project. Six others died and their murals have been restored by other artists.

"We thought it was really important to recreate the paintings because, by now, there's a whole new generation that no longer remembers the original Berlin Wall and the historic events that led to Germany's reunification," said Alavi, an Iranian-born artist who had already restored his own mural of East Germans crossing Checkpoint Charlie into West Berlin on the night the border opened for the first time.

Every day, the East Side Gallery in Berlin's formerly eastern Friedrichshain neighborhood attracts thousands of tourists who pose for snapshots in front of the murals.

The western side of the wall was covered in graffiti during the decades after the barrier was erected on Aug. 13, 1961. The eastern side stood barren, desolate and guarded by stern border police for decades. Only after the wall's collapse did a group of Berlin artists decide to decorate the stretch - the first joint art project of the formerly divided city.

They called on artists from around the world to join them in expressing their feelings in paint and color on the formerly untouchable east side of the wall.

"We had nothing, only cheap paint and brushes, but we were so euphoric about all the historic changes and we wanted to express them in our paintings," Alavi said, adding that the murals show the joy and hopefulness of overcoming injustice that people believed was possible at the time.

Since then, pollution, weather and time turned famous images like the fraternal communist kiss between East German leader Erich Honecker and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, or the East German Trabant car that appears to be bursting through the wall, into a sad sight - with long cracks in the concrete and big chunks of paint flaking off.

Then there were the souvenir-seekers who chipped off pieces of rock or scrawled their names and messages atop the paintings.

The East Side Gallery received historic monument status in 1991. But despite new signs asking visitors not to tamper with the bright new paintings, it's uncertain whether the new art will be free from graffiti, vandalism or souvenir hunters.

Some, however, didn't seem to mind that prospect.

Julie Zinser, a tourist from Riverside, California who was strolling down along the wall said she loved the paintings, but the bright new colors made the it look less authentic.

"It seems like the gritty beauty of this city got a little lost," Zinser said and then posed for a photo with her two daughters.

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