Thierry Noir is a French-born artist who is considered to be one of the pioneers of the global street art movement. According to some sources, he was the first person to start painting the Berlin Wall when he moved to Berlin in 1982. Inspired by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Fernand Leger, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, he started creating public art work by painting the infamous wall that was stretching in front of the squat where he lived in for 20 years. The combination of the bustling underground art scene, and the political circumstances in the epicenter of the Cold War conflict, resulted in one of the biggest unorganized and underground mural projects in history. Noir’s most iconic pieces were huge cartoonish colorful profiles that later became one of the most recognized images of the wall. Along with such flat imagery, he was also creating abstract works, as well as sculptural installations as a nod to the artists whose work he enjoyed and respected. In 2012, Thierry Noir got invited to London where he created couple of new murals, and on April 3, 2014, he will be opening his first ever gallery show: a retrospective at Howard Griffin Gallery in Shoreditch, London.
For this historic occasion, he opened his vault of photos and memories from his early days in Berlin. He shared with us some previously unpublished photos and untold stories in his own words about his life, his work and Berlin underground scene in the ’80s and ’90s.
This elephant was one of the earliest paintings that I made on the Berlin Wall. I began to paint outside because I wanted to say that it is good to put art in the streets and not solely in museums and galleries. At the time my influences were taken from many directions. By the Painters: Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Fernand Leger, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Gaston Chaissac, Jean Dubuffet, Alberto Giacometti, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring. By the musicians: David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Kraftwerk, Led Zeppelin and Nina Hagen. This painting represented for me the key to success — heavy work every day. If you wait at home for inspiration, you can wait very long.
This is me painting in 1985 the Wall along Waldemarstrasse in Berlin-Kreuzberg. I was painting these dinosaurs to represent a sort of mutation of nature because of the Berlin Wall and the wall painting I created were like a mutation of the culture. Where else to find kilometres of painted concrete wall in Europe other than in West Berlin? I used to paint the Berlin Wall every day. That was how all the ideas came to me: not down from the sky, not from the head to the hand but from the hand to the head. From the beginning, with Christophe Bouchet, we used to collect left over paint and materials from the the renovation of the houses in Kreuzberg, for the 750th Anniversary of Berlin in 1987. We made do with whatever we could find on the streets as we had no money to buy materials.
I painted this at Potsdamer Platz in August 1985. It was dedicated to the thousands of wild rabbits that used to live on the huge Death Strip between the two walls around Potsdamer Platz. Those rabbits were a mutation of nature. Where else would you see so many rabbits running around freely in the middle of a big city? The only place was in divided Berlin similarly, my paintings on the Berlin Wall were a mutation of culture. Where else would you find kilometre upon kilometre of continuously painted wall in the middle of a capital city other than in divided Berlin. Bartek Konopka later made an Oscar-nominated documentary about the wild rabbits of Berlin entitled “Rabbit à la Berlin.” The fall of the Berlin Wall was like a death sentence for the wild rabbit population of the Death Strip. They had nowhere to go as their habitat had vanished and thousands of people were trampling across the Death Strip. Most of them died although there are still one or two wild colonies left in Berlin. Konopka the film maker used the story of the death Strip rabbits as an allegory for the recent social history of Eastern Eueope and its people. It was a very clever film.
My early paintings on the Wall were very different to my later style. I changed my style slowly out of necessity because each day I was faced with hundreds of questions from people coming up to me. I started to realise that I was speaking to people for more time than I was actually painting. I adapted my style to be quicker. It became what I called The Fast Form Manifest. The Fast Form Manifest is a good recipe for people who have to paint fast in dangerous environments and with people constantly interrupting them. You need two ideas and three colours. You mix them all up and the painting is finished. It was a way for me to show people that this mythical wall was not built for ever and could be changed.
This photo was taken in 1986 along the Waldemarstrasse in Kreurzberg. It shows my paintings and the paintings of Kiddy Citny. There were featured in the Wim Wenders film The Wings of Desire. Wim Wenders came back to Germany in 1985 after his success with the 1984 “Paris, Texas.” Wenders wanted to make a film in Berlin about angels. I met wit him every two or three days in a nearby restaurant called Meeting Points Restaurant where I used to sell small paintings. Wenders was a patron there. In the beginning of 1987 he decided to start the shoot of “The Wings of Desire” and this part of the Wall along the Waldemarstrasse in Berlin Kreuzberg was an important location for the film. In the film you can see my works and me painting the Wall on a ladder. If you pause the film at this point you will see that part of the wall in front of me. These 5 sections of the wall are now in a private courtyard at 520 Madison Avenue in NYC and the ladder I was using is in the permanent collection of the Wende Museum in the USA. What a destiny!
It was the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty in N.Y.C. so I found some spray cans and with Christophe Bouchet made a two metre high stencil. It was made from a plastic napkin fixed on a wooden frame. On the 4th of July, we put up 42 Statues of Liberty on the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie. It was well-guarded and dangerous to paint here. We did not have enough money for more spray paint to finish the entire project and paint more the next day. As David Bowie said in his 1982 song Heroes: “You can be heroes, just for one day.”
On 23rd October 1986, three months after I had painted the Statues of Liberty, I heard on the radio that Keith Haring was in Berlin to paint the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie. I went there and I saw that my statues were all gone, painted over by a huge amount of yellow paint. I talked with Keith about this and he was embarrassed and apologized to me. He said, “In New York you can get killed for that.” He was invited over for just a couple of days and the section of Wall had been preprepared for him with a yellow base that went over the Statues that I had painted. The yellow colour was very transparent so it was possible to see my Statues through it. I was angry but it was not his fault. Keith was a great guy and a great artist.
Here I am painting on the other side of the Berlin Wall in the Death Strip. The photo was taken by the Associated Press photographer, Hans-Jörg Krauss, who was a war photographer. It was taken while the Wall was falling down and people had hammered heavily on the wall, making holes in it. These holes were so big in some spots such as near to Checkpoint Charlie or the Reichstag, that it was possible to pass through the holes and paint the other side of the wall. It was great to paint this side after so many years of fear and harassment by the border guards even worse, in Christophe Bouchet’s case, arrest.
The border guards were, at that time no longer allowed to shoot people. However, while I was painting on the back side of the Wall they would scream at me: “Hey you there, I see you, stop that immediately.” I continued to paint as long as it was possible, and at the last moment I jumped back to West Berlin. It was not revenge, but it was just time to show those soldiers that one era had finished. With only a spray can or two, I would play cat and mouse for hours with the soldiers. To paint a lot of big heads, one after the other, very quick. I would always jump back through the hole into West Berlin territory before they could reach me. – Thierry Noir