This photographer’s collection of Berlin Wall graffiti photos show the politics of paint

Tagging the evil empire’s formidable fortifications

Rian Dundon
Timeline

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West Berliners spray paint messages on the Berlin Wall near Zimmerstrasse, 1988. (FORTEPAN/Tamás Urbán)

Split as it was, Berlin in the late 1980s was literally a tale of two cities. Those trapped in the communist east were living in a stultified surveillance state, onerously distanced from the west by a wall that had come to epitomize the destructive effects of the Cold War and the moral failure of the Eastern Bloc. West Berlin, conversely, was the locus of resistance — an island city committed to upholding the tenets of democratic Europe and a refuge for those brave or lucky enough to have escaped from the shadows beyond the wall. If the wall was an ugly gash running through the heart of a traumatized postwar Berlin, desecrating it became many ordinary residents’ best means of dissent. Many West Berliners even delighted in emptying their waste bins over the barrier. But cans of paint were often enough to vent frustrations in the most visible way available. East Berliners, however, were separated from the wall by a wide swath of land known as the Todesstreife or “death strip,” which ensured the Soviet side remained blank — a cold, unreachable grayness.

(left) Abandoned car on the west side of the Berlin Wall. | (right) The view from East Berlin looking west past the “death strip” and the Brandenburg Gates. The wall on this side remained clean and untarnished by graffiti. (FORTEPAN/Tamás Urbán)

Pictures from the last years of the GDR show a wall caked in a matrix of political graffiti. Multilingual messages range from overt calls for unity (“make love not wall”), to taunting humor (“nyet, nyet Soviet”) to philosophical musings (“doubt is the substance of nothing”). Some of the most powerful scrawls are tributes to loved ones, perhaps family members trapped on the other side of the 87-mile-long, 12-foot-high barrier. One simply reads, “happy birthday sabine.”

Hungarian photojournalist Tamás Urbán was in Berlin to document the state of the divide in 1988. His pictures emphasize the role of the wall in the everyday life of West Berlin, where the blunt partition had been coopted by artists and activists, and transformed into a focal point of ordinary people’s political grievances and yearning for a unified future. Those rough inscriptions, most long painted over by professional artists or destroyed when the wall came down a year later, are testament to the frustrated resilience of Berliners at the time. Their tangled, impromptu crudeness reflects an organic response to oppression using the power of language and public performance.

(FORTEPAN/Tamás Urbán)
A viewing tower in West Berlin offers residents a glimpse at what lies beyond the wall. (FORTEPAN/Tamás Urbán)
Berlin Wall and the Brandenburg Gate from West Berlin. (FORTEPAN/Tamás Urbán)
(FORTEPAN/Tamás Urbán)
(FORTEPAN/Tamás Urbán)
(FORTEPAN/Tamás Urbán)
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(FORTEPAN/Tamás Urbán)
Berlin Wall looking towards Leipziger Platz from Potsdamer Platz. (FORTEPAN/Tamás Urbán)
(FORTEPAN/Tamás Urbán)
Potsdamer Platz. (FORTEPAN/Tamás Urbán)
(FORTEPAN/Tamás Urbán)
(FORTEPAN/Tamás Urbán)

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Rian Dundon
Timeline

Photographer + writer. Former Timeline picture editor.