The street art gallery on the East Side of the Berlin Wall is caught between being an Instagram hot spot and a haunting memory of a divided city.
Standing about 1.3 kilometres long along the Spree River in Berlin, the East Side Gallery is a public art display of painted murals along the east side of what remains of the Berlin Wall.
Like any good traveller, I made it a priority to immerse myself in the art and history of Berlin—a city with no shortage of either. With its roots in the history of oppression and resistance in Berlin, the East Side Gallery carries important lessons for today.
As I walked along the sidewalk beside the wall, I was struck by the difference between the wall today and what it symbolised only 30 years ago.
Today, the East Side Gallery is a tourist hot spot, and many can be seen posing for photos in front of the famous murals, including My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love, which is a recreation of a photograph showing Soviet politician Leonid Brezhnev kissing East German politician Erich Honecker.
Its clear, as people pose and marvel at the bright colours, that the wall today is an object of fascination and the gallery is more tourist trap than warning from the past.
That’s not to say its history has been lost—the messaging of the murals is clear: division is dangerous. But it’s hard to imagine the mural-covered stretch of wall as a place where people were murdered for seeking a better life.
There are many reminders along the wall of the costs of division, and pleas for unity and freedom are a dominant theme in the murals.
“Freedom for everything on this earth!” reads one mural, which depicts a creature that seems to be an amalgam of different species—both human and animal.
Another, less upbeat, mural shows a puppeteer controlling the strings of puppet-corpses. The mural forces viewers to remember those whose lives have been lost in the struggle for political control in the region and the senseless violent consequences that saw people as pawns.
These paintings serve in part as a memorial to the divisive times of the Cold War that are permanently burned into the collective memory of the German people.
In addition to being an ode to the past, they are a warning for the future—a pressing one in today’s political climate: division is dangerous.
It’s a fitting reminder as debates over President Trump’s proposed border wall continue in the United States.
What became abundantly clear as I stared at the art was that the wall was damaging for both those kept in and those who could move freely.
The Berlin Wall, much like the proposed US-Mexico border wall, is a politicization of lives. The rhetoric in support of the wall ignores the lessons of history and the pleas for unity and freedom painted across the Berlin Wall.
It’s been 30 years since the Berlin Wall came down, and 29 years since the East Side Gallery was created. To this day it serves as an important reminder of the consequences of division.
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