EAST SIDE GALLERY – The World’s Longest Open-Air Art Gallery

Without a doubt the most significant building in the history of Berlin, the Wall divided not just a city, but an entire country for almost three decades between 1961 and 1989. Although residents and artists on the western side had long transformed parts of the forbidding grey structure into works of art, the 1.3km (0.8mi) section that remains today as the world’s longest open-air art gallery was created after the fall of the Wall. Read on to find out more about the story behind the East Side Gallery, its most iconic images and much more.

East Side Gallery
Berlin East Side Gallery, Source: Pixabay.com

It Used to be Grey

The Berlin Wall was the most visible symbol of Germany’s partition into two separate states. Officially built by the East German regime to protect its citizens from the capitalist west, it effectively put a stop to the mass exodus of these very citizens during the 1950’s.

Built along a 167km (100mi) perimeter around West-Berlin, the Wall sealed off the non-socialist part of the city, turning it into an island. In the wake of German reunification, its remainders have largely been demolished and today there are very few traces left of this once-powerful landmark. Not far from Strausberger Platz, the longest remaining piece, known as the East Side Gallery, has become a tourist attraction as much for its historic significance as for its iconic images.

A Riot of Colour

Artists from all over the world were drawn to Berlin in the wake of the extraordinary historic events of 1989. Starting in February 1990, three months after the fall of the Wall, 118 artists from 21 different countries lent a hand to turn a section of the Wall along Mühlenstraße in Berlin Friedrichshain into a celebration of art and freedom.

The initiators originally planned to show the paintings as part of a touring exhibition, after which they would be sold at auction. Luckily for Berlin, this never happened and instead the East Side Gallery opened in situ in September 1990 with a total of 106 paintings.

The Gallery’s Most Iconic Images

Dimitri Vrubel’s “Bruderkuss” (“Kiss between Brothers”) is one of the gallery’s best-known images. The painting depicts the East German leader Erich Honecker in a passionate exchange of bodily fluids with Soviet head honcho Leonid Brezhnev.

“Bruderkuss” (“Kiss between Brothers”) by Dimitri Vrubel, Source: Pixabay.com

Equally well-known is Birgit Kinder’s painting of a Trabant breaking through the Wall, reproductions of which are sold by the thousands as postcards or fridge magnets. Titled “Test the Best”, the image symbolically commemorates the demolition of the Wall by tens of thousands of East and West Germans that began on the evening of 9 November 1989.

Test the Best
“Test the Best” by Birgit Kinder, Source: Pixabay.com

Conservation and Destruction

The East Side Gallery has been listed as a protected building since 1991. In 1996, artists involved in creating the gallery founded the “Künstlerinitiative East Side Gallery e.V.” with the aim of protecting and preserving the painting. The initiative raised funds to the tune of 500,000 Deutschmarks (about 250,000 euros) for the restoration of 33 paintings along a 330m (360y) section. Despite the gallery’s protected status, several parts have already been destroyed or demolished. In 2006, a 44m (48y) section opposite to where the Mercedes Benz Arena is today was torn down to create access to a river pier.

18 years after its completion, the East Side Gallery was due for a comprehensive refurbishment, for which the Berlin Senate shelled out two million euros. Following a year-long restoration project, in the course of which 100 paintings and large parts of the wall’s foundations were renovated, the gallery reopened in 2009.

Despite widespread protests and the intervention of David Hasselhoff, several segments of the gallery were removed in 2013 after a luxury apartment development on the banks of the Spree had been given the go-ahead.

East Side Gallery - Tower
Berlin East Side Gallery, Source: Pixabay.com

Even with a few pieces missing, the East Side Gallery remains one of Berlin’s most popular tourist attractions. Whatever the weather, visitors from all over the world come here in droves to take selfies in front of their favourite artworks.

East Side Gallery - Musician
Berlin East Side Gallery, Source: Pixabay.com