Thierry Noir was the first to paint the Berlin Wall. Now his work breathes life onto London’s streets. Approaching the 40th anniversary since the Wall was brought down, we spoke to the iconic street artist about his life’s work.
In January 1982, newly arrived in a divided Berlin, a young Thierry Noir sought refuge in an abandoned youth centre, which sat mere metres from the Berlin Wall. “I was not even afraid because I was young enough to be so naïve,” he remarks candidly through his thick French accent, “so I walked until the end of the street, and thought ‘left or right?’ I decided to go right, found this house, and spent twenty years there.”
Almost four decades on, one of the founding fathers of street art sits opposite me in a Shoreditch cafe. This area of London, perhaps more than most, wears the art form he has contributed to so significantly. Noir made the right decision, it seems, in both senses of the word.
Two months before we met, he held an exhibition at nearby Protein Studios in collaboration with the Kids Network. He tells me, ‘it was very successful, drawing strong crowds even on Notting Hill Carnival weekend. ‘There were a lot of people really enthusiastic. The people looking at the paintings – this is the best food you can give me. After so long working, and suddenly to see some results, is good.’
It seems odd that the forerunner of Modern Street Art – and therefore an influence on Banksy, Stik (whom Noir first collaborated with on the Village Underground Wall in 2013), and the many other street artists who cast colour on our cities – suggest it is only now that he is reaping his artistic reward. But perhaps less so when you consider that Noir’s life has had its fair share of struggles.
Aged 23, Noir was lured to Berlin by the tendency of his favourite new-wave singers and bands to “talk about Berlin in their songs; talk about Berlin and not Lyon. That’s why I said, ‘I have to go there.’
“I couldn’t find my way in France after the end of school. I tried to find a way but everything was ending by a flop: university, small jobs, even the Post Office kicked me out. This is not what I wanted to do, that’s why I thought I have to change: not small, but big. That’s why I bought a one-way ticket to Berlin. It was a kind of meeting-point for all those guys who couldn’t find their way somewhere else. I didn’t go to Berlin to paint the Wall,” he makes clear, “it happened after two years of living [there].”
This idea that what we see presently doesn’t provide the full story, or paint the whole picture, is present in Noir’s work itself. On the surface, his bright, bold designs of distorted yet playful figures have a cartoonish innocence that embellishes youth culture.
They are, however, constructed upon a philosophy that displays a lightness of style but masks a more profound ‘melancholy’ – the philosophy of ‘two ideas, three colours’. The ‘three colours’ is self-evident, though sometimes it’s admittedly more; the ‘two ideas’, though, as Noir puts it, is ‘good and bad, East and West, black and white, the good on the one side, the bad on the other side – that was the world at that time.
His ‘good’ paintings masked the ‘bad’ canvas on which they were drawn, symbolising horror, division and suffering. Initially, Noir drew criticism from locals, who “tried to say that even if you put kilos and kilos of colour on the Wall, the Wall will never be beautiful.”
This approach, which he termed ‘Fast Form Manifest’, was also necessary for speed, given the threat of being shot at by the GDR forces manning the Wall. In total, along with artists Christophe-Emmanuel Bouchet and Kiddy City, who he lived with, Noir completed over one kilometre of painting on one of the most politicised canvases ever.
Noir makes it clear, though, that any artwork “was automatically political. If you wrote your name on the Wall it was political. So it wasn’t necessary to paint something especially political. The Wall was The Wall, it was not an art project, it was a deadly border. That is important to remember. It was seven years of my life between 1982 and ’89.”
He admits it wasn’t an artistic journey that inspired him to paint but rather “a reaction to do something” amidst all the misery of 80s Berlin. His first drawing repeated the same image of a dog that got him fired from a job in Lyon after his manager (‘the chief’) wrongly believed it was his caricature. “So I repeat that first painting on the Wall – as revenge.
“I started everything in Berlin. Every person I met was an artist, I’d never seen so many artists in my life. And someone asked me, “Are you an artist?” and I said, ‘Yes, of course,’ so that’s why I started my career.”
“A lot of different sources influenced me. But like Andy Warhol said: do not imitate anybody, because each artist is like a dead-end street; if you follow someone, then at the end, you will crash against the Wall – you cannot get the same results, it will not work for you.
“It was really hard beginning until the film of Wim Wenders, The Wings of Desire,” in which you catch a glimpse of Noir descending a ladder against the backdrop of his art on the Wall: a brief appearance, but for Noir, appearing in the acclaimed German filmmaker’s 1987 work was a significant symbol of recognition.
After the Wall’s collapse in 1989, which Noir watched first-hand from Checkpoint Charlie, his art took on a new life. “Suddenly, everything was different, and my paintings were at once the symbol of the new freedom in Europe. We thought that everything would be better in the world, but now thirty years later, we can see how this is the opposite: every year, more and more walls are made with new names that try to sell the population – new walls like ‘separation border’, ‘peace border’, ‘green line’.
Noir may have a point, but after finishing his green tea and blueberry muffin, he takes me on a local tour of his work, which punctuates the street corners of an area that is a far cry from de-unified Berlin. Along the back passage of Rivington Street, one of his works, spread along the walls, is glared at by a work from Stik as if to symbolise the street art community views with respectful gaze Noir.
“How long did this take you?” I ask.
“About a day.”
“Was that at a similar speed to when you painted the Berlin Wall?”
“This is not Berlin,” he replied markedly, and I wince at my insensitivity. The trendy area we shuffle around is vibrant and accessible – a far cry from the de-unified site Noir once lived. He may be correct to point out our society’s present complexities, which aren’t so black and white, aren’t so Noir and blanc. But four decades after The Wall’s collapse, Europe’s peace and prosperity have improved.
The row of Noir’s unique style dotted around Shoreditch and elsewhere – his Fast Form Manifest, his ‘two ideas, three colours’ approach – may hardly have changed since he first drew on The Berlin Wall, but the canvas certainly has.