The East Side Gallery is the embodiment of Berlin’s grit and guts. It’s a symbol of hope, creativity and resilience – for Berliners, but also the rest of the world.
In 1989, the Berlin Wall, a grey and grisly divider of humanity, was finally torn down after 28 years. Today its longest surviving stretch forms the world’s largest permanent open-air art gallery, known as the East Side Gallery.
The nearly mile-long (1.3 km) section of wall, located along the Spree river and Mühlenstrasse, showcases more than 100 murals. Dozens of international artists have translated the Cold War era’s global euphoria and optimism into a mix of political statements, psychedelic-induced musings and manifold artistic visions.
These days, graffiti tagging forms a good part of the artwork, though strictly frowned upon as great measures have been taken to preserve and even reproduce some of the Gallery’s most iconic paintings like Dmitri Vrubel’s so-called Fraternal Kiss and Thierry Noir’s cartoon faces.
Nowadays, you’ll often see the East Side Gallery covered in groups of shutterbugs – the city estimates over three million visitors come here annually – as well as ample, unsightly fences warding off vandalism. On its backside, carousers drink beer and play techno from boomboxes along the banks of the Spree, while, on the other side of the wall, Mühlenstrasse has turned into the kind of dry, characterless commercial development that makes the locals moan.
But, despite such a touristy backdrop, just ask your average Berliner – there will always be a kind of magic about the East Side Gallery. Driving past after a serious night of clubbing or a biking adventure through the city will always provide a little burst of pride and excitement, like watching a film strip of history unfold. After all, this relic is proof of just how far Berlin has come.
The history of the East Side Gallery
During the Cold War, the part of the wall where the East Side Gallery is now situated was a border crossing to East Germany accessible to West Germans only. Essentially, it was an interior wall acting as an extra barrier to stop fleeing East Germans before reaching the infamous "death strip" (a no man’s land between the East and West sides where guards shot on sight).
Following the Peaceful Revolution in 1989, most of the Berlin Wall was dismantled – except for this stretch. One year later, over 100 artists from 21 countries staged a now legendary painting session here on the eastern side of the Wall. The East Side Gallery was eventually declared a monument by local authorities.
Some of the most famous murals have forever found their places on the pages of history and pop culture. For example, Birgit Kinder’s Test the Rest, showing a Trabi bursting through the Berlin Wall, Dmitri Vrubel’s My God, Help Me To Survive This Deadly Love (also known as Fraternal Kiss), depicting East German leader Erich Honecker and high-ranking Soviet politician Leonid Brezhnev locking lips, and East German artist Thomas Klingenstein’s Detour to the Japanese Sector, a vivid depiction of the Japanese landscape (Japan was one of the countries East German citizens were prohibited from traveling to).
In 2009, the gallery underwent a controversial restoration due to the wall’s decay from atmospheric conditions and tourist graffiti. Several murals were erased and, in many cases, artists were asked to take part in repainting.
Some refused and even took legal action, disputing that they had not received adequate revenue from the monument and arguing that the restoration had destroyed the authenticity of the works. Others, including Vrubel who recreated Fraternal Kiss, obliged, albeit with a heavy heart.
Today, the East Side Gallery is a symbol of an older period of Berlin – the Cold War, but also the early years of German reunification when the city was as gritty and hard-boiled as ever. Opposite the wall, on the other side of Mühlenstrasse, lies a newer Berlin – high-rise condo buildings, a concert arena and, further beyond, a new shopping mall that’s often been described as an eyesore.
The East Side Gallery too remains an area of interest to investors. In 2013, part of the monument was scheduled to be destroyed to build deluxe apartments. Protests from Berliners – and even an appearance from David Hasselhoff himself – eventually led to the murals being moved across the street and preserved.
Plan your visit
The East Side Gallery is located on a main thoroughfare of downtown, straddling the Kreuzberg (former West), Mitte and Friedrichshain (former East) neighborhoods. It lies between landmarks such as the Oberbaumbrücke bridge and Ostbahnhof train station, and is within walking distance of several nightclubs including Watergate and Club der Visionäre.
As such, this area is quite busy at all times of day. However, you will likely get the best views of the East Side Gallery earlier in the morning. A path along the Spree river banks (the opposite side of the wall) is popular amongst morning joggers.
The East Side Gallery can be accessed by public transit. It is most easily reached by the U-bahn line U1 to Warschauer Straße or Schlesisches Tor station, or S-bahn line S5, S7, or S9 to Warschauer Straße or Ostbahnhof station.
Did you know?
Painted sections of the Berlin Wall exist not only at the East Side Gallery, but all over the world. These remnants have been delivered to several countries such as Iceland, South Korea and Estonia, among others, as symbolic gifts of freedom and solidarity.
In Brussels, a large section bearing the image of former US President John F. Kennedy is located in front of the European Commission headquarters. Another section can be found in the gardens of the United Nations in New York.