Rebuilding the Berlin Wall

BERLIN — An army of artists has assembled along the Berlin Wall on recent summer mornings, shielded by straw hats and baseball caps. Paintbrushes in one hand, laminated photographs of their old work in the other, they are repainting murals from almost 20 years ago. Thanks to the artists, the canvas is still standing.

"It was just in time," said Iranian-born Kani Alavi. "If the city hadn't finally agreed to do something, the wall would have just fallen over."

Alavi was an unlikely advocate to save the Berlin Wall. But along with 118 of his fellow artists who swooped in to paint the concrete barrier as Germany re-unified in 1990, he has petitioned the city of Berlin for more than a decade to rebuild and preserve what remains of its most hated monument.

Reunification didn't come cheap, and the city of Berlin is a whopping 60 billion euros ($83.6 billion) in debt. But this year it scraped together 2.5 million euros ($3.5 million) from lottery sales as well as federal and EU funds to fix up one of the city's top tourist attractions ahead of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall this November.

According to the artists, the money came not a moment too soon.

German communists built what they called the "anti-fascist protection barrier" in 1961, sealing off East Berlin from West Berlin.

"They just threw it up in a few days," said Andy Weiss, an earringed German artist busy repainting elephants onto the wall. "It was pretty shoddy East German construction."

Not much remains of the wall, and what is still standing was left in bad shape. In the euphoria of 1989, "wall woodpeckers" hacked away at the barrier with chisels. Tractors lifted out chunks of the wall that ended up in bank lobbies, private mansions and sculpture gardens across the world.

In 1990, Alavi, Weiss and the other artists painted what is now the largest remaining section of the wall, known as the East Side Gallery. The 1,300 meters (1,500 yards) of concrete are adorned with images of peace signs, doves and Dmitri Vrubel's famous "fraternal kiss": Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev planting a Communist smooch on the lips of his East German counterpart, Erich Honecker. "God, help me survive this deadly love" reads Russian script over the mural.

Over the years taggers and souvenir seekers chipped away at the surface of the East Side Gallery while weather gnawed at the interior. Steel support rods rusted, holes appeared. Vrubel had used cheap paint, which started to peel. A crack opened and ran down the length of Brezhnev's face.

The city of Berlin declared the East Side Gallery an historic monument in 1992, but despite artists' pleas provided no money for its maintenance.

"Sometimes I got the idea that Berlin politicians were just sleeping or on mental vacation," Alavi said.

"They were hoping the wall would fall down so they could just sweep it under the carpet," was Weiss' more cynical take.

The city government was aware that rebuilding or refurbishing the wall in any way is a touchy subject among Berliners. The idea drew less than 30 percent approval ratings in polls by local newspapers.

A few years ago, the city shut down a different, privately funded project to rebuild part of the wall near Checkpoint Charlie, for fear of creating a "Wall Disneyland."

In 2007, Alavi's East Side Artists' Initiative made a last ditch plea to the Berlin Senate, arguing that a crucial piece of history would be lost if the wall were allowed to crumble.

Finally, Alavi said, the city pulled together the money. The first job was to rebuild and reinforce the wall, filling in cracks and holes with concrete. Once the whole thing was whitewashed this spring, artists flew into Berlin to repaint their murals.

The murals are supposed to be exact copies of what was painted in 1990, but many artists introduced one change: scrawling their email addresses and gallery Web sites along the bottom of their murals. In Berlin, capitalism really has come to stay.

In fact, some artists were put off by low fees, asking the city to quintuple the 3,000 euros ($4,200) on offer. The city said no.

Moscow-based Vrubel at first refused to repaint the fraternal kiss ("I have no problem with restoration, but I cannot simply paint a new picture like making a sandwich!" he objected.) In the end he joined the 86 artists lining up along the wall each morning and the embracing communist politicians are re-emerging under his brush.

Alavi said the re-done images will be covered with an anti-graffiti coating. Rainer Eppelman, an opposition leader in East Germany and the head of a historical memory foundation, wants to take protecting the site one better. He is applying for UNESCO world heritage status for the East Side Gallery, a site he described as "not only a part of German history, but also an especially important testament to European and worldwide culture."

Besides preserving history, Weiss said, repainting the wall this summer has been fun.

The artists recall how thrilling it had been in 1990 even to be allowed to go near the barrier, let alone touch or paint it.

Before the collapse of East Germany, the wall was topped with barbed wire, guarded by 116 watch towers and surrounded by empty land known as the death strip. Border guards had killed an estimated 238 people as they tried to escape over, under or through holes in the wall.

"The first time we painted the wall it was exciting, it was the end of an era," Weiss said. "We are recreating a little bit of the party atmosphere of that time."

More on the collapse of communist Eastern Europe:

Poland's anniversary of democracy

Pedaling the Iron Curtain

How to run a protest without Twitter