Travel: Lennon Wall in Prague
All you need is love…
The John Lennon Wall in Prague is a wall with a storied history
In a city filled with stunningly beautiful monuments, a Gothic bridge of much atmospheric antiquity, a languid river, a sprawling Palace complex, the John Lennon Wall is a bit of an anomaly. But there is no doubt about it: this wall of modern times, dating back to the 60s, is a historical record, replete with much drama and turbulence.
Spanning a stretch of less than a kilometre, the compound wall belongs to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a Catholic lay religious order, and every conceivable inch of it is covered with bright, even lurid, graffiti. Just off- centre is the familiar face, with its round glasses. Alongside his face run the words `All you need is love.` The face is almost fully covered with fresh drawings now, and only the eyes watch steadily, a look of amusement in them.
Wall of many avatars
This is a wall of many avatars. In the 1960s, it was the Crying Wall, and covered with protests as well as art, lyrics from popular songs, even love ditties, by the locals. The authorities, of course, were having none of this, so regularly painted over the graffiti and even appointed a guard to keep watch at night. All to little avail: every morning, there was a fresh outburst on the wall.
Then, after John Lennon’s assassination in 1980, someone painted an image of the singer-songwriter along with lyrics from Beatles songs, in an outpour of grief at his passing. This was at a time when `Western thought` was verboten in the then-Czechoslovakia; the government reacted and Prague’s secret police swung into action again. Arrests were made, surveillance cameras were put up at the spot, the wall was painted over (in green, this time!) a close watch was kept but there was no quelling the steady appearance of more and more graffiti which by 1988, became stridently anti-Communist.
Piquantly enough, the students proclaimed the philosophy behind the wall protests to be `Lennonism.` The outraged powers-that-be immediately condemned it as the work of ` alcoholics, mentally deranged, sociopathic, and agents of Western capitalism.`
In its third avatar, after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 which ended Communism in Czechoslovakia, and the Velvet Divorce in 1993 which created the separate nations of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the Lennon Wall became the go-to site for calling out injustice, oppression, crackdowns.
Love is all you need
In 2000, the wall was painted over in white with just the one word `Love` written across it. Then, in November 2014, on the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the wall was painted over in pure white by a group of art students, with `Wall is over` written starkly across it. They did this because they saw that the Lennon Wall was no longer a space for protest but being covered in messages of peace and love.
However, the move was viewed as vandalism of what had become a piece of Prague`s cultural heritage. The Knights of Malta had from the early 90s, actually granted permission for graffiti on the wall, and now filed a criminal complaint against the students, which they later retracted. After the flurry settled, the `Wall is Over` was replaced by `War is Over,` the famous Lennon-Ono composition.
Then this year on Earth Day, the Extinction Rebellion activists repainted the entire Lennon Wall with slogans demanding action on Climate Change from the Czech government. People were asked to add their own messages and obliged with calls for action in several languages. Fortunately, this was done without obliterating most of the existing artwork.
And this month, in a supreme act of irony, the Prague Municipality has announced that the wall will be monitored by TV cameras and graffiti strictly regulated. Police will patrol the area, stop tourists from spewing with paint against their leaders, turn the stretch into an open-air gallery.
Ups and downs
The wall has been damaged several times, parts of it have fallen but it has always been repaired and quite like a brick and mortar phoenix, stands up again, to be covered with messages, entreaties and artwork. And yes, it remains the only place in the city of Prague where graffiti is legal.
Usually, there are street performers doing their versions of Beatles songs but on the day we visited, there were just a steady stream of tourists madly clicking selfies against the Wall.
Oh yes, there was an India connect too, except it wasn’t the most salutary. Shristi and Sachin, whoever they are, had scribbled their names boldly and blithely. Maybe this was their call to love, if not peace.
All photos by Sheila Kumar and subject to copyright.
This ran in THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS OF 20 Oct 2019.
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