Donald Trump wasn't the first politician to dream of a “big, beautiful wall,” and he won't be the last. Whether in Cold War-era Berlin or present-day West Bank, walls have long been used to shut out people whose race, religion, economic status, or ideology have been deemed unwelcome by those in power, or simply to “keep the peace.” But wherever anti-immigration politicians see opportunity, artists see canvas. Art has the power to connect us with our collective humanity, so anything that artificially stanches the free flow of people, ideas, and inspiration is its natural enemy. Here, a few notable examples of instances where artists have co-opted border walls and turned them into protest art.
Dissolving Boundaries in Tijuana
The San Ysidro port of entry that connects Tijuana and San Diego is the busiest land border crossing in the world. Some 100 years ago, this boundary was marked by little more than flimsy cattle fencing. Today, the border wall's rusting steel bars extend 300 feet into the Pacific Ocean. In 2011, Mexican artist Ana Teresa Fernandez “erased” the border by painting the fence to blend into the sea, sand, and sky (pictured at top). Just inland, Enrique Chiu is aiming to cover the length of the rest of the existing U.S./Mexico boundary wall with murals created by volunteers, artists, and community groups in border towns across the Southwest. Covering a distance of more than a mile and counting, Chiu's Mural de la Hermandad (Brotherhood Mural) is gunning for the title of longest mural in the world.
Banksy at the West Bank Barrier
To mark the 100th anniversary of the British taking control of Palestine, the elusive London street artist Banksy opened The Walled Off Hotel in the West Bank, a quarter-mile from the Jerusalem checkpoint. In its name and with its dystopian decoration, the property makes an artistic statement about the isolation of the Palestinian territories. It's also a fully functional hotel, complete with key fobs made to look like sections of the 400-mile separation wall and a gift shop selling mugs and T-shirts that say “The Worst View in the World.”
The East Side Gallery in Berlin
Erected in 1961, the Berlin Wall might be the most famous divider in recent history. It didn't take long for its western face to be covered in graffiti protesting East German oppression. Although millions watched as it came down on live TV in 1989, a nearly mile-long stretch still runs through Berlin's Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg neighborhood. Known as the East Side Gallery, the wall features more than 100 paintings celebrating reunification with messages of peace and freedom. Among the most iconic is My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love (1990), a satirical reproduction of an actual photograph taken in 1979 when Leonid Brezhnev, then-leader of the Soviet Union, visited East Germany to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its founding as a Communist state and greeted East German leader Erich Honecker with a fraternal kiss.
Projecting Welcome in San Diego
As prototypes for Trump's border wall were unveiled just north of the existing barrier near San Diego, artist-activists from the Overpass Light Brigade saw an opportunity. Known for shining protest messages made from strung LED lights over highways and in other public spaces after the sun goes down, the loose-knit group co-opted the massive slabs to project messages directed at would-be migrants from Mexico: One showed a ladder of light stretching to the top of the concrete panels; another read “Refugees Welcome Here” next to a silhouette of the Statue of Liberty.
BLU's EU Flag in Morocco
Refugees hoping to enter the European Union often try to scale the fence that separates Morocco from Melilla, a small North African territory claimed by Spain since 1497. In 2012, Italian street artist BLU painted this work, replacing the E.U. flag's 12 yellow stars with sharp wire barbs that keep out a gathering crowd.
JR's Dreamers in Tecate
Located in Mexico but oriented toward viewers in the United States, French artist JR's enlarged photograph of a one-year-old Dreamer peeking over the border fence elegantly captures what's at stake in the debate over U.S. immigration policy: the lives and dreams of people brought to the United States as children (those protected under the DACA program are known as “Dreamers”). A month after the installation, JR hosted the photo's subject, Kikito, and the toddler's family at a binational picnic nearby, with diners seated around a long table bisected by the border; aerial photographs of the meal reveal that the table was in fact a canvas, covered with a giant photograph of a pair of eyes that JR has confirmed belong to a Dreamer. By supersizing facial features to compete with the proportions of the border wall, JR elevates humanity above politics.
The Troubles Murals in Northern Ireland
For three decades, 300 miles of “peace walls” separated warring Catholic and Protestant militias in Northern Ireland during the period known as “The Troubles.” The walls are slowly being dismantled, but sections still remain; you can still see hundreds of political murals expressing support for Unionist (Protestant) or Nationalist (Catholic) causes on the remaining walls and on other buildings in cities like Belfast and Derry.
SYD in the World's Last Divided Capital
Greece and Turkey have been jostling for control of the tiny island of Cyprus since 1974. A UN-controlled demilitarized zone still runs through the city of Nicosia, making it the world's last remaining divided capital. The Turkish and Greek sides are separated by cement walls, barbed wire, even blockades made from old barrels filled with dirt. The situation prompted London street artist SYD to paint this “Break Down the Wall” piece, inspired by Pink Floyd, on a section of freestanding wall.
Border-Crossing Crop Art in Poland and the Ukraine
Seven years ago, Polish artists founded the Land Art Festival to promote cultural and scientific collaboration across international borders, specifically the border between Poland, which is part of the European Union's Schengen area, and the Ukraine, which is not. Cross-border designs like Jarosław Koziara's giant fish, made from plants grown from seeds planted on both sides of the Poland-Ukraine border, quietly show how nature trumps geopolitical lines and remind us that borders don't just separate, they also bind.