Prague’s famous Lennon Wall undergoing transformation

Photo: Vincent Farnsworth

The Lennon Wall, located in a secluded square in Malá Strana near the French embassy, had long been a traditional place where anybody was free to do any type of graffiti they want, though the general subject was John Lennon and world peace. This symbol of freedom, born in the communist years, later became a significant Prague landmark, connected with the dissident years and the Velvet Revolution. But the overwhelming interest in it proved too much. Things got out of hand and now the famous wall is undergoing a major transformation.

Photo: Vincent Farnsworth

For years, tourists, locals and graffiti artists would leave their various messages on Prague’s famous Lennon Wall with marking pens or spray paint while buskers played music.

It wasn’t always so free. The history of the wall dates back to the Communist era of Prague, when dissidents used the wall to commemorate the memory of John Lennon and leave anti-government messages, often leading to clashes with the police.

Photo: Vincent Farnsworth
After the fall of communism in 1989 the wall became one of Prague’s famous landmarks and people who came here would add their message to it.

Now things are changing again. Since last week, the whole wall has been covered with a tarp and scaffolding along with “No trespassing” signs. Behind the tarp, workers are using machines and other tools to remove the entire façade.

The wall is on the property of the Grand Priory of Bohemia of the Order of Malta, and the organization is working together with Prague 1 city government to make the changes, because of increasing problems recently.

Tour guides have been bringing large groups to the wall and encouraging mass graffiti by handing out spray paint and stencils. Local residents complain that the tours are often the last stop after pub crawls, which means the tour groups are sometimes drunk and noisy when they are being encouraged to graffiti, which often isn’t about Lennon or peace anymore. The graffiti has even spread onto the surrounding trees, trash cans and an old water pump.

John Lennon wall before the renovation, photo: Jekaterina Staševska

I asked Johannes Lobkowicz, the chancellor of the Grand Priory of Bohemia, about the changes at the wall.

“The wall was under enormous pressure during the summer. Vandals and all sorts of organized groups of tourists gathered around it and drew nonsense images and vulgarities and were a nuisance. In general they destroyed the symbolic value of the place without any respect for it; only tourists of course, not Czechs. Therefore we agreed on the need to change the situation with the local authorities and especially with the people living nearby who had their walls sprayed all the time. With the trees sprayed and the cars sprayed, it was really unbelievable. I tell you, it was vandalism at its worst. People coming to Prague only to get drunk and ruin something.”

Photo: Vincent Farnsworth
I asked Lobkowicz if his organization had filed a criminal complaint with the city about the vandalism.

“Yes, without any effect, because how do you find someone like that.

“The reconstruction was started this week and it is going to last until mid-November, our target is November 15th, and we hope that by that time we will be able to unveil it to the public.”

I talked to a couple from Switzerland visiting the wall. Richard Shaw is from Ireland and Christine Shaw is from England.

Christine Shaw: I was expecting to see some artwork, and maybe some graffiti, I didn’t really know what to expect.

Richard Shaw: A little bit of the same, I wasn’t quite sure whether it was John Lennon or L-E-N-I-N. I wasn’t expecting a blue canvas, I have to say.

Christine Shaw: Well, we hadn’t heard it was covered, so I was a little surprised. Disappointed not to see it.

Richard Shaw: Yeah, disappointed, but I can understand exactly the reasons why they’re doing what they doing.

Lobkowicz said that in the future only selected artists would be allowed to paint on the wall, though how the final project will look is not yet clear and it might change over time.

Lennon Wall in 1993, photo: Infrogmation, CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic

“We don’t know ourselves yet, because it is in the hands of the artists. The symbolism connected to John Lennon will be clearly expressed on it, that connection has to stay. We’re also going to inform the public about the historical reasons why it is connected to John Lennon, his work, and its meaning for the local people. It is strongly connected to the Velvet Revolution which happened 30 years ago and ended the long-lasting Communist regime, as you know. And the symbolism was in a way also expressed on the wall.

“However, the specific final look is going to be in the hands of artists who we are cooperating with. So it is very open. It will be an open air gallery and it is clear that vandalism or any other way of violating or damaging the wall or its surroundings will be prohibited. We want to make the space respectful again and give it back its former magical atmosphere connected to its history. We are going to announce the final rules regarding the place after we agree on them with the local authorities. It’s a huge wall you know. I’m sure it’s going to be more than one person [working on the art], it’s probably going to be five or six who are going to be doing it in the beginning and I expect it will be changing every half year or year with a new theme.”

Photo: Vincent Farnsworth
The public will probably still be able to write messages on the new wall, but in a limited way. Johannes Lobkowicz again:

“We can imagine that there would be a free space somewhere where the many people who love the wall and want to sign their name will be able to do so, but there will definitely be no more spraying.”

So the Lennon Wall and surrounding area will no longer be a free-for-all for graffiti artists, taggers and drunken tourists. In addition, surveillance cameras are being installed and police patrols will be increased. The timing of these changes is interesting. Right now in Hong Kong, the pro-democracy movement, inspired by the Prague example, in their struggle against China’s communist party, have made their own version of the Lennon Wall, all at the same time that Prague’s Lennon Wall is entering a new chapter in its history.

While the renovation went on in the background, Sarah Ensor from the United States told me about how she had been looking forward to seeing the wall.

“I’m a big Beatles fan, but also a fan of his music, and I think it’s nice that a community can come together and do that kind of stuff, until it gets out of hand. I think it would have been nice to see lots of love and peace and graffiti. I know there’s always going to be another chance to come back to Prague, so I guess I’ll have to wait until it’s completed.”

No one knows exactly what the new Lennon Wall will look like when it’s finished, but it’s scheduled to be ready for the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution on November 17th.