Whitewashing Lennon Wall sparked threats, says art group’s Mikuláš Karpeta

Photo: Veronika Neprašová

On the recent 25th anniversary of the start of the Velvet Revolution a previously unknown street art group named Pražská služba (Prague Service) made headlines at home and abroad for painting over the murals and graffiti on Prague’s John Lennon Wall, leaving it completely white apart from the words Wall is Over! To find out why they did it, I spoke to a member of Pražská služba, Mikuláš Karpeta. But we first discussed the origins of the Lennon Wall, a symbol of freedom in the communist era that is today a tourist attraction.

Mikuláš Karpeta,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“I think it was because people started to write messages there. Also I believe there was some pub where local dissidents would go.”

Also I guess it’s in a kind of quiet corner of Malá Strana. It’s a little bit hidden.

“It is. And maybe it [became an important symbol] because of the police. Because they painted over the wall. They were trying to hide the messages, so people were even more encouraged to write there.”

As far as I know, it was a kind of gathering place even in the 1970s where people wrote messages and poems. And then after the death of John Lennon it became the Lennon Wall – there was a portrait of John Lennon that was then painted over. Do you know how many times did the communists paint over the image of John Lennon in those days?

“I don’t really know. But I think they didn’t only do that – they also made it like an advertisement place. They were trying really hard.

“But it was also painted over after the Velvet Revolution many times as well. It was painted over by another street art group [Rafani, in 2000]. It was painted over by the owner of the wall.”

What do you mean that the communists made it into an advertisement place?

“Well, they made it like a board for posters. People then had to take down the posters before they could write something there.”

The idea of painting over the wall wasn’t completely new, as you say. But where did you get the idea? What inspired you guys to do it?

“I think it was probably seeing the poster from John Lennon’s War is Over! campaign, when we saw the way it was done, how simply and, for us, very beautifully it was done – just a white space with one sign, War is Over!

Photo: Veronika Neprašová
“I believe that immediately took us to the idea of trying to make the Lennon Wall basically an art space, with the whole space taken by one piece of art.”

Is it the case that you were really planning to do it for several years?

“Yes, the idea is three years old. I believe it would never have happened if our school [FAMU film school] hadn’t supported us. Also we thought it was a great opportunity to do it on the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.”

Of course the date was significant – why did you choose to do it on November 17?

“Basically because of the symbolic aspect of the sign. Wall is Over! was strictly meant symbolically and it meant either the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall – the fall of communism was the most important meaning of the message.

“We did it in the night early on November 17 and we expected people would take it as sort of a ‘hooray’ sign – yes, we did it, the Iron Curtain is down. So for us it was seriously like an anniversary of democracy.”

Tell us about the practicalities of doing it in one night. The wall is, what, six or seven metres high, and maybe 30 or 40 metres long. How did you actually do it?

“That was quite funny. We had to have a generator and another machine that was taking the paint and spraying it on the wall.

“We were actually not afraid that the police would stop us for painting the wall, we were afraid they would stop us because of the noise we were making.

“It was five or six o’clock in the morning and both of these machines made noise like two huge cars.

Lennon Wall in 1993,  photo: Infrogmation,  CC BY-SA 2.0
“There were, I don’t know, 10 or 12 people. We had to cover everything that we didn’t want to paint over. We had a huge ladder that we were climbing on. It took like an hour and a half – it was quite a long time.”

I know immediately the Knights of Malta, who own the wall, threatened legal action but then dropped the idea. But generally speaking what kind of reaction did you meet?

“It was very interesting, actually. We definitely seriously didn’t expect it would create such huge media hype.

“We thought some art media would be interested, but otherwise we thought everybody would say, OK, that’s nice, it’s the anniversary of the revolution and it will be over in two days, which it was [people immediately started painting on the wall again].

“Suddenly it was all over the newspapers, all over the TV, and also all over the social networks. It was interesting to see how people reacted on social networks.

“We were mostly threatened. People were sending us messages like, I’ll drown you in white paint and tell your parents to start over.

“On the other hand, on TV and the newspapers it was generally taken quite nicely, I think.

“Also because the owner, the Maltese Knights, after we explained our action they decided to drop the legal action, which was very nice of them.”

You mentioned the negative reaction of some people on social media – why were they so angered?

“I don’t know, really. I think it’s probably because of tradition, or maybe rigid thinking about our memories… The whole wall generally is taken as a sightseeing thing.

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
“Once you touch it, you are against loads of people who’ve probably never seen the wall – if there hadn’t been the media coverage nobody would actually know [that it had been whitewashed], because it was over in, like, five or six hours.”

Did people take offence at the idea that you were not respecting this symbol of freedom in the communist days?

“I guess so, yes, I think so… Also, everybody’s telling you that all you wanted to do was get famous, and by writing that they make you famous.

“We are a bunch of four guys who just decided to do some street art, but we’re no professionals. We’ve actually never done something that big, so we were extremely surprised.

Was there a moment when you thought, oops, we’ve gone too far?

“Yeah, maybe when I saw the message that there’s a legal action against us. I was a little afraid.”

Did the police speak to you?

“They did, but two weeks after. It’s basically just bureaucracy. Once you take a legal action against somebody you can’t take it down, so they had to speak to me. But otherwise nothing really happened.”

I know you’re concerned by the idea that the Lennon Wall has simply become a stop on the tourist trail of Prague. But why is that a bad thing?

“I don’t believe it’s necessarily a bad thing. I think what is bad is that it’s only a sightseeing thing. There’s no other significance. And it’s become a huge business, actually.”

It’s on postcards, posters, that kind of thing.

“Not only that. We talked by coincidence to two young guys who we met there who were the authors of the last remaining Lennon portrait. And they said they are basically in a huge battle against a local hostel.

“It has a tour where you pay something like CZK 400 or 500 and you get vodka and spray cans. So every week there’s a bunch of kids from the hostel who paint over the wall.

Photo: Veronika Neprašová
“Also because of that we thought, yeah, this will happen again and again, so why don’t we paint it over for a couple of hours?”

It must have looked very pure when you finished it, just with the words Wall is Over! Were you sad to see it being painted on again?

“Yes, I must admit. A little. It looked completely differently and I liked it. I mean, I obviously wasn’t telling anybody not to do it. It was obvious that people would start. But it was really suddenly very nice to me, yeah.”

Now that the dust has settled, would you do it again?

“Yes, definitely. For me the discussion is probably the most important thing that happened. And also the attention towards the wall. So absolutely.”