Before most of it was torn down, artists considered the Berlin Wall one of the largest canvases in the world. On a hill overlooking Berlin’s Mauerpark, one of the last surviving sections of the wall is still covered in graffiti art — some of it abstract, some paying homage to celebrities and historical figures.
Now, one of the most prominent sections of the wall bears a portrait of George Floyd.
“I didn’t even watch the video, actually,” says Jesús Cruz Artiles, a Dominican-born artist better known as Eme Freethinker. “I saw many, many other guys die by the police in my country, like almost for nothing. So I know how it is.”
Freethinker, based in Berlin, painted Floyd the day after the video of Floyd’s death surfaced and spread on social media. He is well-known in Berlin art circles for his satirical work. He’s painted Lord of the Rings character Gollum wearing a face mask, and President Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping kissing each other while wearing masks.
His portrait of George Floyd captures the man in a moment of calm, his eyes almost meditative, with the words “I can’t breathe” scrawled in big yellow letters beside him. Photos of the mural have been shared around the world.
“I remember when I came in [to paint it], some guy told me, ‘You have to do it with the police over his neck,'” Freethinker says, “and I was like: ‘No, man. Not like that. No.'”
Rather than portray Floyd’s killing, he wanted to memorialize him alive. And so did thousands of others in Berlin. The city was one of many in Europe that erupted in protests last weekend. Organizers expected 1,500 people to gather in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz square on Saturday; an estimated 15,000 showed up.
Sudha David-Wilp, deputy director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund, says Germans have had a mixed reaction to Floyd’s death and the U.S. protests.
“There’s probably a a group of people that are saying, ‘I told you so. The U.S. was a ticking time bomb for social unrest. Racism is fundamental to the United States,'” she says. “Then there are people that are probably also very disappointed, because they want to see that country that had elected the first Black president in 2008 and that had a civil rights movement.”
For the many Germans who have traditionally looked up to America and held it up as a model for what a country should be, David-Wilp says the unrest is giving them pause.
“But nonetheless, they want to be able to admire the United States [as] a group of all kinds of people of color and creeds that could come together,” she says. “And right now, what they’re seeing is very, very sad and frightening.”
But at least in Berlin, many are showing solidarity by taking it to the streets — and the wall.