Broke: artist who made history but didn't see the writing on the Wall

Imre Karacs on a graffitist's fight for a share of profits from the sale of the 'canvas' that divided Berlin

Former Wall painter, famous artist of Berlin," was how the blurb introduced Thierry Noir to the handful of the cognoscenti who had wandered into the opening of his exhibition on Thursday night. There stood a man clearly on the wrong side of his 15 minutes of fame, looking undernourished and down at heel. Surely he hasn't blown the royalties already?

For Noir's work, featuring a totem-pole shaped figure with exploding lips and a bulging eye, once sold for millions. How many millions, nobody can tell, but enough to make someone a small fortune. Suffice to say that even the photographer who put together a catalogue of Noir's oeuvre earned DM42,000 (pounds 14,800) on the project. But of that or any other proceeds, the 39-year-old Frenchman has seen nothing.

Admittedly, the painter used the wrong medium. But who was to know in April 1984 that the resilient structure that blotted the view from his window would not survive the decade? That is when he started to decorate the Wall, not so much to create art or make a statement, but to make his Kreuzberg slum habitable. The swirling curves of bright colours were an instant hit, attracting tourists in their thousands to gape at the coolest open-air show on Earth.

A star was born. Graffiti had become a genre, Noir a pioneering artist - founder of a school, no less - and commissions flooded in. In 1985 he was asked to apply his genius to the lavatory of a railway cafe. Two years later he became official wall painter on a Wim Wenders film set. By 1988 he was decorating the emergency exit of Berlin's Gloria cinema. And in all this time, he remained true to his metier, covering two and a half miles of the frontier with "Crocodile Man".

Then came November 1989. All Noir can remember of the euphoria is the ceaseless hammering outside his room - the Wall was five yards from his window. When the structure was finally breached, he rushed out with his spray cans and started painting the other side.

But the hammering never stopped, and soon the bulldozers would join in. His work was literally crumbling in front of his eyes. But then, just as everything seemed lost, a long section in Kreuzberg was rescued from the vandals. The East German authorities, betraying for the first and last time in their history a modicum of business sense, decided to flog the ruins to the decadent West.

The world's biggest mural was cut into 81 segments, catalogued, and put up for sale. Thirty-three of the segments were attributed to Thierry Noir, and 12 to his friend, Kiddy Citny. The auction was held in Monte Carlo in June 1990, and grossed at least DM1.5m. There must be, somewhere, a lot of satisfied Noir collectors, though the artist himself does not own a piece of his creation.

Nor does he have any of the money. It took until 1995 for Noir and Citny to establish their right to the royalties, having sued the authorities all the way to Germany's Supreme Court. By then, unfortunately, the company that had pocketed the receipts had gone bankrupt. So had East Germany and the officials who had organised the auction.

Noir and Citny then turned to the German bureaucrats who are legal heirs to the Communist regime. They discovered that the Finance Ministry had taken over the bank accounts of the abolished East German foreign trade company Limex, which had authorised the sale. The Finance Ministry, needless to say, would not part with a pfennig, so the matter is once again being dealt with by the two sides' learned friends.

"They will not accept that, as artists, we are entitled to be paid," Noir says. "They think we are nobodies; opportunists who simply want to get rich."

It has taken seven years to reach this impasse, and will take several months more to settle the claim. Next March a Berlin court is due to deliver its verdict. The lawyers think the state will have to pay, and the haggling now is over how much. The bureaucrats are holding out for 10 per cent of the DM1.5m, to be split between Noir and Citny, while the artists want the full whack.

"If we win I am going to throw a huge party," Noir promises. But even if he loses, he might still paint the town red.

News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
News
Boris Johnson may be manoeuvring to succeed David Cameron
i100
News
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
News
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
science
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Life and Style
fashionPart of 'best-selling' Demeter scent range
News
i100
Sport
Tom Cleverley
footballLoan move comes 17 hours after close of transfer window
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Nursery Nurse Level 3

£8 per hour: Randstad Education Leeds: The Job Nursery Nurse Leeds We are now ...

Web Developer/UI Developer (HTML5, CSS3,Jquery) London

£55000 - £65000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A Global Financial Service Organi...

Data Scientist (SQL, PHP, RSPSS, CPLEX, SARS, AI) - London

£60000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A prestigious leading professiona...

C# Web Developer (C#, MS Dynamics CRM, SQL, SQl Server) London

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A Global Financial Service Organi...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering