“There are three types of artist,” Thierry Noir tells me, “difficult, very difficult and impossible.” Which one is he? “I do not want to know.” The unassuming French artist is in London for the opening of his first ever solo show at the Howard Griffin Gallery in Shoreditch, and has been working flat out for two weeks to get everything finished. As well as 15 large canvases which are going on display (alongside rarely seen photographs and films), Thierry has been busy painting various walls around east London and likes the combination of gallery and al fresco work; street painting he says gives him “a different type of energy.” It’s fair to say that Thierry Noir has some experience in this.
Rewind 32 years. Having dropped out of university and been fired from a series of jobs, he needed a change. “I knew that if I continued like that I would be stuck in a dead end. I realised a lot of people were talking about Berlin and most of the music I liked was being made in Berlin, so I went there.”
A woman he met at a New Year’s Eve party said he’d be able to stay with her best friend, so after 21 hours on a train he headed to his flat. “I realised after about five minutes the man knew this woman but not very well. After two days he just kicked me out on the street!”
Left to his own devices in Kreuzberg and unable to speak a word of German, he remembered the Lou Reed lyrics: “In Berlin, by the wall/you were five foot 10 inches tall/It was very nice/candlelight and Dubonnet on ice.” So Thierry decided to follow the wall, and after just a few minutes he came across a house he knew he was meant to live in. He stayed there 20 years, although he later discovered Reed had never been to Berlin when he wrote those lyrics on which he’d placed such significance.
No matter, because being by the Berlin Wall would come to define his career, and indeed his life. He became an artist quite by chance though. “Everybody you met was an artist so when someone asked me one day if I was an artist too, I said yes. That was the beginning.”
Initially he would make work with whatever he could find; he would tour the Kreuzberg area with artist friends collecting wood and old paint pots left outside houses. But it was the Wall that kept calling him; at that time it had just a few small paintings here and there and a slew of slogans. Slowly an idea started to form in Thierry’s mind. “It happened day by day. For the Germans the wall was a taboo and they just wanted to ignore it, so the area near it was abandoned." He set to work painting a stretch of it in his signature style, and ended up painting some five kilometres over the course of five years. Opinion though was split.
“Some people liked it and some hated it; it was like taking a cold shower then a hot shower. It was very strange. After a while I just started ignoring both these groups.”
“Thirty years after I started to paint, it feels like the right time.”
He soon began to win some very prominent admirers. He met Wim Wenders in a restaurant when he was selling paintings; the two got talking and he ended up working with the director on Wings of Desire. Later, U2 commissioned him for the artwork of Achtung Baby. “It was a new time,” he remembers. “The questions were no longer so aggressive. The first question people used to ask me were ‘Who pays you?’ or ‘Are you CIA?’”
As the fall of the Wall drew nearer, Thierry made the most of new opportunities. Citizens smashed holes in the wall and he was able to squeeze through and paint the East German side without getting shot. “It was the best revenge on the border guards after so many years of suffering. It was just about making them nervous. It was the same paintings but quick, with just a spray can to do the black lines.”
Now, 25 years after the wall came down in 1989, Thierry has his first ever solo show. Why has it taken so long? “I have been busy in Berlin, but it is exciting. 30 years after I started to paint, it feels like the right time.”
Thierry Noir: A Retrospective runs until 5 May.