If you take a wrong turn along Mala Strana, you may find yourself in front of a rather colourful wall. Covered in graffiti, you probably wouldn’t give it a second look, but this wall is unique among all other street art in the world. Once just a regular wall in Prague, it is known to locals as the John Lennon Wall. Why, if John Lennon never visited Prague during his life, does he today have a huge wall of street art dedicated to him?
When Czechoslovakia was swallowed by the Soviets in 1960, the citizens were strongly opposed to communism. They had tried it in 1948 and decided it was not how Czechoslovakia should be led. The Soviets, however, had a different idea about what Czech should be, and they ignored all cultural, economic and even language barriers that existed between the Czech and the Slovak halves of the nation.
As is typical of communist regimes, the Soviets put a large restriction on the outside influences available to its citizens. In general, most western culture was severely limited if available at all in the East, but Lennon’s songs in particular were banned by the Soviets because they preached freedom, and freedom was simply not a part of the Soviet plan.
Of course, tell a group of teenagers what they can’t do and you have another thing coming. After his murder in 1980, John Lennon was viewed as a hero by the pacifist youth and his popularity in Czechoslovakia skyrocketed. Even though musicians were jailed for playing his songs, and citizens were punished harshly for so much as singing them, people kept on defying the Soviet Union with John Lennon.
No one knows who did it first, or why that wall in particular, but one night someone painted Lennon’s portrait on the wall. The communist police removed it in the morning but the portrait appeared again the next night. The police continually whitewashed the portrait but it kept coming back the following night. Soon Beetles lyrics joined the portrait, followed by odes to Lennon. Finally, people began writing their own hopes and dreams on that wall. Every time the police painted the wall clean again, it would be full of paintings and poems the next morning.
When even surveillance cameras and overnight guards didn’t deter the daring Czech youth from their only form of self expression, the Soviet police finally gave up. This wall now represented more than just anti-communist sentiments and John Lennon. It was about a small war between the Czechs and the Soviets, freedom versus suppression, government versus the people and the citizens had won. It was this type of passive action that inspired what would become the Velvet Revolution in 1989 that saw Czechoslovakia freed from its communist chains once more.
Today, the John Lennon Wall is a protected landmark. Although you won’t find that persistent original portrait, it is there somewhere under the layers of thousands of hopes and dreams that have been painted on that wall. And when I visited one bright December morning, I found a handful of young musicians there, joined together, singing “You may say I’m a dreamer…but I’m not the only one…”