Achtung Baby at 30

Achtung Baby at 30

Thierry Noir revisits his iconic 1991 artwork for U2 and tells Phillips how the creative flame of Berlin continues to inspire today.

Thierry Noir revisits his iconic 1991 artwork for U2 and tells Phillips how the creative flame of Berlin continues to inspire today.

Thierry Noir with the 2021 Achtung Baby Trabant, Berlin. New Now London.



The world of 1991 was one of sweeping change, and nowhere was that more evident than the reunified Berlin, where Thierry Noir had spent several years turning the imposing Berlin Wall into a canvas for his art. Artists and musicians alike flocked to the city to embrace its creative energy, and Noir's practice evolved from street art to the iconic Trabant cars that featured on U2's Achtung Baby album art and subsequent ZOO TV world tour. The band returned to the artist to mark the 30th anniversary the record with a special edition Trabant bonnet to benefit the Berlin Institute for Sound & Music, a non-profit organization dedicated to the culture of sound, immersive art, and electronic music. Ahead of the 9 December New Now London Sale, the artist speaks to Phillips about the inspirations behind his work and how the 2021Trabant conjures the memories of the original with a twist. 


PHILLIPS: Thirty years on, what still stands out to you from the original work?

THIERRY NOIR: The Trabants that I painted for U2 in 1991 were truly a fusion of East and West Berlin – what still stands out for me is how through the worldwide reach of Achtung Baby they still endure in mainstream popular culture. My Trabants were immortalized within the album art of the record through a series of photoshoots of them for U2 by Anton Corbijn in Berlin and Tenerife. Over the past 30 years, 18 million copies of Achtung Baby have been sold worldwide. This legacy still links the visual identity of the album to the zeitgeist of that time in Berlin. To me this is very important and meaningful.

Looking back, it all feels like yesterday. The Cold War had ended and the Berlin Wall had just fallen. It was a special time for me in Berlin and the collaboration with U2 was one of my first major commissions of that new era where I was still finding a direction. What strikes me today is the spontaneity and naivety of my practice at that time. Out of necessity I had developed a fast style of painting on the Berlin Wall because it was illegal and dangerous. My hand gave ideas to my brain, not the other way around. I remember that I painted three Trabants for U2 in just one day. I now have the luxury of being a little slower and I approach things in a different way with a more controlled form of naivety.

P: How does the image of the Trabant figure in the development of your practice?

TN: Between April 1984 and November 1989 my sole focus was to paint the Berlin Wall. I lived in Kreuzberg, meters away from the Wall and my room in the Georg von Rauch-Haus looked over into East Berlin across the Death Strip, which was patrolled by soldiers. I saw that Wall in winter, summer, night, day, and it was really not like Lou Reed's song "Berlin" from 1974, where he sang: "In Berlin by the wall ... it was very nice." The Wall was the trigger that pushed me to paint and become an artist. Its presence was so oppressive that it forced me to react. It is possible to attack what you consider unmovable and overcome it, but you must not give up. You must risk confrontation. I would cover the Berlin wall with paint and colors each day. My objective was to make the wall ridiculous and to take away the fear that it held for people. Back then the central theme of my work was freedom, which it still is to this day.

The Berlin Wall was the ultimate symbol of the GDR (German Democratic Republic) and life behind the Iron Curtain. Trabants, or Trabis, were another such symbol, especially after 1989, when thousands of East Germans in Trabis crossed over into West Germany. Following the fall of the Wall and reunification, Trabants also evoked in many a sort of nostalgia for that period. I had always been curious about these cars and their political significance, and in a way, it was a logical progression. After the Wall fell I was literally forced to find new mediums across which to express my ideas because my primary canvas thankfully no longer existed. The Trabis were a perfect vehicle for the next phase of expression.

Thierry Noir, Achtung Baby, 2021. New Now London.

However, I cannot take full credit for the idea. The U2 collaboration came about through conversations with my friend Wim Wenders. I had worked with Wenders on his 1987 film The Wings of Desire, where he features me painting the Berlin Wall in a scene with Bruno Ganz's character, Damiel. The scene is one where Damiel sees color for the first time after foregoing his immortality. Wenders was also at the time working with U2 on music for his next feature film, Until the End of the World, and U2's song of the same name inspired by Wenders was the fourth track on Achtung Baby. When Wenders called me with the possibility of painting a series of Trabants for U2's ZOO TV tour, I said yes straight away. 

It felt highly significant at the time to cover those Trabants because of how severely artistic expression had been controlled in the GDR. It would have been unthinkable to do that in East Berlin before the collapse of the GDR and this is what attracted me. The 157-show ZOO TV tour was the first occasion that my artwork physically traveled outside of Berlin and reached a global audience. U2 were at the height of their fame and them taking the Trabants on tour was a way for me to make a statement around the world that it was OK to express yourself.

P: What was it about Berlin that you think attracted artists and inspired creative work?

TN: During the 1970s and 80s in West Berlin there were musicians, painters, writers, intellectuals, fashion designers, and filmmakers in every direction. A great movement was born. I myself was inspired by that avant garde scene of the time in West Berlin and wished to contribute to it. In particular I wanted to follow musicians like David Bowie and Iggy Pop, who both moved to West Berlin in the summer of 1976. I bought a one-way ticket and traveled to Berlin with one suitcase in January 1982 and immersed myself in the city's cultural scene. It was like diving into a big pool of creativity. Along with my painting partner Christophe Bouchet, we were able then to start our own new artistic movement on the Berlin Wall that later attracted other artists such as Keith Haring in October 1986. 

I found that to protect myself from the artificial life of West Berlin, surrounded by the Wall, it was necessary to be creative; it was the only way to feel alive and not fall into a kind of soft melancholy. When I arrived, I immediately noticed that everyone was an artist. When someone asked me if I was an artist too, I spontaneously said yes and I have never regretted it and am still in Berlin. The best thing is that all these people I met in 1982 are still artists today.

In 1989 when the Wall fell, we all realized that on the other side, in East Berlin, there were lots of artists, too. They had been hidden the whole time because it was not allowed to be a free artist in the GDR due to the Stasi. These two groups came together and made the new Berlin one unique point in the world. Suddenly as well, the techno movement invaded the city. A great wind of fresh air was blowing through the streets.

Thierry Noir at Hansa Studios, Berlin. Photo: Marcus Peel. New Now London.

U2 came to record Achtung Baby at Berlin's Hansa Studios to tap into the same energy that I had sought out nearly a decade prior. Their time in Berlin was much shorter than mine but they found something there. Musically speaking, Hansa Studios was at the center of everything in that era. It was the legendary musical outpost standing on abandoned ground just next to the Berlin Wall where David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Depeche Mode had all recorded. With songs like "Zoo Station" I think that U2 were able to channel the spirit of the times into the album by recording at Hansa, and this is one of the reasons why the record is still so beloved today. It was in the parking lot behind Hansa Studios where I painted the 1991 Achtung Baby Trabants and I too took inspiration from the atmosphere.

Berlin is still renowned for its underground scene and maintains an energy that has been lost in other big cities in Europe. But this is something that needs support, and it is important to give back some of the luck you have received in life. This is why U2 and I are offering the bonnet of my 2021 Achtung Baby Trabant in support of the Berlin Institute for Sound & Music: to help continue the energy in Berlin and help the young generations who are trying to show their talents. My work on the Wall was in part a tribute to perpetual youth – each generation of young people suddenly comes along and says that everything can be better, faster, stronger than anything that has been done in the past. Dadaism, Art Brut, punk, Surrealism; the new generations are empowering, recognizing change and showing us the light instead of hiding or stifling it. "We can be heroes, just for one day," as David Bowie said.

P: How did you approach the 30th anniversary edition?

TN: It was better not to repeat the same designs from 1991, but to try to achieve something new. Over the years I have always maintained a flow of creativity, that little fire inside, which is very fragile and can suddenly go out. I cultivated a discipline of working every day to keep developing new ideas. When U2 approached me about the 30th anniversary I had the idea this time to work across a series of objects related to Achtung Baby. The Trabant of course would form the centerpiece, but because the album was recorded just as the Berlin Wall fell, it also made sense to me to paint a Wall section this time around. A rare test pressing vinyl of the album made up a special triptych.

Pink is the color that unifies this new triptych. Why pink? It immediately gives you the idea: Do I love it or do I hate it? You can't be in the middle. It's rock 'n' roll. U2 and I then decided that Hansa Studios would be the ideal setting to present these works. It is where the story began thirty years ago.

P: What does public art do for the imagination of a city?

TN: When I arrived in Berlin there was of course public art in both sides of the city, but it was mostly all official and state sponsored. I decided to take an anti-authoritarian path and wanted to inject a new energy into the city in order to communicate my ideas as quickly and immediately as possible. When I suddenly began to cover the Berlin Wall from top to bottom with paintings, it shocked and then immediately changed the poorly lit Kreuzberg district where I lived. The long frescoes that I created, each several hundred meters long, reflected the moonlight at night, giving a strange feeling of security. My artworks became a symbol of West Berlin and I think in part allowed people on both sides of the Wall to imagine a different future. This was the most important part of creating art in public for me.

At the time in my early 20s I did not realize that I was at the vanguard of a new and free movement of art in public spaces that had also begun in New York with subway graffiti. I am honored to observe the new generations of artists painting in the streets reflecting their desire for a better world.

The 2021 Achtung Baby Trabant at Hansa Studios, Berlin. Photo: Marcus Peel. New Now London.




Discover More from New Now London >




Recommended Reading

Gunther Förg: Legacies >

In Demand: Artists to Watch >