Staff Columnist

Portrait of peace a work in progress

Ann Macari Healey
Posted
Ann Macari Healey

The lyrics drift softly through the quiet, cobblestoned courtyard.

"Good day, sunshine

good day, sunshine

gooood day, sunshine..."

A youngish man with vivid blue eyes, in faded jeans and black velvet jacket, strums a guitar and sings, the music stand in front of him holding a repertoire of Beatles songs, at his feet a black hat for donations from appreciative listeners. He seems oblivious to the people milling around, hearing only the melodies and words that lift him beyond the wall that stretches behind.

But the wall, which is why he is here, can't be ignored.

It is a psychedelic, graphic explosion of color, an ever-changing riot of words and swirling graffiti whose reason for being has been long buried under more than 30 years of layers of paint.

For those who remember, though, like Jan, 36, the guitarist who wouldn't give his last name, the wall, just across from the French Embassy in Prague, is testament to the energizing and lasting power of the universal ideal of peace - even if the passage of time has somewhat obscured the message.

The Lennon Wall.

Also known as the Peace Wall.

Or the Graffiti Wall.

"It's really getting twisted," Jan says of how the wall is viewed by thousands who visit each year. "It bothers the local people - they don't like the way it is now... But I'm sure John Lennon would like it this way. I don't think he would have liked to have his face on it."

That's how the wall, the phenomenon, started - with an immense portrait of John Lennon following his death on Dec. 8, 1980. Depending on the source, either an art student from Mexico or a group of students painted his face on the wall that forms the back of a 14th century churchyard. The wall also had a recessed niche that resembled a tombstone and became a mock grave, of sorts, for Lennon.

Although the ex-Beatle never visited the Czech Republic, many young Czechs, living under the then-Communist regime, quickly built him into a pacifist hero for their cause. At that time, the government had banned western pop songs, even sending some Czech musicians to jail for playing them, according to a website about the wall.

In the beginning, people scrawled Beatles lyrics and epitaphs to Lennon under cover of night. In the light of day, police whitewashed the walls, only to have them covered again in words at night. Over time, the wall became a voice for the young Czech opposition; some created a movement called "Lennonism." They used the wall as a medium for their grievances and painted political slogans against the government, always at night. Police continued to obliterate their efforts during the day.

The battle on the wall continued until the Velvet Revolution that led to the fall of Communism in 1989.

Since then, the wall has become a popular tourist destination.

Although many phrases reflect the pleas for love and goodwill that Lennon championed, Beatles lyrics and sayings of social and political justice have been replaced in good measure with such commonplace scrawls as "Filmore was here" and "Auntie Mary was here" and the over-sized "Happy Birthday, HRABAL!" repeated several times along the wall's length in white spray paint. And "Fred" spread wide in chubby, green bubble letters.

The original message, for many, seems long forgotten.

But for some, the wall is a living, breathing, morphing work of art of which Lennon would surely have approved. Nate Margolis, 21, an art student from Maryland studying this semester in Prague, has visited several times. Today, he spray paints an eye on the wall in silver-gray.

"This is kind of a new revolution of art," he says, noting it's one of the few places in the world for legal graffiti. "It changes. In 15 minutes, it'll probably be something completely different."

Kayleigh McAdams, 20, who is visiting Margolis and was a huge Beatles fan as a child, felt it was important to see the wall and leave something significant behind.

Near the sidewalk, she painted "Infinitum Nihil," Latin for "nothing is forever," as she interprets it. The saying, representative of past events in her life, is tattooed on her right foot.

"It's just a meaningful thing that I try to live by each day," she says, hoping "somebody will actually be able to read it and know what it means."

Jan, the guitarist, has sung at the wall for the past three tourist seasons. The season depends on the weather - the nicer it is, the longer the season. Last year, the cold stayed away and he played and sang for eight months.

He has loved Beatles music since he was a boy. "It's my favorite band," he says simply. "I like the vibe..."

As a Prague native, he has watched the wall's evolution. It could be no other way than how it is today, he says. Free. Open to anyone to paint anything.

"It's the only way you can keep it," he says. "Otherwise, it would be a museum with John Lennon's face and rope. It would be ... boring."

But if he could give those who visit a thought to leave with, it would be this: "Give peace a chance, in your mind, in your mind ... it's not always easy."

On this day, as sunlight filters through trees just beginning to leaf, "Love is a beautiful chaos" leaps from the wall in bold, red paint. And if you look closely, you'll spot a blue face of John Lennon in a corner.

No matter what is painted, Margolis says, Lennon's face can always be found amid the crazy quilt of expression, a soft and subtle reminder of why the wall even exists.

A throng of tourists suddenly crowds the small courtyard, jostling to read the wall and leave their inscriptions. Jan, an unperturbed island in the middle, begins to sing:

"You may say I'm a dreamer,

but I'm not the only one."

Spontaneously, unexpectedly, a swell of voices joins in.

"I hope someday day you'll join us,

And the world will live as one."

The words echo, bouncing off the stones and filling the afternoon air with the chorus of hope.

Maybe, just maybe, the message isn't lost after all.

Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at ahealey@coloradocommunitymedia.com or 303-566-4110.