Prague is a city of beauty. This is undeniable. Be it the Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, Astronom-ical Clock or medieval squares, each monument is a spellbinding medley of baroque, neo-classical, cubist and contemporary architecture. It is a city of artists, buskers, poets and thinkers. All this is known to tourists.
It was on my second day that I discovered a lesser-known facet of the city. Wandering across the quiet Velkop?evoské Square, a short distance from the French Embassy, I came across a stretch of wall covered in colourful graffiti.
“This is the Lenin Wall,” I heard a tourist telling his companion. “A symbol of the country’s dissident past.”
Wondering why the Czechs, who finally broke away from the Soviet Union in 1993, had dedicated a wall to Lenin, I studied the graffiti carefully. And then I saw that it was not Vladimir Lenin, the Russian revolutionary, but John Lennon, the English poet-singer, that the wall was dedicated to.
As I walked along it, I saw lines from Lennon’s iconic song, ‘Imagine’, scrawled in spray-paint. I saw a portrait of the long-haired, peace-loving popstar. And another of a horse spouting a psychedelic rainbow… a tribute to the ethos of the ’60s, I guessed.
Lennon never visited Prague, but he became a pacifist hero to the Czech youth overnight, when he was shot dead in New York in 1980.
In the weeks that followed Lennon’s shooting, his most iconic lyrics about love and freedom began to appear on this wall in central Prague, alongside poems and messages of dissent spray-painted by local rebel youngsters.
The wall began to spark friction between the city’s rebels and its Communist authorities, quickly becoming a symbol of peaceful protest as efforts to ‘guard’ it failed.
Surveillance cameras were installed and guards stationed to watch the wall and prevent it from being used as a protest message board. But the graffiti continued to reappear every time the wall was whitewashed.
Remember, this was at a time when the Czech government had banned Western popular music and jailed musicians who dared play any.
Still, each night, rebels managed to slink past the cameras and have their say. The wall was whitewashed repeatedly, and just as repeatedly, covered in more graffiti.
Amid clashes between students and the state on the picturesque Charles Bridge nearby, as protesting youngsters were dubbed agents of capitalism and jailed, more Lennon lyrics appeared on the wall.
What began as a tentative mark of protest grew into a form of free expression against an oppressive regime. The Lennon Wall became a monument to non-violent rebellion. And when the Velvet Revolution caused the fall of the Communist regime, it became a part of this little country’s history.
Today, the wall is covered with layers of quirky messages, interlinked hearts and vibrant colours, much of the original dissent buried under rather more inane scribbles and scrawls.
And while the wall is protected as a monument, its art work continues to change, giving it new features every day. Tourists are free to lean and pose, spray and scrawl. Or just stand and watch as the old surrenders to the new.