Prague has no shortage of art — it seems as if every corner has an ornate Gothic church, a fairy tale-esque building, or an art gallery. In the Old Town Square is the Town Hall decorated with the oldest operating astronomical clock, across from the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, whose iconic towers are said to have inspired the castle in Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Also in the square is the St. Nicholas Church, built in the Baroque style, and the Czech National Gallery art museum in the Kinsky Palace. The square is filled with the delicious scent of Prague ham and sausages wafting through the air, accompanied by the mouthwatering smell of the city’s famous chimney cakes cooking over fires.
Across the Charles Bridge lies the Lennon Wall of Prague. The wall was painted with a single photo of John Lennon, accompanied with lyrics, after his assassination in 1980. At the time, Lennon was a hero of non-violent rebellion and free speech to the young pacifists in Communist Czechoslovakia. Eight years later, Czech youth wrote their grievances on the wall surrounding the original portrait of Lennon, voicing their outrage against the communist regime of Gustav Husak. Time and time after that, authorities would paint over the wall, but more symbols would appear, championing global ideals of love and peace and protesting the restriction of freedom.
The wall is still continuously being used as a symbol of rebellion and protest. On Earth Day this year, a climate action group demanded action from the Czech government on climate change, using slogans and encouraging the public to add their own messages for environmental protection. Existing artwork was respected while people wrote messages in many different languages.
Not only is the wall an important symbol for the Czech people, it has also influenced political art movements globally. In 2014, the Lennon Wall inspired a similar form of protest in Hong Kong. During the 2014 Hong Kong protest, the walls of Hong Kong Central Government Offices were covered with democratic wishes, epigrams, graphics, and lyrics written on more than 10,000 colorful sticky notes. The creation of the wall was a part of the Umbrella Movement, which demanded more democratic elections of the leader of Hong Kong. Umbrellas were used to protect protestors against pepper spray and tear gas, symbolizing resistance. Even after tear gas was fired by authorities, people stayed with the protest for three days, and they wrote their reasons for staying on the sticky notes posted on the wall.
Like the Lennon Wall in Prague, authorities attempted to quell protests by removing the messages and images. In response, an online Lennon Wall was created, converting the wall of post its to electronic form. People also collected the post it notes, hoping to rebuild the wall. The wall had lasting impacts in other ways – it inspired more political protest through art. For example, in Causeway Bay, a group of secondary students constructed a miniature version of the Lennon wall with polystyrene. It became a symbol for the continuing protests of the Umbrella Movement.
Even though the messages and images on both these walls were ephemeral, eventually either covered up or wiped away, they have had lasting impact. The art on the walls may not have been created by famous artists, but it was the power of collective public art movements that has sustained awareness of social issues and pushed for change. What was written on the walls themselves may have had immediate impact, but it is how people reacted together, forming networks around shared causes and realizing that others also shared their struggles, that has lasted.
The current protests in Hong Kong are reminiscent of the Umbrella movement in 2014, bringing back the grievances once posted on the bygone Lennon Wall. Now, the protestors are bound together as a human wall, fighting back against China’s proposed extradition legislation that would threaten the freedom of speech and civil liberties of Hong Kong residents. Millions of protestors are sending a message to Beijing, according to professor Willy Lam at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, “If Beijing wants to do something that really infringes upon Hong Kong’s basic value, Hong Kong people will turn out in force, again and again, to pour out their discontent.”