Shinkichi Tajiri first encountered the Berlin Wall in 1969, en route to an interview for a guest professorship at West Berlin’s Hochschule der Künste. Tajiri, a Japanese-American sculptor and multimedia artist whose large-scale works appeared in public squares and museums, traveled to Berlin from Baarlo, Netherlands, where he lived in a “self-imposed exile” from the United States. While in Berlin, he viewed the Wall with immediate intrigue. Tajiri accepted the position, and also decided to set out to render the entirety of the Berlin Wall in a photographic survey. He recalls, “During my bi-monthly trips to Berlin, I explored the Wall. It was the most fascinating piece of architecture in Berlin, and it drew me in like a magnet.” Like his close friend Leonard Freed, Tajiri connected his work in Berlin to broader conceptual American themes. He started in West Berlin’s allied American sector, then moved his way through the city’s other occupied zones. The Wall was undergoing its first major systematic renovation, and the border appeared uncanny to Tajiri. In the 1940s, he was detained with his family in an American internment camp and served in a segregated American “Nisei” unit in World War II to gain his freedom. Tajiri’s work on the Berlin Wall conveys both the evolution of and social interaction along the border during a period of détente, as the two Germanys moved toward full diplomatic relations and a more calmed acceptance of their division.
Tajiri self-published his photographs in the 1971 keepsake book The Wall Die Mauer Le Mur. He continued visiting the Wall, including a filmed flyby over the city in a helicopter in 1972 to capture it as a continuous sculpture snaking through the city and later, in 1981, for a series of grounded 360-degree panoramas. Tajiri taught in West Berlin as a professor through early 1989, and maintained close connections with his students after his retirement. He was slated to return to West Berlin in November 1989 for an exhibition of paper knots at the Galerie Horst Dietrich. However, when attendance was reportedly low, he suspected the other opening in town, the newly breached Wall, might have overshadowed his exhibition. This unexpected turn of events did not deter Tajiri, as he returned soon after to observe the dismantling of the Wall in January 1990. He was fascinated by the Wall’s materiality, again, but now in its state-imposed decomposition. He noted, “Immediately a new industry was born. Enterprising individuals and then whole families hacked away at the surface and sold fragments to tourists. An unequipped visitor could rent a hammer and a chisel for 5 marks an hour and carry off his own mementos.” Tajiri continued to photograph the Wall even as it disappeared. In one image, he posed with the Brandenburg Gate behind him and several large chunks of the Wall at his feet. He brought pieces of the Wall back with him to Baarlo and placed them along the windowsills of his studio. In 2005, Tajiri published the prints from his original survey as a brick-shaped book titled The Berlin Wall. In 2011, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Tajiri and his fellow surviving Nisei soldiers a Congressional Medal of Freedom.