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The Surry Hills Colourful House & U2

Who Is Thierry Noir? Those travelling by light rail via the LX route between Moore Park and Central Station, or driving north along South Dowling Street towards the city, might be familiar with an eye-catching warehouse on a corner block in Surry Hills.

The Colourful House at 625 South Dowling St, Surry Hills, painted by Thierry Noir. Photo: Alec Smart

Decorated with brightly-coloured rectangles like a rainbow quilt, it is owned by Australian entrepreneur, John Winning, head of the Appliances Online retail company.

The Colourful House by Thierry Noir

Known as The Colourful House and located at 625 South Dowling St, the two-storey brick building is illustrated on the front and rear facades with the profiles of side-facing heads, whilst the northside wall adjacent to the tramline features a cartoon of a musical quartet.

Most of the characters’ faces have big lips and prominent noses that to some degree resemble the Moai monolithic Easter Island statues – and that gives a clue to the creator.

The signature themes are those of veteran French street artist Thierry Noir, who found international recognition over four decades of painting iconic murals, as well as his associations with pop culture and the Irish rock band U2.

Northside wall of The Colourful House, beside the light rail, painted by Thierry Noir. Photo: Alec Smart

Noir was commissioned to paint the former jam factory (latterly a furniture warehouse) by American disc jockey and music producer Seth Troxler, a friend of the building’s owner. It reportedly took Noir three months to complete the project – the rectangles were initially painted by four helpers, two of them a travelling couple who post blogs of their worldly adventures under the name Snap, Travel and Pop.

Noir then flew in from his Berlin home and painted the figures onto the coloured panels.

Noir reveals on his website, “In 2015 the 1,100 cubic metre two-storey historic warehouse was converted into a single private residence. The owner is a close friend of NOIR collaborator, the US techno DJ Seth Troxler. Troxler extended the invite to Australia to paint the entire building.

“Painting of all four sides took place between October 2017 and January 2018. One fresco on the south side of the building is a homage to Troxler himself.” This illustration, facing the neighbouring apartment block, features a DJ at his turntables.

Colourful House in Surry Hills

Aerial view of The Colourful House at 625 South Dowling St, Surry Hills, Sydney, painted by Thierry Noir

Berlin Baptism of Thierry Noir

So who is Thierry Noir? Born in 1958, he moved to West Berlin, Germany, in January 1982, which was then divided between a massive wall, patrolled by soldiers who shot people attempting to climb over.

The wall was built after a fracturing of the military alliance that defeated Germany in WWII and in 1949 the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin divided the country between communist East and democratic West.

In April 1984, Noir, whilst living in a squat in West Berlin and loitering with the city’s eclectic community of artists and musicians, began painting the notorious wall that divided the city. This was done clandestinely, often under cover of darkness, to avoid the border patrols, because the wall was 3 metres within the official border of East Germany, and communist police could arrest anyone who came in close proximity.

Because time was of the essence, Noir developed his distinctive ‘naïve art’ style comprising simple figures and bold colours – which he described as “two ideas, three colours” – quick and easy to create.

Murals by Thierry Noir in Berlin

Thierry Noir's murals along the original Berlin Wall when Germany was still divided. Photo: Thierry Noir

Initially, Noir was treated with suspicion by the West Germans – a foreigner who preferred art to the political slogans adopted by most agitators who braved painting the accursed three-metre-high barrier – but soon his iconic characters were themselves seen as uplifting and rebellious.

In 1987, director Wim Wenders chose to film a scene of his existential fantasy Wings of Desire alongside a section of the wall featuring Noir’s artwork. For several minutes the angel, Damiel, who chooses to experience life as a human after he falls in love with a circus trapeze artist, strolls along the border and pauses to wave at Noir, stood atop a ladder painting the actual wall.

The highly-rated film has become a cult classic.

Noir reveals on his website, “In the .. film you can see me painting the Berlin Wall ... I wave to Bruno Ganz’s character as he walks by. We did it in one take. It was very cold that day. Sections of the Berlin Wall featured in Wings of Desire were sold at auction at the Metropole Hotel Monaco in 1991…”

Thierry Noir mural in Berlin Wall film

Thierry Noir (left) painting the Berlin Wall in 1987 in a scene from Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire

The Berlin Wall was dismantled in 1990 after German reunification. The 33 original painted sections of the wall featuring Noir’s artwork that were auctioned at the hotel brought him international attention.

Thierry Noir and Attention, Achtung!

Then, in 1991, a Dublin-based music band relocated to Berlin where David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop had previously made influential albums, in the hope of tapping into that creative energy and moving away from the pop anthem sound that defined them.

As they achieved success with the result – an album named Achtung Baby that brought huge international success and a string of accolades - the musicians, Irish quartet U2, sought out Noir for a collaboration.

U2 commissioned Noir to paint six Trabants (notoriously inefficient and highly polluting East-German-made cars) for their 1992 Zoo TV world tour. The vehicles were incorporated into the stage lighting rigs for their live concerts, and one of them was featured in the centre of 16 photos that illustrate the cover of the Achtung Baby album.

U2 by Thierry Noir Trabant

Irish rock band U2 alongside one of the Trabants Thierry Noir painted for the Zoo TV tour

On the Phillips Auction House website Noir said, “The U2 collaboration came about through conversations with my friend Wim Wenders. I had worked with Wenders on his 1987 film Wings of Desire …. 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….”

He continued, “The Trabants that I painted for U2 in 1991 were truly a fusion of East and West Berlin … 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.”

Thierry Noir artist and mural painter

Thierry Noir in 2021 with the Trabant he painted for the 30th anniversary of U2's Achtung Baby album

In an interview with Chinese-English contemporary arts magazine Art.Zip, Noir revealed how U2 returned to enlist his service on the 30th-anniversary re-release of Achtung Baby.

“Thirty years later, I was invited by U2 to create a new Trabant. It was exhibited inside the entrance of the renowned Hansa studio in Berlin which was where Achtung Baby was originally recorded.”

Thierry Noir

Surry Hills house paitend by Thierry Noir

The Colourful House in Surry Hills, painted by French street artist Thierry Noir. Photo: Alec Smart



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