“There was no critical public opinion [in the GDR]. So, art and culture served to put critical opinion in the public eye.”

Interview 2021

Thomas Klingenstein, born in East Berlin in 1961, was unable to realise his dream of studying Japanology in the GDR. An oppositionist, he was imprisoned for four months in 1981 before being exiled to West Germany. His painting “Umleitung in den japanischen Sektor” (“Detour to the Japanese sector”) portrays his childhood dream of travelling to the Far East.

Thomas Klingenstein in the interview

On his painting

Who is Thomas Klingenstein?

Remembering Mühlenstraße before 1989

Childhood dream of painting on the Wall

What role did art play in the GDR?

Oppositionist involvement

From model student to political dissident

Watched by the Stasi


Release and exile to West Germany

"The East Side Gallery is…"

The painting “Umleitung in den japanischen Sektor” (“Detour to the Japanese sector”) portrays Klingenstein’s childhood dream: the Berlin Wall opening on to a pagoda and Mount Fuji in Japan. The artist chose this motif to envisage the possibility of free travel and to appeal for broad horizons and openness towards other cultures. Recalling the cultural differences between Europe and the Far East, the painting hints that the perceived divide between East and West Germany may not be as huge as many assume.

Born Thomas Erwin, the artist assumed his mother’s surname, Klingenstein, in 1985. A politically non-conformist Japan enthusiast, he was refused a place to study Japanology in East Germany and became involved in East Berlin’s oppositionist arts scene. He was arrested aged 19, in late 1980, shortly before a book of his poetry was published in West Germany. In early 1981 he was exiled to West Germany. He later spent long periods in Japan and now lives and works in Berlin as a painter and writer.

Additional information:

Link to Thomas Klingenstein’s website:

Thomas Klingenstein’s eye-witness report:


„Umleitung in den japanischen Sektor“ is part of the online-tour: Life in a Dictatorship

all artworks