Graffiti and tagging are a phenomenon seen all over the world, but how they are regarded and dealt with varies widely, depending on the location. A stroll through the streets of Berlin quickly reveals why it is sometimes referred to as “the graffiti capital of Europe.” The very graphic graffiti term “bombing” (das Bombing in German) takes on a whole new meaning in the German capital, which suffered actual massive Allied bombing during World War II, but today seems to be under attack yet again by aggressive taggers and so-called “street artists.”
With its infamous Wall (1961-1989), Berlin was long a graffiti artist’s paradise, at least on the Wall’s western side. Artists like Thierry Noir (b. 1958) and Keith Haring (1958-1990) began decorating the Wall’s western surface in the 1980s. Its fall soon inspired the East Side Gallery, now the longest semi-preserved stretch of the Wall. But as the Berlin Wall quickly disappeared in the early 1990s, graffitists and taggers turned to smaller, more mundane “canvases.” Just about any building wall or public surface of any kind became fair game for a growing army of urban artists and “writers.”
Before we move on, let’s define “graffiti” (singular “graffito”) or “street art” versus “tagging.” Often, when we say graffiti, we really mean tagging or tag (“das tag”). Good graffiti has some artistic merit, while tagging is an ego trip that usually lacks any such quality. A good distinction I found at a graffiti site reads: “Street art is about the audience, graffiti tagging is about the tagger.” Although both graffiti and tagging can be connected with vandalism, the ugly defacing of private or public property is more often in the form of tags and bombing.
Unfortunately, most of the graffiti seen in Berlin and many other German cities and towns falls into the category of bombing. Bombers quickly execute two- or three-color “throw-ups,” banners, or tags — less complex pieces that allow them to quickly move on before they might be detected. They often prefer to do “Rooftops,” the term in German (and English) for graffiti done on rooftop walls or projections. A “Rooftop” is highly visible while offering a lower chance of getting caught in the act.
From my fifth-floor apartment in Berlin I once personally witnessed a “bomber” at work on a rooftop that was a few buildings away. I watched with alternating waves of fascination and disgust. Should I call the police? (What address would I give?) Would they even bother to try to catch this guy? In the end I did what the typical Berliner does: nothing, nichts. Over the many months I remained in Berlin, I saw that ugly neon green bombing every day, reminding me of my inaction and my callous disregard of the rights of the building’s owner.
The rooftop graffiti bombing I witnessed was never removed while I was there. As far as I know, it is still there. And that is another typical thing about Berlin (and German/European) graffiti: It rarely disappears. At best it will blight the streetscape for months or even years before finally being removed or painted over. But whenever I return to Berlin after a couple of years’ absence, I see tags and graffiti that were there during my previous visit. Even private shops and businesses tend to ignore longtime graffiti defacing their front facades.
Berlin and other European cities seem to be more riddled with graffiti than North American ones. That is probably the result of the failure to remove tags and graffiti in public places. Europeans seem to have a higher tolerance for graffiti than North Americans. Has the street art all around them become invisible? Has tagging just become a normal part of the cityscape, or is it an issue of the cost of removal? Whatever the reason, Germans and other Europeans seem to be far less interested in removing ugly graffiti than Americans and Canadians.
Berlin’s special antigraffiti task force wasn’t even formed until the early 1990s. As with many things in Berlin, the task force is underfunded and largely ineffectual. The German capital averages about 15 arrests a week, with fines ranging from 100 euros (about $135) to several thousand euros. A task force spokesman estimates the property damage caused by graffiti in Berlin at 35 to 50 million euros a year.
It’s difficult to believe that Bonn, the former West German capital, spends an average of 90,000 euros (about $121,000) per year on combating illegal graffiti. Unlike Bonn, some German cities offer wall space that graffiti artists can use without violating any laws, but it is questionable if this tactic actually reduces the illegal variety.
But what Bonn spends is peanuts compared to the 50 million euros that the German railway, Deutsche Bahn, lays out annually for graffiti abatement. Recent news reports indicated that Deutsche Bahn was looking into the use of video-equipped drones to catch Sprayer in the act and reduce the major expense of graffiti removal from its rail cars, a favorite target of German graffitist. Many Berlin S-Bahn and U-Bahn commuter rail cars have “etched” tags on the windows, scratched or rubbed into the glass. To combat this, the U-Bahn windows often have a pattern on the glass that discourages etchings by making them less visible.
I have written before about the East Side Gallery and the lack of respect for its historic, artistic works. Every time that money and effort go into restoring the graffiti on this section of the inner Berlin Wall along the Spree river, it only takes a few months before morons disrespectfully scribble their ugly tags and graffiti over these inspired works. True graffiti artists know that you don’t do that unless you can do something better. People have even tagged the sign that asks visitors to respect the artistic landmark!
In any event, there has always been a blurry line between graffiti art and graffiti vandalism. Several German and Swiss graffitists have earned fame for their art. Some, like the Swiss Harald Naegeli, were considered criminals before later becoming recognized artists. Large commissioned wall murals in several cities have been done by German graffiti artists like DAIM (Mirko Reisser), CanTwo (Fedor Wildhardt), Loomit (Mathias Köhler) and others. Though not as famous as the English graffiti artist Banksy, these and other street artists have gained international reputations. Hamburg-based Peter-Ernst Eiffe (1941-1982) is considered Germany’s first serious graffiti artist.
We can only hope that there will be more good graffiti and less tagging in Germany and Europe as time goes by. But I wouldn’t hold my breath on that.
Also see: East Side Gallery Timeline (with photos)