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Art or garbage?

January 22, 2011

Cologne is one of the German cities that is famous, or infamous, for its graffiti. Deutsche Welle tracked down two sprayers active in the Cologne scene who argue against claims that graffiti is mere wanton destruction.

A polished tag in downtown Cologne
Some 'tags' can be extremely intricateImage: DW

Just outside an industrial park in western Cologne, Helmut stands on a garbage bin. With plastic gloves on, he sprays black paint onto a burgundy wall that is already covered with symbols in a number of other colors.

The black is just the finishing touch. Helmut first used metallic grey to spray three block-lettered words, which at first I didn't really understand.

Graffiti on a wall in Cologne
Helmut's WHY AM I is an example of a legible lettering styleImage: DW


Confused, I first thought the "I" referred to Helmut himself and that his message was one of the basic inquiries of human existence: What is the meaning of life?

He explained afterwards, however, that the "I" was graffiti itself, that he was much more interested in the question of what brings people to spray letters on walls.

"I think a feeling of expression is in us all: A yearning to communicate outwardly. You can achieve that by driving around with your Mercedes Benz star on the front of the car, or by spraying graffiti on walls. Everything in life is about being seen. What's seen is there: I tag, therefore I am."

Helmut said he was well aware that graffiti was illegal but added that this wouldn't deter him. He said the debate was deeper than a mere reflection on the nature of civil obedience.

"These tags that people view as offenses and as violations of their privacy are just as offensive as the paint that was on that wall before. Are you allowed to offend my eyes because you 'own' the outer wall of your house?"

The 'categorical imperative'

Whereas Helmut's convictions resemble a Cartesian claim of radical freedom, one could say the arguments of the German state take more of a Kantian shape, in particular the ethical formulations that emerge in his later writings on practical reason.

Tags on the facade of an apartment house
'Tags' of all kinds are a headache for house ownersImage: DW

The organization that represents Cologne's property owners, the Kölner Haus- und Grundbesitzerverein (KHG) takes a firm stance against graffiti.

Managing director Thomas Tewes told Deutsche Welle that he is only against illegal graffiti because it represents an attack on German law and thus the foundation of society itself.

"Our society can't work if everybody can do what he or she wants. Society only works with rules, and we have to obey these rules. And this is the only thing we want to convey to these graffiti sprayers: They must accept the rules of a society. Nothing more, nothing less," he said.

the Kölner Anti Spry Aktion emblem
The Cologne Anti-Spraying Action is out to clean up the cityImage: DW

Around 10 years ago, the city of Cologne organized an anti-graffiti action (KASA) that is an umbrella group of different organizations - including the KHG and Germany's national rail operator, Deutsche Bahn - directed at removing unwanted tags in the city.

The group spends millions of euros each year in its endeavor.

"We want our people to feel safe, and if graffiti is not removed immediately it can lead to a dilapidation of the neighborhood that eventually instills fear in the citizens. When you are in an area where graffiti are left on the walls, well, people tend to litter more, and they tend to be less careful," KASA director Monika Radke said.

Senseless property damage?

One of the main arguments the officials made, in addition to its illegality, was that graffiti represented a senseless destruction of property.

Norbert, a graffiti artist who has been active in the Cologne scene for over 20 years, told Deutsche Welle that these claims are lazy oversimplifications that distort the reality of the situation.

"There will always be people asking why we do this… It's not just about destruction or breaking the law or whatever they'll say. The people who say those things don't understand that graffiti is done by citizens who pay taxes," he said.

Norbert spraying under a bridge outside Cologne
If you get caught by the police, like Norbert has been twice, you can face hefty penaltiesImage: DW

In his nearly twenty years of spraying, Norbert said he had been caught twice and faced hefty fines. Though he said he enjoyed the rush, he insisted that he wasn't solely interested in graffiti out of rebellion or any desire to destroy property. For him, it's much more about the art.

"I don't even think about the building itself when I am spraying. To me, it doesn't matter who the building belongs to, and it's definitely not about just destroying someone else's property. These are rash conclusions that reduce the phenomenon to nothingness."

Norbert said there was no such thing as a typical German sprayer. It's not just rich kids or punks with nothing better to do, which he said was often the public perception.

"In Germany, at least, graffiti artists aren't all from 'difficult' backgrounds. That's complete nonsense. I know sons of judges who are sprayers. These guys aren't criminals who are trying to scare other people. That thought has never even crossed my mind. It's utter nonsense," he said.

People respect artistic tags

Of all the dozens of hurried people I asked at Rudolfplatz, one of Cologne's central squares, regardless of age or gender most issued similar responses to the question of what they think of graffiti in their city.

When the tag is done in an explicitly artistic manner, i.e. when it is clear that the artists has invested time and energy into his creation, they respect it and even believe it improves Cologne's image.

But when the tag is simply sprayed, scratched, or smeared on a house, almost everyone felt it was worthless and detrimental.

Author: Gabriel Borrud

Editor: Rob Turner