Hooked on Tagging When Graffiti Becomes a Dangerous Addiction

Two young Hamburg graffiti artists recently suffered serious accidents in the space of just four days. Both sustained very severe injuries, a typical outcome in a risk-taking subculture in which some have paid for their passion with their lives.

Johannes Arlt/ DER SPIEGEL

By Bruno Schrep

Julius G. is young and extremely good-looking, with an infectious smile. He's the 21-year-old who exuberantly jumps into the air in a promotional film, makes funny faces and nimbly climbs up fire ladders embodying pure joie de vivre.

Despite his youth, Hamburg native Julius has come a long way, achieving something that will always remain a dream for many young people of both genders. As a top fashion model, he has sported the stylish clothing of renowned fashion companies like Benetton and Prada, traveled to New York, Milan and Paris for photo shoots, and even made it onto the cover of the Japanese edition of Vogue.

He seemed to have a promising career ahead of him until a gloomy Thursday afternoon in late October. Since then, Julius G. has been hospitalized with second- and third-degree burns at a special burn unit in Hamburg. Burns cover almost 40 percent of his body, including his shoulders, arms, back and face. It is unclear whether the 21-year-old will ever pose in front of a camera again.

The successful model owes his current state to a pastime he had pursued with great passion: illegally spraying graffiti onto railway cars and train station walls.

While scaling a parked freight car, G. came too close to a 15,000-volt overhead wire. He was caught by an arc of electricity, forcefully hurled against the track bed and severely injured. Other graffiti sprayers who were with him called the emergency services. Investigators called to the scene found fresh traces of graffiti on the car, along with cans of spray paint, sneakers and a backpack lying next to the tracks.

A Risky Subculture

Only four days earlier, shortly after 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning, another sprayer in Hamburg was also involved in a serious accident. Enrico M., 25, traveling with fellow graffiti sprayers from Berlin, was hit by a regional train while painting graffiti onto a wall. He is now lying in a hospital, with head injuries and multiple fractures to his spine. Doctors fear that he will remain an invalid for the rest of his life.

The two accidents, both tragic but at the same time the fault of the victims, draw attention to a subculture in which young people risk their lives to place their symbols in unusual locations, such as on the steep walls of high-rise buildings or in hard-to-reach subway tunnels.

Sprayers have repeatedly been killed or severely injured in recent years, paying an enormously high price for what has become a daily phenomenon.

The giant graffiti images in big cities like Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne have long been part of the urban landscape. They often consist of nothing but large, interlocking letters, in bright colors, black-and-white or sometimes only one color. The circumstances under which the images are sprayed -- at night, involving hazardous climbing operations and under time pressure -- are always a mystery. The images, shrill, provocative and conspicuous, seem to suddenly appear out of nowhere.

They are eyesores for the many people who see the cascades of colors, symbols and slogans as nothing but scribbling that should be banned and punished. On the other hand, a city's empty surfaces represent a giant playground for real and wannabe artists, left-wing protesters and right-wing football fans, especially young men.

Thirst for Adventure and Excitement

But why do young people put themselves in harm's way, risking run-ins with the police, trouble with their parents, and problems in school or at work? In a shadow world filled with rituals and vanities, they dream of self-fulfillment and fame, acting out their thirst for adventure and excitement.

"Spraying just makes me happy," says Patrick, a student at a Hamburg school for pupils with special needs, who doesn't have much else to laugh about. Patrick is a high-school dropout; an aid program sponsored by an employment agency expires in a few months and he has no prospects of finding a training position. He's also in debt, after having been ordered to pay damages to building owners.

Spraying graffiti helps him forget his troubles. Sometimes he does it with friends, but he usually works alone -- and only when he is in no great danger of being caught. He paints his signature, SUN, in blue, yellow and red onto walls and bridge piers, garages and bus shelters. "The sun drives away all that grayness," he explains. It isn't quite clear whether he's referring to gray walls or the drabness of his own life.

At 18, Patrick isn't even among the youngest of graffiti sprayers. Many adolescents start at 12 or 13 and stop in their early 20s.

Ever since the graffiti wave washed over from American ghettoes to Germany in the 1980s, an active scene has developed in many major cities. In some cases, it's aggressive and geared toward violence, and in others it's associated with artistic ambition. But all graffiti sprayers share the desire to challenge conventional society.

Spraying While Dangling Upside Down

Johnny S. paints frightening images with great perfection: werewolves with gnashing teeth, muscle-bound figures with eagles' heads and fire-spewing fantasy figures. To make them visible from afar, he sometimes breaks into the top floor of a building, climbs onto the roof and, using ropes, sprays his images while dangling upside-down.

"You have to overcome your fears and create something presentable while under great stress," he says, by way of explaining the appeal of spraying. Those who fully devote themselves to the pastime "can find the real meaning of life" in spraying graffiti, he says.

S. spends a large chunk of his salary as a nurse on cans of spray paint. One can, which costs about €3.80 ($5.14), is enough to cover about five square meters (54 square feet). The Hamburg native has few friends outside the graffiti community. Spraying graffiti has been the focus of S.'s life for years, and his crew is his second family.

Fame in the graffiti community is his reward. Young graffiti sprayers photograph and attempt to copy S.'s figures, which resemble violent comic-book characters, and beginners ask him for advice. Few would dare to paint over his images, which in and of itself is already a sign of great respect. "My werewolf has survived for more than a year now," he says proudly. He could hardly be more successful as a graffiti artist.

S. doesn't see his activities as vandalism. On the other hand, he says, those who do nothing more than scribble their initials everywhere with a magic marker shouldn't be surprised when their graffiti is derided as pure blight. It's a controversial notion, and even those in the graffiti community are divided over what does or does not constitute art.

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