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Photo Gallery: The Excitement and Danger of Graffiti Tagging

Foto: Johannes Arlt/ DER SPIEGEL

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.

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.

'We're Out There Every Night'

At Da Bonkaa (The Bunker), a shop under a railroad bridge in Hamburg that sells spray paint and other equipment, salesman Ray draws no distinction between artists and lowbrow graffiti writers. A paying customer is what counts, and the shop doesn't allow anyone to buy on credit. Da Bonkaa carries an enormous selection of colors, along with military surplus clothing.

Walter F., better known by his sprayer name, OZ, walks into the shop on a Wednesday afternoon, silently buys a can of paint and leaves without a word. The man, now 63, is considered Germany's oldest and most notorious sprayer. He serves as an example of how pointless the art-versus-eyesore debate is. With his smiley faces -- a half-circle and two dots -- which he has sprayed hundreds of thousands of times, and his tag, OZ, he has become a hated figure among building owners, as well as causing damage in the millions. He has been in prison several times and is still involved in litigation today. OZ's images are now sold in galleries, with some priced at more than €3,000 ($4,065).

The three men who are constantly inflicting damage  on Deutsche Bahn, the German national railroad, have no artistic ambitions whatsoever. "All we do is damage property," explains their leader, a giant of a man who calls himself Uwe. "And we're out there every night."

They are now in their mid-30s, well past the average age of graffiti writers. They are single and have no children or families -- three men who are chased by the police several times a week, and three men who don't want to grow up.

They've been spraying for more than 20 years. Their tags, SN (for SachschadeN, or "property damage") and Crew 180, can be seen wherever there are trains in Hamburg: on bridges, on acoustic barriers and in underpasses. But their real targets are the trains themselves.

'It's An Addiction'

It's a Saturday night, shortly after 2 a.m., near central station in Hamburg. The three men are wearing dark jackets, dark pants and black balaclavas over their heads. Using a duplicate key, they gain access to the railroad grounds and steal their way to the track where the Berlin sprayer was recently injured.

When a subway train pulls onto a sidetrack 300 meters away and the driver leaves the train, they grab their backpacks, filled with cans of spray paint, and rush over to the train. They jump across third rails and tracks, dodge oncoming trains, climb fences and hide behind short walls. A few hours later, they post several photos on the Internet depicting subway cars covered with their SN tag.

Why do they go to so much trouble? "It's an addiction," says Lengo, who hides his long, blonde hair under a baseball cap. "There's nothing more thrilling than when you've spray-painted a train and can still taste the paint on your tongue." And later on, when the painted train passes by, "you're just happy" -- although it's a state of bliss that quickly fades away, lasting no more than a day or two, he says. To get his next high, says Lengo, he has to spray another train as quickly as possible. "The intervals are getting shorter and shorter."

The fear of being run over by a train, electrocuted or caught only heightens the appeal, says Lengo. "It's pure adrenaline."

The third member of the crew, who goes by the sprayer name TEPP, says that they once even managed to cover an entire subway train with their own images, letters and symbols. In the graffiti scene, it's a level of success dubbed "whole train" -- the most important experience he's ever had, says TEPP.

Police Use Helicopters to Pursue Sprayers

Are they antisocial, or criminal ? It's all relative, says TEPP. After all, he says, in an attempt at justification, the graffiti movement creates new jobs: more workers in the paint industry and more cleaners and guards working for Deutsche Bahn .

In fact, special, anti-graffiti task forces have now been formed in a number of big cities. They hunt down sprayers, often risking getting hit by trains themselves. According to Rüdiger Carstens of the German Federal Police, the authorities in Hamburg have frequently used helicopters to pursue graffiti writers.

The damage is immense nonetheless. In 2012, railroad employees in Germany reported 14,000 cases of serious graffiti-related property damage. Cleaning the cars alone costs the company about €8 million a year. The paint often has to be painstakingly removed by hand, layer by layer.

No amount of money can fix what happens to sprayers who have been involved in accidents. At this point, no one can predict whether Berlin native Enrico M. will ever be able to lead a normal life again.

His mother, the only person who has been allowed to visit him, sees her worst fears confirmed. "I've always begged him to finally stop doing it," she says, "but he can be so stubborn." Her son refused to give up the weekend trips with his friends, when they would travel throughout Germany and much of Europe on InterRail passes, tagging all the places they had visited.

Escaping Anonymity

He was frequently caught, arrested and given warnings. He was even ordered not to appear on railroad property with cans of spray paint, risking a €500 fine or even arrest for each violation. But none of this deterred M., for whom every piece of graffiti represented the chance to escape anonymity for a little while.

In the ordinary world, M. was a nice young man from Berlin's Lichtenberg neighborhood, just one of many. But in the sprayer scene, he was a role model and a hero to be admired, someone who had managed to paint his tag, "Kasor," in cities all across Germany, from Hamburg to Berlin, Dresden and Cologne.

A lack of attention couldn't have been the driving force behind Julius G.'s desire to expose himself to the risks of graffiti painting. The 21-year-old, who grew up in an affluent Hamburg neighborhood, lived in two completely different realities. Whenever he left the glamorous world of fashion photography, he sought the thrills of illegal forays across remote sidings, almost always accompanied by the fellow members of his sprayer crew, DREIST (cocky).

And despite his somewhat unusual sprayer name, "Doktor," with which he signed his colorful images, he was an uncomplicated young man without affectations, say his friends.

Schadenfreude and a Tinge of Hate

His severe burns triggered consternation in the graffiti community. At a sprayer get-together in Hamburg's Harburg neighborhood, where city officials have made a flood barrier wall available for legal graffiti, everyone asks about G. How is he? Can he talk again? Can he still smile? When will they let him get out of bed?

No worries, says Ray from the sprayer shop, who is in the know. The burns aren't that dramatic, he explains, and at least his hair and eyebrows weren't affected. The "Doktor" has survived his first skin transplants, "and his girlfriend has already paid him a visit."

On Internet forums, the two accidents are primarily being discussed with schadenfreude and even a tinge of hate. "Finally. I congratulate every train that hits a sprayer," writes one member of a chat room. Someone else suggests "shutting off the equipment" to which the two injured young men are connected.

Voices like that of "Sikon" in Berlin are the exceptions. He writes: "Enrico will make it. Our thoughts are with you."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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