The dark subway station seems deserted at first. Then a shadowy figure appears. And another. Before long, the platform is swarming with hooded figures wielding paint rollers and spray cans.
They work fast and the nervous energy is palpable -- as is the sense of peril. But just as suddenly as they appeared, they are gone, leaving a dramatically transformed subway car as their calling card.
Meet the trainwriters, graffiti artists who spray Berlin's subways on a nightly basis. It is a tightly knit group, and they are as responsible for the German capital's gritty image as any of the numerous taggers who have shaped the face of the city over the years. Some of them have been on the scene since the 1980s and some are new. But all of them are obsessed with trainwriting.
It is this obsession that is the subject of a new documentary called "Unlike U", which premiered this month in Berlin. Far from a glorification of the pastime, it offers instead a definitive exploration of this shady, impenetrable club using footage of the sprayers at work and interviews with key figures, both active and retired.
Tops in Europe
It is, the film makes clear, no niche movement. There are currently well over 100 artists decorating Berlin's subway trains. According to a leading spray paint supplier, the Berlin graffiti scene is tops in Europe, and that only Paris comes close.
Indeed, everyone owning a spray can or marker seemed to be on hand for the premiere last week. A large sign in the cinema foyer read: "No Tags." Even the director went on stage to beg the audience to keep their markers in their pockets for the duration -- a plea that was met with laughter from the hundreds of black hoodies in the audience.
The film has been seven years in the making. Its directors, Henrik Regel, 31, and Björn Birg, 29, are keen to point out that they are not graffiti artists themselves. "We spent a very long time getting to know the writers and gaining their trust before we even began filming," Regel told SPIEGEL ONLINE. He is no stranger to street culture in the city, having made acclaimed hip-hop documentary "Rap City Berlin" in 2008. The challenge for the directors was to provide a truly in-depth look into an extremely secretive and paranoid underground group.
And to answer what turns out to be the central question of the film: Why do they do it? Or, as the promotional material poses the question: "What drives young people and sometimes even adult men to spend their nights fighting off surveillance cameras, monitoring security guards and risking heavy fines and imprisonment?"
'As If They Are Dancing'
The answers given by the writers themselves are varied and passionate. "You can put your whole personality into it," writer HARALD P. tells the camera. Another masked sprayer says: "Writing is the real deal." Veteran writer The City Famous waxes poetic. "Berlin has so many faces," he says, "but you can clearly distinguish Berlin's graffiti art from the rest. The characters are alive ... as if they are dancing."
Graffiti in Berlin began to flourish once the Wall came down in 1989, and quickly sought to emulate the scene in New York, celebrated by the hip-hop movies "Beat Street" and "Wildstyle." The core of the scene was known as "writer's corner" at the Friedrichstrasse subway station, a recently opened border station between East and West Berlin. "We felt this was our time," one of the graffiti artists says in the film. "We had our Berlin dreams and the will to change things."
Back then, they would swoop down on trains as they arrived in the station and tag them as quickly as possible before they pulled out again. If apprehended, most would be released just an hour or two later.
Putting the Kids to Bed
Nowadays, the trainwriters almost seem like guardians of Berlin's rebellious edge at a time when the city is frequently accused of becoming too sanitized. And it has become much riskier. The Berlin Transport Authority (BVG) spends €670,000 annually on cleaning graffiti off of trains. They try to take defaced trains out of operation as soon as possible to deny the sprayers the satisfaction of seeing their work or increasing their fame amongst their peers.
The State Office of Criminal Investigation in Berlin has a special 20-strong task force solely dedicated to catching the train writers. They monitor the ringleaders and mete out punishment ranging from fines to prison time when they are able to catch the elusive sprayers.
Yet despite sure signs of gentrification in the German capital -- like the legions of strollers which have taken over once grungy neighborhoods like Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain -- the movie makes it clear that the graffiti scene is in no way dying out.
If anything, says Regel, it has become more varied. "Some live on social benefits, come have a university education and many have day jobs," he says. "A few even put the kids to bed before heading out to go writing."