Germans love graffiti. I tend to stay away from such broad strokes of cultural categorizations, but I’m sticking to this one. I have traveled not the whole world, but three continents (so far) and I speculate that not only do they love graffiti, they excel at it.
There are many kinds of graffiti the world-over. I am not particularly fond of the stuff whose aim is to claim territory, whether gang-related or ego-driven. I am drawn to the creative stuff, clever or political, usually left-leaning or anarchic, and certainly the satirical. Thought-provoking gets extra credit. I am a big fan of Banksy. If you haven’t seen the movie, Exit Through the Giftshop, I recommend it.
A few days ago, I was riding a train between Leipzig and Koblenz, and everywhere – along the tracks, on abandoned buildings, on not-so-abandoned buildings, on cement barriers, on construction equipment – the word Denk.
I like how the graffiti in Germany is subversive and full-out vandalism, as well as culturally-encouraged and institutionally-sanctioned, even subsidized. In Leipzig, a town of a half-million or so, I saw a temporary wall around a construction site. Each section had been painted by the Graffiti Verein, a municipally-supported youth group.
Though there were the requisite flowers and depictions of peace doves, there were more adventurous themes as well.
An homage to Anonymous, with the V for Vendetta mask, for instance.
The first time I lived on my own, it was in a sublet apartment in West Berlin. The Berliner Mauer — the Wall – was very much a part of everyday life. On the Eastern side of the Wall, there was the so-called death strip and barbed wire. Few came close without losing their lives. On the Western side, it was covered with inspired graffiti. Here is a photo of a reproduction of a particularly famous work, of the East German president French-kissing the Soviet head of state, sitting in the infamous East German-constructed piece-of-shit car, the Trabant.
I lived in Kreuzberg, the neighborhood associated with students, artists, and Turkish immigrants, as well as the occasional lesbian. And graffiti. It was everywhere. Art, really. Painted. Plastered. Two-dimensional and three. Satirical. Irreverant. Insistent. I remember on what had been an advertizing billboard, someone had stapled used condoms in a heart shape.
The year I was there, the government was about to embark on its first full census in a very long time. There was a repeating stencil, all over the city really, of two figures. The first was running with a briefcase traveling documents behind. The second figure was pursuing the first, bat in hand, and the accompanying words said Volkszähler, pass bloß auf! (Census takers: watch out!)
This empassioned plea did not come from an American-style Libertarian impulse, but rather an informed, anarchic, anti-fascist resistance based on real history and past Nazi abuses.
I have my own personal history with graffiti. With due caution for my uninformed knowledge regarding statue of limitations, details here will be lacking. It is enough to say that I took part, at one point in my life after my summer in West Berlin, in acts of graffiti activism inspired by feminist impluses.
In raising my children, I told them both that should they ever be arrested for vandalism associated with graffiti, it sure as hell better be of a political or satirical nature.