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Art

Graffiti: aerosol art or canned crime?

To some it's spray-on culture, to others senseless vandalism. Homeowners, local authorities, and graffiti artists don't appear to have much in common, but one artist in Bonn is calling for a fresh canvas.

The alien is green, slimy, and has teeth like a shark's. The teeth are turned up in a grin: Diabolical? A little silly? That is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe it's simply the look of total satisfaction, as this particular Martian is a legal alien, with all rights to exist as graffiti on a wall designated exactly for that purpose at the youth center in the former German capital, Bonn.

Siegfried Hoss

Hoss has the never-ending task of cleaning up Bonn's graffiti

But Bonn has a problem with graffiti in other places, namely illegally sprayed tags or pictures on houses, public utility boxes, or pedestrian tunnels. The city spends around 90,000 euros (117,000 dollar) to clean up illegal graffiti – an amount that has remained constant in recent years, says Siegfried Hoss. He's in charge of graffiti, hazardous substances and special tasks in the city's building management department.

Hoss is also one of the organizers of the current illegal graffiti awareness week, and has little patience for those who illegally tag: "That's a crime – damaging someone else's property," he said.

Millions in damages

One example, Hoss says, are gray storage containers used by postal, telecommunications, and utility companies. They are permanent fixtures on some streets, and they are a favorite target of graffiti artists.

A man removes graffiti from a wall

Graffiti removal is a time-intensive process that often requires a pressure washer

"To remove the graffiti from one of these boxes, taggers get a bill for between 200 and 300 euros," Hoss said.

Those who can't pay must do community service.

"We've had that, too," Hoss added. "They had to help clean to see how much work it is."

A partnership between the city, local police, federal law enforcement, the Deutsche Bahn rail network and other local networks has recently been established to encourage an exchange of information and experiences to help fight illegal graffiti in Bonn. According to the German Cities Council, German communities nation-wide pay a combined 200 million euros to clean up graffiti. But is official action the best way to solve the problem?

Legal: nicer and long-lasting

A pedestrian tunnel with long, unmonitored walls runs under a street smack in the middle of town in Bonn. In the tunnel, there's a striking, larger-than-life portrait of one of Bonn's favorite sons, whose stern expression and unruly hair are recognizable far beyond Germany's borders. It's a classic depiction of Ludwig van Beethoven, but it comes straight from a can: the spray-painted art was commissioned by the city.

Auf dem Bild: Beethoven Motiv-Graffiti nahe Benjamin Sobola in front of his Beethoven portrait
Copyright: Andreas Grigo / DW

Sobola in front of a work by Bonn artist Eugen Schramm

Strong colors and a dark background give the portrait a classy look. The artist, Benjamin Sobala, says official graffiti may give other taggers pause before they make their mark on this particular pedestrian tunnel. Another example is on a nearby bus station.

"We painted that one about three years ago, but it's remained tag-free the whole time," Sobala said.

Sobala has been a passionate graffiti artist for years, and has now been tasked by the city to try and established a better relationship between the taggers and the community. He gives workshops and talks about legal opportunities for graffiti art. In that regard, however, even Sobala is critical of the city of Bonn for their efforts to make space available for taggers.

"If I compare Bonn to Cologne, I see lots of these spaces in Cologne, many of which are provided by businesses," he said. "I think that's a bit disappointing, that it's not like that here."

Act fast

He says providing more tagging space would be a good way to reduce the amount of illegal graffiti, but it's a method that the city isn't sold on.

"At some point, these legal spaces will run out," said Bonn's graffiti chief Hoss. "The next person who comes says, 'Ah, it's already been sprayed here – I'll just go to the next building.' Then we have another crime."

For the cases when unwanted graffiti appears, Sobala says it is critical to act quickly.

"Get rid of it as fast as possible, otherwise the taggers feel supported in their actions," he said, adding that anti-graffiti paint exists that can be scrubbed clean 50 times.

Vultures, burkas, and bananas

Illegal taggers are motivated by anything from vandalism, to noble ideas of fine art, to political activism. While some of the simplest tags are seen as mere scribbles by some graffiti artists, there are countless of other examples of graffiti with a particular status: graffiti of bananas by the German artist Thomas Baumgärtel are hanging in more than 4,000 homes and galleries.

Shamsia Hassani, 25, paints graffiti at the French Cultural Center in Kabul

Hassani is thought of as Afghanistan's first serious graffiti artist

In Leipzig, Blek le Rats "Madonna with Child" has been meticulously restored and is designated as a historic monument. Shamisa Hassani uses her graffiti of blue burkas as a symbol against the suppression of women in Afghanistan, and activists in Nairobi spray vultures on the homes of politicians believed to be corrupt.

That's reason enough for Benjamin Sobala to consider every piece of graffiti a piece of art for now.

But he still strongly supports the legal variety of tagging.

"I'm for legal tagging because I know as a home-owner that it's not nice to have to give up your vacation just so you can afford to repaint your house," he said.

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