Inside Berlin’s graffiti war

With Berlin considered by many to be Europe’s ground zero for graffiti, David Wroe looks at the German capital’s uphill struggle to keep up with the city’s prolific taggers.

Inside Berlin’s graffiti war
Photo: DPA

A dirty duffle bag sits on the floor of Marko Moritz’s office, full of spray paint cans that clink loudly when he unzips it. Moritz, who is Berlin’s top anti-graffiti cop, is bald and broad-shouldered, dressed in jeans, a dark shirt and a light tie. He looks unmistakably like a policeman.

Graffiti artists, he explains, often wear fluorescent orange vests to pass themselves off as railway workers when they go to ”bomb” – that is paint – a train station. In response, the police have their own disguises, of which the duffle bag and cans are part.

”We go out at night to the train stations, dressed in baseball caps and with these cans,” he explains. ”We have to fit in … so we can catch them.”

It’s one part of an escalating strategy the police are using to dent Berlin’s graffiti juggernaut. With about 15,000 graffiti offences reported last year in Berlin, costing €30 million in damage, Chief Detective Moritz has the unenviable job of trying to stop what seems to be an unstoppable force.

Europe’s graffiti ground zero

Berlin is Europe’s graffiti “hotspot” right now, Moritz says – a claim few would challenge when seeing vandalism on nearly every single building in town. He estimates there are between 60 and 70 highly active and organized homegrown ”crews” operating here and many more part-timers and visiting sprayers who see the city as the place to make a name for themselves.

While many Berliners seem to accept graffiti as a fact of life in Europe’s poor but sexy creative capital, it is a crime that the police say they take seriously.

Moritz is in charge of the Graffiti in Berlin squad, which has 36 officers drawn from both the Berlin and federal forces and is based in a large police complex in Lankwitz, in the southwestern suburbs. Much of the squad’s time is spent gathering intelligence on the major crews and sprayers. To get this, they go undercover to graffiti festivals, gather tip-offs – including coaxing information from sprayers they’ve caught – and sift through graffiti chat rooms on the internet.

They are helped by the fact that graffiti sprayers crave recognition and therefore document and promote their work. A bold attack on a train, for example, is a fleeting achievement since ”bombed” trains are hauled straight off to the depot and cleaned. The only way to preserve the moment is to film it and post it on a website or print it in a magazine.

Sprayers also keep ”black books,” or albums of their work, Moritz explains. Once the police have enough evidence to link a tag name to an individual, the squad can apply for a warrant, search their house and seize these black books as evidence.

”This is a very good thing for us,” Moritz says of sprayers’ tendency for self-incrimination. Moritz won’t reveal how his unit hacks into private chatrooms or links graffiti tags to real individuals. ”I have my secrets,” he says with a smile.

What he will proudly reveal is the database of between 7,000 and 8,000 graffiti ”tag” names, which the squad has been compiling since 1995, the year after it was set up.

”This is our treasure,” he says. By punching a tag name into the computer, he can bring up every incident where the tag has been used, which crew the sprayer belongs to, who his associates are and any other information the police have on him.

Individual tags

Every sprayer has his own tag, Moritz says. To pinch another man’s tag invites trouble. Therefore, if the police can nail a sprayer for one attack, they can argue he is responsible for every other wall bearing his tag.

”We can go to the judge and say, ‘This is the rule of the scene,”’ he says. ”The tag is individual. If they use someone else’s tag, they could be in danger.”

But not all judges buy the argument, according to Peter Brasche, a Kreuzberg lawyer who defends graffiti artists and takes painted canvasses as part of his payment.

Citing the code of the graffiti subculture isn’t enough to satisfy the strict definition of legal proof, he says. While acknowledging that some members of the GIB squad really know their stuff, Brasche is critical of the squad’s methods. A notorious incident in which the squad took to the skies in a helicopter with night vision glasses earned widespread ridicule. ”Even the people who don’t like graffiti laughed at them for that,” Brasche says.

But Brasche is also critical of what he says are heavy tactics the squad uses to coax information about young sprayers they’ve caught.

”They are good at scaring people,” he says.

Either way, the squad gets results, arresting about 1,500 alleged sprayers a year. Sprayers face fines or community service for their first few offences but the penalties can escalate to two years’ prison. The GIB squad focuses on the hardcore crews, leaving political graffiti and street art to other sections of the police.

”It takes a long time to learn to read tags. You need some years to understand the rules and the people,” says Moritz, who has been with the squad since 2000.

Violence on the rise

He fishes out a sprayer’s black book the police are holding as evidence. It is full of pictures of the young man and friends posing in front of graffiti pieces. One picture shows the man brandishing an automatic pistol.

”I think probably he’s just a show off,” Moritz says. But it underlines his biggest concern: that the Berlin graffiti scene is becoming more violent, with crews attacking one another in tribal skirmishes.

”Physical violence is a huge problem. At the start, they had the rule of no violence, but in the last few years, it’s a completely new part of the graffiti scene.”

One sprayer, whose tag name is Anek, told The Local that a friend of his had been stabbed in the neck by a rival crew. Everyone who knows the scene agrees that violence is on the rise, though it is still a small proportion of crews that are involved in more serious crimes.

Moritz acknowledges Berlin will always have graffiti, though he insists his squad is making a difference. After eight years immersed in the scene, he’s also formed his own opinions about what distinguishes the good graffiti from the bad.

”I know my own style is shit,” he says with a laugh. ”But I think some of these people will have the possibility later in life to make a lot of money.”

Unfortunately, it’s not his job to judge, he says. Art, vandalism, talent or trash – as far as he’s concerned, it’s just a crime.

For members


Who was involved in the alleged plot to ‘overthrow German democracy’?

There are a litany of strange characters thought to be behind a planned coup in Germany, including a former far-right politician, high-ranking military men and a minor aristocrat with a love of conspiracy theories. Here's what you need to know.

Who was involved in the alleged plot to 'overthrow German democracy'?

On Wednesday, the shocking news emerged that police had arrested 25 people in connection with a suspected plot to overthrow the German government.

Those arrested are accused of having formed “a terrorist group by the end of November 2021 at the latest, which had set itself the goal of overcoming the existing state order in Germany and replacing it with their own kind of state”, prosecutors said in a statement. 

They added that the suspects had allegedly planned to storm parliament with a small group of armed militants and take control of the government by force. But who exactly are the accused?

Well, if this all sounds like something out of a dystopian novel, there are some familiar characters you need to know about.

Here’s a rundown of who they are.

The Reichsbürger movement

Known as far-right extremists who hanker after a bygone era, the Reichsbürger movement is nothing new in Germany – though its members have become increasingly volatile in recent years.

Since the 1980s, the group has been a ramshackle coalition of neo-Nazis, gun enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists who ultimately question the legitimacy of the Federal Republic of Germany and refuse to follow its laws. Instead, these so-called Reichbürger (citizens of the empire) tend to believe in the continued existence of the Third Reich and often claim that modern-day Germany has become nothing more than an American vassal state in the post-war order.

Though this kind of thought has been on the fringes of German society for decades, the Reichbürger have recently been amassing support and appear to have been emboldened by the rise of other far-right groups. Its estimated number of followers has doubled from 10,000 to 20,000 since 2017 alone, with around 2,000 deemed to be potentially violent. Indeed, recent years have seen increasingly brutal clashes between members of the group and the German authorities. 

One such incident in 2014 saw a former Mr. Germany beauty pageant winner open fire on the police when they tried to evict him from his property as a result of unpaid debts. Another incident led to the death of a police officer, who was shot in Bavaria while trying to confiscate firearms from a radicalised follower of the group. 

Alongside the alleged plot to overthrow the German government, other acts of terrorism have also been pinned on the group – or those associated with them. Most recently, they include a suspected plot to kidnap Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD), along with planned attacks on asylum seekers, Jewish people and other minorities.

READ ALSO: What is Germany’s extremist Reichsbürger movement?

Heinrich XIII, Prince of Preuss

Heinrich XIII

The arrested the arrested Heinrich XIII Prince Reuss German police sits in a police car in Frankfurt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Boris Roessler

The 71-year-old “prince“, arrested in Frankfurt’s West End on Wednesday morning, has been described as the ringleader of the group. He pictured himself as head of the new revolutionary government if the envisioned coup went according to plan.

A descent of the the House of Reuß that ruled parts of Thuringia for about 800 years, family members had distanced themselves from him due to his outspoken far-right conspiracy theories.

In a notorious speech given at a business summit in Zurich in 2019, Heinrich XIII had referenced the antisemitic conspiracy theory that the 20th century world order had been engineered by the Rothschild dynasty and the freemasons. He also complained that his own dynasty had been “disposessed” after the first world war. 

“Ever since Germany surrendered, it has never been sovereign again,” he told listeners. “It has only been made an administrative structure of the allies.”

Rüdiger von Pescatore

Described by prosecutors as the terrorist group’s military arm, Von Pescatore was already a paratrooper commander and then part of the Special Forces Command. He was allegedly dismissed from the military after selling former East German weapons which had fallen out of use.

Birgit Malsack-Winkemann

Birgit Malsack-Winkemann

Alleged plotter Birgit Malsack-Winkemann (AfD) speaks in parliament in 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd von Jutrczenka

The lawyer-by-training had been a member of the far-right Alternative for Germany ever since it was founded in 2013 as a party against the Euro currency. A member of Bundestag between 2017 and 2021, she grew increasingly vocal against immigration and espoused conspiracy theories from the extremist group QANon.

Who else is believed to be involved? 

So far, prosecutors have mentioned a number of others who could have been involved in the alleged plot. One is a Russian woman called Vitalia B., who is accused of having tried to facilitate contact between the plotters and the Russian government in order to discuss a “new political order” in Germany.

Former – and current – soldiers are also believed to be among the members of the terror group, and they are also thought to have recruited members of the police force. One of the men arrested on Wednesday was an active member of the KSK special forces – the elite wing of the German military. 

In addition to 23 arrests in Germany on Wednesday, two people were arrested in Austria and Italy. Prosecutors say they have identified a further 27 people in connection with the plot, so expect more details to emerge soon. 

READ ALSO: Germany busts far-right cell planning attack on parliament