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


What we know so far about Berlin’s follow-up to the €9 ticket

After weeks of debate, Berlin has settled on a new budget ticket to replace the €9 ticket for a limited time. Here's what know about the travel deal so far.

What we know so far about Berlin's follow-up to the €9 ticket

So Berlin’s getting a new €9 ticket? Cool!

Kind of. Last Thursday, the Berlin Senate agreed to implement a €29 monthly ticket from October 1st until December 31st this year. 

It’s designed to bridge the gap between the end of the €9 ticket deal and the introduction of a new national transport deal that’s due to come into force by January 2023.

The Senate still hasn’t fleshed out the details in a written decision yet, so some aspects of the ticket aren’t clear, but we do know a few things about how it’ll work. For €29 a month, people can get unlimited travel on all modes of public transport in Berlin transport zones A and B. That means buses, trains and trams are all covered – but things like taxis aren’t. 

Wait – just zones A and B. Why’s that?

One of the sticking points in planning the new ticket was the fact that neighbouring state Brandenburg was reluctant to support the idea. Franziska Giffey (SPD), the governing mayor of Berlin, had annoyed her neighbours and surprised her own coalition partners by suddenly pitching the idea at the end of August – shortly before the €9 ticket was due to expire.

At the time, the disgruntled Brandenburg state premier Dietmar Woidke (SPD) complained about the lack of advance notice for a proper debate. He had previously ruled out a successor to the €9 ticket in the state. Meanwhile, the CDU – who are part of the governing coalition in Brandenburg – slammed the idea for a new cheap ticket as a “waste of money” and an attempt to “buy votes” for the SPD.

The blockade meant that plans for a Berlin-Brandenburg ticket run by transport operator VBB had to be scrapped, and the monthly ticket has instead been restricted to the two transport zones solely operated by Berlin’s BVG. Since zone C stretches into Brandenburg, Berlin couldn’t include this zone in the ticket unilaterally. 

Berlin transport zones explained

Source: S-Bahn Berlin

The good news is that zones A and B cover everything within the city’s borders, taking you as far as Spandau in the west and Grunau in the southeast. So unless you plan regular trips out to the Brandenburg, you should be fine.

However, keep in mind that the Berlin-Brandenburg BER airport is in zone C, so you’ll need an ‘add-on’ ticket to travel to and from there. It’s also not great for the many people who live in Potsdam in Brandenburg and commute into Berlin regularly. 

READ ALSO: Berlin gets green light to launch €29 transport ticket

How can people get hold of it? 

Unlike the €9 ticket, you won’t be able to buy it at stations on a monthly basis. Instead, the €29 ticket is only for people who take out a monthly ‘Abo’ (subscription) for zones A and B. If you’ve already got a monthly subscription, the lower price will be deducted automatically, while yearly Abo-holders will likely get a refund. 

You can take out a monthly subscription on the BVG website here – though, at the time of writing, the price of the ticket hadn’t been updated yet. According to Giffey, people will be able to terminate their subscription at the end of December without facing a penalty. 

What types of ‘Abos’ are eligible for the deal? 

According to Berlin transport operator BVG, people with the following subscriptions are set to benefit from the reduced price from October to December: 

  • VBB-Umweltkarten with monthly and annual direct debit
  • 10 o’clock tickets with monthly and yearly direct debit
  • VBB-Firmentickets with monthly and yearly direct debit 
  • Trainee subscriptions with monthly direct debit

People who already have reduced-price subscriptions, such as over-65s and benefits claimants, aren’t set to see any further reductions. That’s because many of these subscriptions already work out at under €29 per month for zones A and B. 

Passengers exit an U-Bahn train in Berlin

Passengers exit an U-Bahn train at Zoologischer Garten. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Can students with a Semesterticket get it as well?

That’s one of the things that still needs to be clarified. It’s possible that universities will choose to refund part of the Semesterticket price like they did with the €9 ticket. The Local has contacted BVG for more information. 

Can I take my bike/dog/significant other along for the ride? 

Once again, this doesn’t appear to have been ironed out yet – but we can assume that the usual rules of your monthly or yearly subscription will apply. So, as with the €9 ticket, if your bike is included in your subscription, you can continue to take it with you. If not, you’ll probably have to pay for a bike ticket.

In most cases, monthly BVG subscriptions allow you to take one dog with you for free, and also bring one adult and up to three children (under 14) with you on the train on evenings and weekends. These rules are likely to stay the same, but we’ll update you as soon as we know more. 

How much is this all going to cost?

According to regional radio station RBB24, around €105 million is set to be put aside in order to subsidise the temporary ticket. However, this still needs to be formalised in a supplementary budget and given the green light in the Senate. 

An S-Bahn train leaves Grünewald station

An S-Bahn train leaves Grünewald station. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

OK. And what happens after the €29 ticket?

That’s the million – or, rather, billion – euro question right now. In its latest package of inflation relief measures, the federal government said it would be making €1.5 billion available for a follow-up to the €9 ticket.

The ticket is set to be introduced by January 2023 and will rely on Germany’s 16 states matching or exceeding the federal government’s €1.5 billion cash injection. So far, it looks set to be a monthly ticket that can be used on public transport nationally, with the price set somewhere between €49 and €69.

However, the Greens continue to push for a two-tier model that would give passengers the option of buying either a regional or national ticket. Under their proposals, the regional tickets would cost €29 and the national tickets would cost €69.