by Stephan Ackermann
I’m Stephan. I’m a 20-year-old graffiti artist from Germany. I am a bit too young to know much about Hip Hop history in Germany, but I know that as in America, Hip Hop culture is very old in Germany and so is the graffiti scene. Superficially, Hip Hop may appear to be about XXL clothes, violence and drug-glorifying music. However, if one goes deeper, it is probably the most creative youth culture that ever existed. I myself have always been interested in visual arts and part of the Hip Hop culture, so it was inevitable that I would resort to the spray can one day.
The real trigger was probably a friend’s computer game. It was about a sprayer in a utopian city ruled by a strict regime. The idea of sneaking through the night like ninjas with a couple of friends, having every thing planned like a bank robbery and finally producing art, a message for the cold, grey environment, fascinated us. A short time later we made this dream came true.
On my 15th birthday I got my first spray cans, ironically, from my parents. And so a friend and I sprayed our first stencil graffiti on paper. Quickly we started to spray bigger pictures. Slowly more people began to join our group, so we founded the ON THE ROXX crew. Over time we were getting better and more refined at our craft. From our letterings evolved characters, and the letterings themselves became more detailed. I started producing stencils with political messages. Mostly, we sprayed legally at a skate park near my house. But after all the walls there were full with our names, we were virtually forced to spray more illegal projects. So we started, about a half a year after I got my first spray cans, to spray highway bridges. It is easy to get there, everyone can see the picture, and you don’t need that many people on the lookout because there is nobody around at 4:00 a.m. The same is true with train station subways. Not in bigger cities, but in towns you always have time between 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. when no trains stop. There aren’t many surveillance cameras in Germany, I guess because of our history: people don’t like to be watched by the government anymore.
I will never forget the night the first time I stood under one of those huge highway bridges. It was a silent summer night. We sneaked out of my friend’s house at around 2:00 a.m. Then we drove to the remote bridge with our bicycles and started to spray. I will never forget the feeling. Maybe it was because of the adrenalin that kicked in when we saw the headlights of oncoming cars. But for the first time we felt really free and unattached. A famous graffiti artist named Loomit described this feeling very well. He said it’s as if you were Robin Hood, who draws through the night with his cronies.
Our aim was always to create art and send a message. We’ve never thought of ourselves as vandals. I realized that when I got caught the first time. It wasn’t together with the other boys. I was alone with my former girlfriend. Our target was a quiet new school. But even before we could start with the fill-ins, suddenly a man with a huge dog was standing behind us. Ironically, I found out later that it was the architect of that school. At first he was angry and wanted to call the police. But after he realized that we were artists and even the colour choice was considering the surroundings, he let us go. We got into trouble with the authorities much later, after painting many other bridges and subways.
In 2009 a community centre for young people was opened in my town. So we stopped spraying illegally, because the idea of having a graffiti team for legal projects was too good. With these projects we were able to buy spray cans for our own, legal, projects and we had the possibility to establish graffiti in my community as a respected art form.
A half year later I was woken up at 7:00 a.m. by the loud voice of my mother: “Stephan, the police is here!” I had imagined this would happen. One week earlier, two of my friends were unexpectedly summoned by the police and questioned. Of course my friends “didn’t know anything” and “haven’t done anything.” Because of that I stored my sketchbooks and especially all my stencils at a friend’s place who doesn’t spray. But the police still found enough incriminating material in my bedroom. I received legal proceedings because of property damage, we went to a lawyer, and in the end everything was halfway fine. For all I did, I had to do 30 hours of social work at a nursing home. The pieces at the skate park were legal, for the bridges I didn’t receive a legal proceeding, and the “damage” of the rest was considered a low priority by the police. Moreover I was quite young and I had luck on my side. It was just shameful because I had stopped spraying illegally a half year before. Now everything is different. We spray legal projects.
Sometimes I miss the feeling of being outside at night. Everything is quiet and nobody else is there. I miss feeling like Robin Hood and fighting for “a good thing” from the underground. But on the other hand, especially if you look at the aspect of creating art, it’s probably better now. In the community centre we have a stock of spray cans, binders for all our sketches, and stencils. Since last year we also have a scaffold up to seven metres in working height. Directly next to it is the skate park. So now we have the perfect equipment and environment to work in.
Also the spraying itself is different. If you spray legally, with some good music in the background, it’s not only more fun, you can also work better and more precisely because you have more time and you don’t have to watch the area whole time. Many people, important people in my village, were very excited, after they saw our first projects. The best was the response of the police officers at the official opening of the community centre in 2010. They were also at my house during the house search. It was fun to see them so impressed with graffiti and to recognize how many good things you can do with it.
Of course I also work on my own legal projects. But this new way of working feels good, much more professional. We have talks with our clients about what they want and what they imagine. Then we do sketches, everyone in the group puts their own ideas into it. If the client is satisfied with our final sketch, we calculate and order the spray cans. While spraying everyone in the group has their own job.
The youth worker has conversations with the clients. The more experienced guys draw the outlines and spray the more detailed parts. The beginners and inexperienced guys do the fill-ins. We have also a craftsman in our group. His job is the maintenance of utensils and the catering. To mask off and clean up in the end is task of the whole group. With this way of working with clients, we are forced to work much more creatively, from simple letterings, over characters, and objects to even naturalistic landscape pictures.
For myself I always have to weigh the following: Is it wrong to spray that way, because it fails the original meaning to send a message, to intervene? Or is it just right to spray that way because finally graffiti has become a respected art form? Sometimes I also ask myself: Is it still graffiti what I am doing, or is it just a nice picture? I try to find a narrow path between both sides. With my work I try to bring graffiti into our society and to maintain its roots.
Interested in the debate of graffiti art’s legitimacy? You can read more about the topic in Rhys Edwards’ article Aerosol and Institutions: Graffiti Art, the Street and Commercial Galleries