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article imageSeniors in Germany taking up graffiti

By Abigail Prendergast     Sep 2, 2011 in Arts
Senior citizens in Germany are taking up an art form that probably isn't what most expect it would be. Gone are the days of knitting and crocheting as these older generations trade in their needles and hooks for cans of spray paint for graffiti painting.
The country known as the Fatherland is seeing a whole new group of people taking up street art - in particular, graffiti. The people who are showing interest in it are not of a youthful, angst-ridden generation either. In fact these individuals are old enough to be their parents, and in some cases even their grandparents.
When 59-year-old Berthild Lorenz was contemplating signing up for a creative writing class, she was confused by something: The informational flyer she read about the course "mentioned writing on a wall." Nevertheless, Lorenz decided to register for the class.
When she was already underway in the course she found out that she found out that it wasn't your typical form of creative writing being taught. It was a literal writing on walls - it was graffiti.
"When I realized that it was a course about that stuff people smear on all the buildings and walls, the first thing I thought was 'I can't stand that mess!'" Lorenz said to Spiegel Online. She initially wanted to get out of the class. "But then I thought, 'I'm already here, I might as well stay.'"
Lorenz is just one person among many German citizens over the age of 50 who are being enlightened about and learning the art of graffiti. Being "encouraged by courses targeting older generations," these participants - some as old as 80 - aren't what most would think of to fit the profile of graffiti artists. A lot of these people have never before even wielded a can of spray paint.
Graffiti, which has been around since the days Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, has been seen as either art or vandalism. On one end, it is a means of expressing oneself using spray paint as the chosen medium. On the other, it is regarded as a desecration of public property that is done by people who have no regard for the well-being of society.
Stephanie Hanna, an artist based out of Berlin is one of the people who has organized graffiti workshops for seniors according to Spiegel Online. "Many older people regard graffiti as vandalism," she said. "But that is changing as people start to see that it has artistic value."
Over the last few years, graffiti and other forms of street art have been regarded more so as a creative medium as opposed to the works of angst-ridden teenage vandals. Paintings by the elusive British street artist known as Banksy are now worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Hanna "experienced that popularity first hand" when she commenced her "Senior Street Art" endeavor in 2005. The artist had only pictured the program to be a short-term initiative, but the high demand for such workshops had her offering them up until last year.
All across the German nation, initiatives like this one are encouraging the country's older people to utilize graffiti as a means of self-expression. A group called the Mosaik Kreis, which tailors to the activity of senior citizens and is based out of the northern German city of Marl, grabbed the attention of the local media this past spring when its participants "picked up spray cans for a graffiti activity day." Jutta Hinz, who is a co-manager of the collective, arranged the event after finding out about a graffiti project aimed at engaging young people who are uninterested in their studies.
"I thought if graffiti can help motivate uninterested teenagers, then maybe it can also motivate seniors," Hinz told Spiegel. "It's important for them to stay active."
Hinz contacted the organizer of the youth group who then spent a day with Mosaik Kreis and created graffiti art with them along with one of the young graffiti artists.
While the project was mainly a success, Hinz confesses there were some "bumps in the road." "Some of the seniors were bothered by the spray paint -- they kept saying how bad it smelled."
In Tübingen, street artist Dirk Ridder (also known as Mr. Sufa) offers his own annual graffiti course for "seniors." The term "senior" is used loosely as the course is aimed at people just over the age of 30. The 43-year-old Ridder works as a social worker during the day, has been luring older generations to his courses since 2009. With flyers reading "Too old for graffiti? Never!" Ridder's initiative was so successful that he is planning another go-round with the course this fall.
It would seem that self-expression with a spray can is beneficial to these people's health as well. Dr. Jennifer Anders, a research assistant at the Albertinen Hospital's geriatrics clinic in Hamburg, isn't at all surprised by the movement. "The stereotype of a lonely grandmother in a pink cardigan who only plays canasta is outdated," she told Spiegel Online. "Today's aging population came of age in a different time -- they grew up with the Rolling Stones and some are ex-hippies."
Older people who take part in these graffiti courses can benefit greatly both emotionally and physically, Anders said. She does warn that these seniors must be in a fairly good physical shape to start however. "The social setting of group courses can benefit retirees who lack daily personal contact through the workplace or those who have lost a partner, for instance." Those emotional benefits are just the beginning too.
There are also many advantages graffiti gives seniors physically, Anders said. "Graffiti is an activity that requires a lot of movement, like bending and stretching. It can also potentially strengthen hand-eye coordination."
The generational exchange advertised by several senior graffiti courses can also be beneficial, said Anders. There is a desire to bridge the generation gap and it is that longing that drives people like Jutta Hinz and Stephanie Hanna to go forward with their senior graffiti courses. "Seniors often have this negative attitude about 'the young people these days,' while young people often feel disconnected from their elders," Hinz pointed out. "We wanted to facilitate communication."
While the senior graffiti courses aim to keep their classes - as well as the people - within legal boundaries by restricting spraying to large canvases or public places which they have secured rights to, not all Deutsche seniors are keeping themselves within such limits.
Walter F., also known as OZ, is renowned in Germany "for the smiley faces and other signature doodles he sprays around Hamburg." There are about 12,000 of the 61-year-old's works that can be seen in the city, but the artist has been sought after for his spraying and even sentenced to 14 months in jail on 11 counts of property damage back in July. The German press has followed OZ's spraying endeavors for over a decade now and they affectionately refer to him as Hamburg's "Graffiti Oldie."
While most participants in the classes of Jutta Hinz or Stephanie Hanna come in as complete graffiti novices, some do take after OZ - a graffiti veteran - and utilize what they learned in their courses in order to transfer it not-so-legal public properties and spaces.
Hanna did confess that she does see the work she taught in her workshops plastered on the walls of the streets of Berlin. She said it would seem that one of her former students or another had "taken to surreptitiously bringing what he or she learned in class to the city streets."
One of Hanna's former students, Berthild Lorenz is now taking what she learned in the classroom and plugging it into work in the streets. Although unlike OZ Lorenz does it all within legal limits. This time around she comes as a teacher, utilizing the medium of spray paint to open up channels of communication between her generation and the younger people.
Lorenz - with the assistance of a young volunteer - was able to secure the rights to an old, rundown former dwelling by Berlin's Orankesee lake. She hopes to teach local youth basic spraying techniques and get the house painted with their help.
Projects like this are a far cry from what Lorenz grew up with. Growing up in communist East Germany, where things such as graffiti were "out of the question." Between the huge emphasis on public order and extreme difficulty getting hold of the required materials, there was little, if any, means to express oneself in such a way. This way of life came to a screeching halt in 1989, when "the Berlin Wall came down," Lorenz said. It must have been like it was coming out of nowhere as she recalls that, "suddenly everyone was spraying everything."
The movement is even being recognized elsewhere including being featured in an article on About.com.
It is not only being praised not only a potential closer of the generation gap, but it is also promoting the added physical and emotional health benefits mentioned earlier.
While Lorenz does have a hobby more so on the hip end of the spectrum than most 59-year-olds, she does share a common sentiment with her senior peers. With her own youth brought to mind, she told Spiegel Online simply: "I think today's youth need to take advantage of the opportunities they have."
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