I just got back from a five-week trip to Germany, and I’ll tell you this: If there’s one thing the Germans love more than David Hasselhoff, it’s graffiti. Some time since my last visit, tagging seems to have supplanted smoking as the national pastime of German youth.
The signs of graffiti’s popularity are everywhere: In cartoonish letters on the sides of trains, in spiky initials markered onto stucco church walls, and in names scratched into bus windows. The market forces unleashed by sprayen (as it’s called) have even changed the layout of record stores, as enterprising shopkeepers have thinned out their vinyl sections to make room for racks of wrist-thick permanent markers and Krylon tallboys.
Try as I did to keep an open mind about it, the whole graffiti thing struck me as irredeemably corny. Looking over the motley collection of tags speckling the outbuildings of farms and entryways to suburban furniture stores, I was left with the impression these kids were working from a dumbed-down translation of an already-stupid American pop-culture manual. Some of the sprayers, I admit, were truly gifted. But most of the graffiti was just half-assed color blight, the meager skills on display limited to an impressive capacity for mimicry.
In my travels through the Vaterland, I felt like the bad graffiti was just one of the signs that German underground culture had fallen on hard times. Five years ago the German hip-hop scene was exploding, rewriting German’s copious grammar rules with flow and flair. Now, though, things feel listless and idling. The big talk in underground music circuits last month was the breakout success of a Munich band called Sportfreunde Stiller. Imagine a Weezer without the hooks and melodies, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the band’s talents.
Despite their resounding blah-ness, Sportfreunde Stiller records were flying off the shelves. That fans would go apeshit over a middling band just seemed like more writing on the wall, an SOS from German music buyers enduring some distressingly lean times.
Determined to find some music good enough to write home about, I was scanning the car stereo on April 25. My friend Katja was driving us to Bad Karlshafen, a small baroque town near Hannover that I was supposed to visit for work.
I should have been paying attention to the scenery instead of the radio. Under the gathering gray rain clouds, the fields and tiny towns we drove through bled color. Fields of yellow flowers were rimmed with firework fountains of white-blooming apple and cherry trees. Everything felt secret and misty, even the sheep.
At least I think it did. I can’t remember exactly, because my attention was fixed on the radio and the news report that had interrupted my restless scanning. In Erfurt, 75 miles away, gunshots had been reported at the local high school. The police were putting the death toll at eighteen, a number that included the alleged murderer, a nineteen-year-old former student at the school.
“Eighteen dead,” intoned the voice on the radio. “Such a number is unknown, even in America.”
It was an oft-heard refrain following the shooting. Germans were sickened and scared and confused. But they weren’t confused as to why the massacre had happened. Not at that point anyway. They were just confused as to why it hadn’t happened in California.
As the car’s sole representative of a country where school shootings happened every year, I felt like I should offer Katja some perspective or consolation. But Erfurt was out of my league. So I let Katja decide how to handle the whole thing. Which is how we ended up listening to Sportfreunde Stiller.
A few kilometers of power chords later, Katja shook her head and ejected the tape. “It doesn’t quite fit, does it?” she said. Then she took up my abandoned quest for something cheerful on the radio.
Though I didn’t say it, I guessed Katja’s search for musical consolation was doomed. Songs, even in the best cases, aren’t really built to withstand disasters. If Katja didn’t figure it out today, she probably would the next time.
Because graffiti, clearly, wasn’t the only thing trend-savvy German teens had imported from the States. There will be more Erfurts, and there will be more horrific radio news reports from calm police press conferences. And the only comfort you can draw from such moments is the empty solace that the carnage wasn’t any worse.
When I pushed the Sportfreunde Stiller tape back into the player, Katja gave me a funny look, but she let the tape play. After a couple minutes, we were both quietly singing along, our eyes fixed on the darkening road ahead.