You won’t see them gawking on the sidewalks near Rockefeller Center, lining up outside Planet Hollywood, or taking carriage rides through Central Park. In fact, you won’t see these tourists at all – unless you frequent South Bronx subway yards or the dozens of other train-storage areas around the city where groups of spray-can-wielding foreigners (most of them, inexplicably, Germans) routinely come to make their mark. “New York is the Mecca of graffiti,” says Maurice Balt, 29, who made the pilgrimage from his hometown, Cologne, in 1995. “It is seen as a tribute to graffiti itself to write on a train in New York.”
“It’s like a safari for them,” observes filmmaker Henry Chalfant, who produced the 1983 graffiti documentary Style Wars. “They do a New York train, take a picture, and bring it home with them.” But some of them bring home something extra: a police record. Graffiti tourists – blissfully ignorant of the quality-of-life crackdowns that have rendered subway cars obsolete as “rolling canvases” for local painters – have become so prevalent that the NYPD’s Vandals Squad has busted at least one spray-paint-happy European a month for the past few years. (In fact, officers have become so accustomed to the tourists that they can tell a German can of paint from an American one just by the sound it makes when shaken.)
Davide and Raoul Perré, blue-eyed 24-year-old twins from Düsseldorf, were arrested October 5 at the offices of tats Cru, a group of legendary Bronx graffiti writers who now stick to for-pay advertising gigs and who have made the Perrés honorary members. Vandals Squad officers charged the Perrés with painting three full-car murals at a small train-storage area near the City Hall station during their previous visit, in March 1998.
“Somebody snitched on us,” complains Raoul, sitting in tats Cru’s cramped Garrison Avenue headquarters. Davide adds, “They’re not able to prove it, because we didn’t do nothin’.” If the brothers had committed the act they’re accused of, though, it would be something to brag about: “Ja, everybody wants to bomb, but maybe 15 percent of them get a train,” says Davide. “Whole car, full color. This is the Oscar.” But doesn’t the Transit Authority now take besmirched trains out of service for immediate cleaning? Nein. “They run,” say the brothers in unison.
The Perrés are charged with third-degree criminal mischief, a felony carrying a penalty of up to four years in jail. They’re awaiting their December 13 court date in the South Bronx apartment they’ve been renting since August; in the meantime, the D.A.’s office is holding their passports in lieu of $10,000 bail. “They’re using these guys as examples,” says tats Cru co-founder Wilfredo “Bio” Feliciano, “to try to deter other artists from coming to New York.”
Should the authorities decide to throw the book at the Perré brothers, Mirko Reisser, a Hamburg-based graffiti artist who was arrested during a 1995 visit to the South Bronx, has comforting words. “It was not really nice, but there was no violence or trouble,” the Teutonic tagger says of his single night in the slammer. “I always thought jail in the South Bronx would be much more bad.”