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Copenhagen, Denmark's Anicent Capital, Becomes Eyesore Courtesy of Graffiti

January 24, 1988|KATRINE BOHR | Reuters

COPENHAGEN — Denmark's ancient capital of Copenhagen boasts one of Europe's most attractive city centers, but it has increasingly become an eyesore as graffiti artists deface the quaint old buildings.

The graceful 17th-Century Caritas fountain, where golden apples bounce to celebrate Queen Margrethe's birthday, now bears the legends "Kill the cops" and "Exterminate retirees."

The Classical-style university, founded in 1479 by King Christian I, proclaims on its walls the code names of young artists "Zoom" and "Flop."

"Graffiti is an immense problem in Copenhagen. It can hardly get worse," Mayor Egon Weidekamp said.

Graffiti Increasing

Wall-writing has long existed here, and the city also had a notorious incident of vandalism in 1984, when the right arm of the "Little Mermaid" statue was cut off.

But officials say graffiti has increased markedly since the U.S. movie "Wildstyle" about the spray-can cult was shown here in 1984.

Municipal workmen now spend about three hours every day cleaning public buildings, concentrating only an abusive and racist slogans to keep the cost down.

"We cannot afford to clean everything off--we would just have to clean new graffiti away the next day," said Mogens Olsen, Copenhagen's director of technical services.

Another official said, "Private property owners have largely given up erasing graffiti because of the cost, so it begins to look as if city architecture has adapted."

Seen as Vandalism

Copenhagen's suburban railway is also badly hit. "We have a particularly active graffiti culture and the most befouled trains in Europe, scaring our passengers away. We consider it as vandalism, and treat it as such," a railway spokesman said.

"Last year we lost 3% of our passengers, or about 3 million journeys, and cleaning bills totaled about 30 million crowns ($4.7 million)," he added.

But the graffiti sprayers, who compete to get their code names on as many surfaces as possible and generally write in English like their American heroes, are unperturbed by official disapproval of their urban art form.

A graffiti artist aged 17 who asked not to be named said, "Once we have started we cannot stop. It is like narcotics. We get tremendous pleasure and excitement out of creating our own art, completely out of the control of grown-ups.

'Symptom of Boredom'

"There is a need for it. It is a symptom of the sickness, boredom and rottenness in our society," he added.

To fight the graffiti, city authorities are testing protective wall surfaces that permit easy cleaning, while the railways have adopted a less conventional approach.

Believing graffiti thrives on risk, suspense and the desire to battle authority, railway officials invite the young artists for monthly talks designed to remove hostility and create mutual understanding.

"The method, which we call 'alternative conflict solving', is a successful way of getting through to the boys--but there is still a long way to go," one official said.

A more serious threat is the danger of being prosecuted for vandalism. In recent test cases, one youth found guilty of spraying railway cars was ordered to pay $94,000 in compensation, another was sentenced to 40 days' detention, and a third was given an eight-month suspended sentence.

But the graffiti artist said, "The sentences do not scare us in the least--we will go on painting and writing where we are not allowed to and where people least expect it. The more we are noticed the better."

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