Graffiti: the Swiss disease?

September 8, 2011, 21 Comments

This morning I opened the bedroom shutters and, as always, had to look at FUCK NAZIS in big letters on the house opposite.While I might agree with the sentiment (though not literally), it’s slightly disagreeable to have it in my face every day. Our opposite neighbours gave up fighting the tide of graffiti long ago; everytime the wall was redone, it got sprayed again so now they just leave it. Last week our building was sprayed as well, for the second time in five months – and we live in a nice part of town, on a fairly busy street. Despite us re-painting, it will happen no doubt again within the next six months because graffiti seems to be the Swiss disease. It blights almost every town: Neuchâtel, Basel, Lucerne, Stein am Rhein, Locarno. I have yet to visit anywhere in Switzerland that doesn’t have a multi-coloured rash. The question is – why?

Switzerland is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, with jaw-dropping scenery and splendid medieval town centres. And all of it so clean and tidy that even a die-hard obsessive-compulsive wouldn’t have anything to do. Except for the graffiti. Any patch of blank wall is liable to be sprayed at any moment, no matter what the wall is part of. Now, I have no problem with motorway overpasses, railway sidings and disused factories being painted; in some cases it brightens up what would be yet another dull stretch of concrete. But I do have a big problem when historic buildings are attacked, or indeed private homes or people’s businesses. That just isn’t right.

What mystifies me is why the Swiss put up with the graffiti. Everyone I talk to about it seems to shrug their shoulders and say that it’s a fact of life. And this in a country where there are strict rules about everything from rubbish bags to Sunday DIY. Switzerland works so well and is so clean precisely because the rules are there and are strictly enforced, often by communal will. But when it comes to graffiti, the rules seem to go out the window. Sprayers, as they are known in Swiss German as well, appear to be treated far more leniently than someone whose car is parked slightly over the blue line. Very odd.

My organised neighbour has already informed the police, so that we can get an incident report so that the insurance will pay for the cleaning & re-painting. In the meantime I am left wondering why it happens. Here are some theories:

  • Swiss society is so perfect that graffiti is the only acceptable form of rebellion. No riots, no strikes, no fundamentalists, so that only leaves spray paint as means of venting your anger. And society tolerates it as the least objectionable option.
  • Swiss youths are frustrated at always having full employment and high wages; they want to be edgy and daring like their counterparts in France or Britain, but can’t quite bring themselves to do much more than some cowardly spraying in the middle of the night. It’s a sign of disaffected youth, Swiss style.
  • There’s too much concrete in Switzerland. Acres of the grey stuff seem to be in every town, so no wonder someone wants to take a can and liven things up. Trouble is, they’re not intelligent enough to distinguish between concrete and 400-year old walls.
  • Wearing your jeans so low that your ass hangs out, listening to ‘songs’ with endless swearing, spraying walls with mindless rubbish. All ways to feel cool and get in touch with your inner thug. Of course you don’t actually have to live in the projects but can go back to your nice home where mama cooks your favourite dishes.

Whatever the reason, it spoils the view. Perhaps graffiti here is no worse than elsewhere but merely stands out more because everything else is so pristine. It’s certainly an eyesore so it’s time these sprayers were answered: come on Switzerland, stop the spraying!

At least our sprayers spoke English - even if it doesn't make sense!

21 Comments on "Graffiti: the Swiss disease?"

  1. Stephan Thursday September 8th, 2011 at 10:45 AM · Reply

    Diccon, your last theory made me smile. You otherwise don’t seem as old as you sound here 😉
    Apart from that, I’m completely with you and I am annoyed by those Graffitis as well. But I don’t think that’s a general problem of today’s youth (or the one that lived 20 years ago because it was the same then) or even “the Swiss”, but of very few people. Unfortunately the damage one person with some aerosol cans can do in just one night is significant.

    Actually I bet you’ll find almost no Swiss of any age who approves Graffitis. But I suppose we resigned somehow because it’s like this for many, many, many years and apparently the police can’t catch those people because they are so fast. The insurance companies, house owners, SBB know how to deal with it and repaint walls, train coaches and busses quite fast as well, in general. And I’m somehow more happy the Swiss society adopted to overlook something imperfect for once, instead of reacting with CCTV on public spaces, vigilance committees and other hostile developments.

    • swisswatching Thursday September 8th, 2011 at 10:54 AM · Reply

      Good point about CCTV. It’s almost non-existent here, which is great, though it is creeping in inside trams and trains. And maybe you’re right about tolerating the imperfection – a sign of a grown-up society?

  2. Colin Bewes Thursday September 8th, 2011 at 11:55 AM · Reply

    That first example about the Nazis is ambiguous. I think we all know what they meant but reading it literally you could be forgiven for viewing it as an encouragement to collaborate with Nazis!

    • swisswatching Thursday September 8th, 2011 at 12:17 PM · Reply

      As for the ‘Fuck Bush’ that used to be scrawled on a bus stop in town, I couldn’t possibly comment.

  3. Tobias Buser Thursday September 8th, 2011 at 02:09 PM · Reply

    Congrats, you’ve turned into a narrow minded Swiss 🙂

    There is a huge difference between Graffiti, Vandalism and even street art.
    I thoroughly agree with you that its a crime to vandalise (not “to graffiti”) property that isn’t owned by you or has a cultural value. But just because your house got vandalised through the use of spray paint doesn’t justify to condemn all the graffiti artists out there.
    That would be to easy.. and much like the simple thinking of the before mentioned party.

    I actually kind of expected a more sophisticated approach to this topic since Switzerland has some of the best graffiti artists like D.A.R.E (Rip) who was internationally known or SMASH137. Of course we also have an upcoming street art scene so that we don’t need no Banksy to come over here.

    And all it takes is an open eye to spot all those nice places and LEGAL hall of fames – combined with an open mind that is willing not to judge a book by its cover and therefore sees the difference between vandalism through the use of paint and art.

    Here some examples as a contrast to your graffiti pictures: He now lives in Amsterdam Just recently had an exhibition with his work Very detailed work…

    And in Basel there is some sort of exhibition going on right now:


    no offence… just some thoughts… btw. i don’t paint myself

    • swisswatching Thursday September 8th, 2011 at 02:22 PM · Reply

      I agree that there is a big difference between graffiti and street art. That’s why I very carefully never called any of the idiots who spray ‘street artists’ – and I trust you agree that none of the pictures I used, all of which were found on Bern streets, is art. I’d love to take a more sophisticated approach to the topic, and probably could if I’d ever seen anything as imaginative and clever as the photos you linked to. But I’ve never seen anything that good on Swiss walls; instead we get real graffiti, which is just a nice Italian way of saying vandalism. Street art has a place in society but that place is neither someone’s private house nor the 17th century walls of an Old Town building.

      BTW the definition of graffiti from the Oxford English Dictionary. “writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place.” Notice the word illicitly!

  4. Federico Rocha Thursday September 8th, 2011 at 05:11 PM · Reply

    I must say I love the tact you have when presenting your theories. I like your first one; a counter to how civil Swiss people really are and that’s the real value of Switzerland. But there must be a way out every now and then and this is definitely one of them, I am sure. I do have some theories of my own and would like to share them with you: One is the desperate need of the youth -mainly- to learn the English language, I’ve seen some appalling ones, haven’t you? Isn’t the youth saying, “we actually like how “fuck” sounds and this language is pretty cool and easy, but hey, it’s always dubbed on TV!!! Which then confirms your last theory; pants down and yo yo attitudes and caps at least! Anyway that’s one tactless theory. Otherwise, yes, in your face monkey attitudes, use the walls or be civil.

  5. Swiss Simon (with English roots) Friday September 9th, 2011 at 08:32 AM · Reply

    I’m with Tobias. There is some amazing graffitti in and around Zurich and Biel too. I often go out to capture the art on camera before it is sprayed over with the next creation.

  6. Tobias Buser Monday September 12th, 2011 at 09:38 PM · Reply

    The chance to call Diccon Super-Swiss was just to tempting 🙂
    Here is my flickr Account if anyone wants to be friends (now that sounds needy) or needs a tour guide for basel.
    and for some more swiss streetart..

  7. Ian David Marsden (@marsdencartoons) Tuesday September 13th, 2011 at 05:02 PM · Reply

    Your examples were definitely not ‘street art’ they rather looked like the illiterate scribblings of people who never experienced parental love or at best spray paint vomit. I couldn’t agree more.

    As for the low hanging boxer short showing ‘ass pants’ I have recently come up with a solution for that problem.

  8. Margaret Wednesday September 14th, 2011 at 10:21 AM · Reply

    If anyone is adversely affected by graffiti then my advice is to just get out there and cover it up! A beautiful house at the top of our street in Zurich was covered with so called tags. My husband and I got fed up looking at it every day so got permission from the building’s owner to paint it out. The result is brilliant and I intend to keep it that way. I’m not sure why the Swiss are so tolerant of graffiti – most of it isn’t art – its just pure vandalism!

    By the way the Zurich housing association pays a 300 subsidy as a one off payment to help cover costs……

    • swisswatching Wednesday September 14th, 2011 at 10:25 AM · Reply

      Exactly what we do. Regularly and then comes the next idiot and ruins our nicely painted wall. After the fourth or fifth time of repainting, it gets a bit annoying!

  9. Margaret Wednesday September 14th, 2011 at 10:28 AM · Reply

    I’, expecting this to happen too but in my case my will is stronger than any inconvenience! In London instant repainting has proven to be very effective at reducing graffiti attacks

  10. Mark Boxer Tuesday May 15th, 2012 at 03:29 PM · Reply

    As far as I remember there was no graffiti in Switzerland on my first visit in 1978 when there was plenty in England. Any theory about it must explain this growth from nothing.

  11. Kyoko Tuggle Wednesday January 16th, 2013 at 07:43 AM · Reply

    graffiti like any other forms of art is really great and enjoyable too.-

  12. Gilles Saturday August 24th, 2013 at 11:08 AM · Reply

    In the very early 1990s I could easily know if my train was reaching Bern by merely observing graffiti on the side walls. Nowadays these graffiti are still here even if don’t longer pay attention to them as I’a daily commuter with the S3 train.

    PS : please excuse my swinglish 😉

  13. julien Wednesday January 1st, 2014 at 02:21 AM · Reply

    the most shocking thing is it’s rarely any good

  14. J Saturday April 5th, 2014 at 03:03 PM · Reply

    On a second trip From Geneva to Lausanne I noticed the graffiti and it was one thing that stood out in my mind. I actually like the graffiti on abandoned buildings as it highlights that something needs to be done with the building, otherwise it would go ignored and the building would decay. In my opinion, tolerance of graffiti reflects tolerance of freedom of speech. Some of it can be considered ‘street art’, such as Banksy and actually thought provoking. Having to look at something like ‘Fuck Nazis’ from your bedroom window everyday however is simply in poor taste and the ‘artist’ should know better. Nobody wants to have to look at something like that every day.

    • Diccon Bewes Tuesday April 8th, 2014 at 11:59 AM · Reply

      I agree that graffiti on abandoned buildings or concrete bridges isn’t a problem. But when it is on medieval walls or people’s homes then it is it not street art or freedom of speech, it is vandalism.

  15. Rosemary Monday February 20th, 2023 at 04:39 AM · Reply

    One word: Caning. Remember the stupid American kid that spray painted a guy’s car in Singapore? He wouldn’t likely do it again. It’s not like one is walking merrily along with a can of paint and due to some disability or inability to process thought, inadvertently sprays pain in someone else’s property. These are premeditated assaults upon people who have not incurred any wrath. They do it because they can do it with impunity and out of a narcissistic drive to make others suffer. Let’s outsource this to the Saudi’s and see how it goes. Perhaps appoint a Director of Discipline from Saudi Arabia to help us, and while we’re at it, I propose we bring back the gibbet. It was both functional and artistic. Win/win I think.

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