Diccon Bewes: Graffiti – the Swiss disease?

Diccon Bewes: Graffiti – the Swiss disease?

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Despite Switzerland's love of rules, graffiti seems to be the one blight that slips the Swiss radar. Diccon Bewes investigates this Swiss conundrum.

This morning I opened the bedroom shutters and, as always, had to look at 'F--k 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.

Diccon Bewes: Graffiti – the Swiss disease?

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.
Diccon Bewes: Graffiti – the Swiss disease?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 and 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!


Reprintedwith permission of Diccon Bewes.

Diccon grew up in Britain but now lives in Bern. He has spent the last seven years grappling with German grammar, overcoming his innate desire to form an orderly queue and exploring parts of Switzerland he never knew existed. And eating lots of chocolate. He is the author of the bestselling book Swiss Watching.


Photo credit: jaffa720 (graffiti), joostbaptiste (graffiti thumbnail).

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