They’re rich, brash and determined enough to fly 3,000 miles to risk getting a rap sheet.
They’re European graffiti taggers in search of their Holy Grail in New York - the chance to make their mark in what was once the graffiti capital of the world.
Here and there, graffiti can still be seen on subway trains, defying the Transit Authority’s anti-spray-paint campaign. And taggers are still leaving their so-called art on city walls, highways, bridges and buildings.
Police say many of the vandals are young tourists from countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, France, Spain and Belgium, where graffiti writing is taking off seven years after its decline here.
“They’re students of the old graffiti movement,” says Lt. Steve Mona, chief of the vandal squad of the Police Department’s Transit Bureau.
Always young males in their teens and 20s, they arrive here with cans of smuggled spray paint, looking to leave their mark to get recognition at home, where police are struggling to control an explosion of subway graffiti in cities such as Berlin and Munich.
“By and large, they’re tagging wherever they can do it,” says Mona, sitting in his Coney Island train yard office. “They’re arrogant, snotty kids who are no different than the ones we get here except they have accents.”
But they may be more brazen. Where many American vandals are staying away from trains knowing their work will be removed within hours, “the Germans will take more chances,” says Jerry Dassaro, a detective on the vandal squad.
The Euro-taggers number about 30, and police have made two dozen arrests in the last two years. The vandals have faced community service, fines and, in the biggest bust last summer, a week at Rikers Island. That was the sentence for four German tourists found with 50 cans of paint at the East 180th Street station in the Bronx.
If their work can’t be preserved on a train, the Europeans will film or photograph themselves painting a train, then sell the evidence to a magazine. The tapes are fetching hundreds of dollars in some countries, Dassaro said.
“They get fame,” says Sean Smith, a 20-year-old from Brooklyn who painted trains with a kid from Berlin whose tag was “Atom.”
For the police, recognizing a foreigner’s tag is a process of elimination. Sometimes, a mural will include a foreign word or two. Or German-made spray-paint cans - with lighter ball bearings for shaking the paint - will be left behind. The foreign work is always colorful and ornate, much as it was in the heyday of native-born graffiti.
Police use American informants to help them track down the Euro-taggers.
“We know when they’re here,” Desarro says. “We have certain kids that don’t like them. They tell us when they’re here.”