First published in Politiken (Denmark – 2002)
Words and images by Alan Emmins
I am standing on a platform at Copenhagen’s main train station. The clock tells me it’s just after midnight. I watch trains and people come and go. I eye the commuters up and down, wondering, could it be them? Finally a guy with a green hoodie and a moody gait idles up to me.
“You Alan?” he asks. “Follow me.”
Further down the platform we join two of his friends. They give me a nod, but say nothing. A train arrives and we jump on board. The train ride, I am told, will take about thirty minutes.
We are heading into the suburbs of Copenhagen. At the very last stop we will leave the train and wait for the services at that station to end. As soon as it is all clear the people I am with, who make up the Copenhagen arm of MOA (Monsters Of Art), will hop the fence and attack the sleeping trains with their spray cans.
With crews in over ten countries, MOA are considered one of the biggest graffiti crews in the world. But, due to the police campaign that has been launched against them here in Copenhagen, they don’t give away much information about themselves. This is to be expected: it did take me ten months to set this story up.
We are three stops from the end of the line. Talk is minimal. The atmosphere sleepy, until a fist-sized rock comes smashing through the train window. Glass flies everywhere.
“Hold da kæft! (fuck that!),” laughs the guy sitting next to me. He is the tallest of the group and one of the oldest crewmembers. We’ll call him MOA1.
The problem with the smashed window isn’t simply the fact that everybody is covered in glass: it’s that the three guys from MOA have their bags packed full of spray cans. If the police come into the carriage now and decide to search their bags they’re looking at jail time just for the intent. That is how serous graffiti has become here in Denmark.
“The last time I was in court for graffing they tried to fine me 3 million kroner (about £300,000),” MOA1 tells me. “Luckily, the case got thrown out because of some evidence that was missing.”
For most people, the risk of a £300,000 fine would have them hanging up their cans. But when you talk about graffers/writers/taggers you are not talking about normal people. You are talking about an entire subculture that chooses to express itself freely, even if illegally.
“The last time I was convicted for writing they didn’t even catch me doing anything.” MOA1 continues. “The cops grabbed me, threw me on the ground and arrested me. Then they searched my home and found some graffiti mags,” he pauses for a second. “I was fined 10,000 Danish kroner (₤1,000) and put in jail for three weeks.”
The thrill of the chase is the key driver behind what they do in the beginning. The illegality of it isn’t so much an attraction, it’s what defines those early actions. They are raging against the machine. For graffers, trains don’t so much represent the heart of the machine, but the blood being pumped across every major city in the world. Dropping off the pawns, the bankers, the brokers and the lawmakers, trains keep the machine in a fresh supply of bodies, willing and eager to do its bidding.
“The worst thing that can happen when we’re hitting a train is that the cops will come, or the security. That just really pisses me off. It would piss off any serious writer. If I have to run halfway through a piece… Ah! I don’t want half finished pieces of art out there. It’s fucking hard to track down half-finished pieces to finish them off. Ideally, I’d like to be left alone to finish. Maybe in the beginning the chase was part of it. Sure there is an adrenalin rush, but now it’s about expression. It’s about the freedom to express.”
Luckily, the police don’t arrive to inspect the window. We leave the train at the last station and start walking away. We turn a few corners, force our way through thick brush, and follow a fence that runs down the side of the train tracks. We duck down every now and again when we spot one of the guards, but are soon moving again.
As we move along the fence the group grows in size. We seem to gain a member every few hundred meres. By the time we stop (after twenty minutes walking) there are seven of us. Now we wait. It’s a typical February morning in Copenhagen, with sub-zero temperatures. We stand shivering while the guards move the trains in and out.
“The best thing about being in MOA,” a balaclava covered head tells me, “is that we have friends all over the world. We meet up with MOA crews all over. We get to crash at their pads and go and bomb in new places.”
After an hour of waiting I am shivering from head to foot, wondering how graffiti exists outside of the summer. But when I look at the MOA crew they are all standing still. There are no signs of shakes or shivers. It’s as if they are immune to the cold.
We watch through the fence as cleaners move as quickly as they can through the trains. When they are done, once they have disappeared with their bin bags and the guards are tucked up in their cabin with warm coffee, we are on the move. In single file we emerge and run along the tracks to where three trains, all lit up and groaning, sit waiting. The crew wastes little time. Within seconds they are up on the metal walkway that runs between the trains, spread out with cans in their hands.
They stand with a 10m gap between them. In the cold mist of illegality, the sound of spray cans start to fill the air. They appear loud on this peaceful morning, as if they are being amplified.
HSSSSSSSS HSSS HSSS HSSSSSSSSS HSSSSSSSSSS
I am, in part, amazed that the guards haven’t come running from their hut, but mostly it is the organisation of the crew that impresses me. There are no conversations going on, no whispers about who should be where or who should be doing what. Even as an outsider I can tell that this crew has been working together for a long time.
Within minutes the outline of a cartoon character appears on the side of the train. MOA1 stands with a comic book in his hand, studying and copying what he sees onto the side of the train. The rest of the crew, MOAs 2-6, scurry about like ants. They work with their own paint. As soon as they finish with one colour it goes straight back in their bag, which sits strategically placed in the middle of the walkway, just behind and to the left of where they work. Should they need to make a dash for it, the bags are ready to be scooped up. There are two reasons they must have their bags and all their paints with them when they leave. The first is that if they get busted at this site they will move onto another and will need their paints. The second is fingerprints at the scene of the crime.
As the crew works I wonder if an escape at this point would even be possible. They all seem so completely immersed in what they are doing, deep in another zone. I don’t think they would notice the arrival of the police or a guard up until the point they were tapped on the shoulder and greeted with the words, ‘ello ‘ello ‘ello.
The silence is almost eerie, yet, while there is zero verbal communication between the guys, the message they are communicating through their art is clear.
“We do this with our life… the effort we put in, the money it costs for our cans, the standing out here waiting for hours in the freezing cold, the fines, the jail time… We do it because this is the only way we can feel free. We are in another world when we write. We’re not bound by the rules and regulations. This is a life, no amount of fines or busts will ever stop us. If you want freedom in this world you have to take it,” whispers MOA2.
There are many opinions on why trains have become the graffiti artist’s canvas. Some say it’s because the trains are constantly on the move, networking across cities like a moving gallery, enabling the art to be seen by as many people as possible. For others it is simply destruction of public property, but for the long-standing crews like MOA it’s also about disruption. The trains bring the people to their jobs, to earn the money, to continue the cycle. The trains are all given the same identity, the same colours, the same logos. They feel it’s all a bit Brave New World. Graffing the trains breaks up the uniform identity. It’s not just a case of freedom; it’s a necessity.
It takes just forty-five-minutes for this train to be fully converted. An entire carriage has been made over. It now breaths colour instead of the dull dark red of the Copenhagen S train. Stepping back to take it all in it becomes obvious that this art isn’t about destruction. It’s not like most of the graffiti you see on walls and trains. Destruction gets boring after a while, but these guys are clearly not bored. Their image is full of life and dance. It doesn’t just speak of their view today, it speaks of the years they have put into this art form. You don’t get this good from a desire to destruct.
Further down, at the next carriage, a big MOA tag has been placed. It stands tall and silver. One of the guys is adding a yellow outline while the rest of the crew turn their backs and face the other train. They start again, outlining images and applying big MOA signs. These are not tags. They are logos. Inadvertently, Moa have created their own brand.
Between two pieces of art one of the guys writes, ‘Another one to the buff!’ before he opens the train doors and steps through and onto the next walkway, to the next train.
Another one to the buff.
An hour and a half after the first squirt of paint the guys are ready to leave. Looking along the trains it’s clear to see that their work here is done.
As soon as we are down on the tracks the entire crew breaks into a sprint. A hundred meters further down the track the guys take a sharp right and hurdle a low wire fence. One of them catches his foot and goes down. One of the other crewmembers drags him up and everybody is on the move again. After ten minutes on the run the crew ditch their thirty-five spent cans in a bush: now is not the time to get caught with them. The police will likely be on the prowl soon. If MOA get caught and convicted for the artwork they have just produced they will get four years in jail.
The following day I go out to photograph the graffiti on the trains as they pass under a bridge, on their way into the main station. Trains pass every few minutes in both directions. On average, every other train has graffiti on it; 80% of those have an enormous MOA logo.
Just as I am about to go off in search of food it appears, the train that we had worked on the night before. The colours are so much brighter during the day, they dance along the tracks as the train idles into the station. Everybody on the platform notices. They can’t help but be drawn in.
There is no denying it is a great piece.
It’s a real Monster of Art.
Buy books by Alan Emmins
Don’t Let the Bench Bugs Bite: Portraits of Homeless New York
Mop Men: Inside the World of Crime Scene Cleaners