Fighting Fascism One Spray at a Time
Craig Stennett’s shares his inspiring photo essay on the German ‘Spraying Granny’ who, despite death threats and legal sanctions, refuses to succumb to the writing on the wall
The Political Cleaning Lady of the Nation
Descending the steps of the U Bahnhof Rathaus Steglitz in Berlin, Irmela Mensah Schramm threads through the labyrinth of passageways making her way to the station platforms.
Her objective is Nazi graffiti she had noticed on the walls of the U-Bahn the previous day. Once she relocates the far-right messages, she quickly paints over them with her own black spray – with a precision of action born of more than 30 years of practice.
“I wanted and needed this to be gone as soon as possible,” she says while spraying. “I find the fact that it is there hard to bear.”
Now, with her immediate mission at the U-Bahn finished, Irmela moves on into the station’s surrounding streets – checking cigarette dispensers, playgrounds, lamp-posts and passageways on the hunt for any banned Nazi symbols daubed by the far-right.
In Germany, the 74-year-old is known as ‘The Spraying Granny’. Born in Stuttgart in 1945, she has lived in Berlin since 1969 and worked in a school for the mentally handicapped until her retirement in 2006.
Wandering the streets of the German capital, she is on a one-woman mission to purge it and Germany of far-rights messages and insignia.
“Many years ago, I kept calling the police over Nazi graffiti and stickers that I saw in my neighbourhood,” she says. “I called them so many times and they did nothing. It was then that I decided to do something myself.”
Her signature white cotton bag – with ‘No Right to Stay for Nazis and Racists’ felt-tipped in her own handwriting – is filled with spray paint, scrapers and solvent, as well as a camera and notebook to document and collect the offending fascist stickers. During the current Coronavirus crisis, hand sanitiser has also been added.
Threats of Prosecution and Violence
Irmela has not only been active in Berlin and Germany, she also has an international element to her work.
“I’ve painted over Nazi graffiti in Poland, Austria, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and Finland,” she says. “But it is only in Germany that I’ve been arrested and charged for my work.”
Irmela is referring to a charge and court appearance for painting hearts over Nazi graffiti in Eisenach, Thuringia in 2019. She has had previous arrests and warnings for ‘property damage’ but the court cases have always been discontinued.
It’s like the Nazis are trying to wear me down. But as long as I have the strength I will always continue with my work.Irmela Mensah Schramm
This changed in October 2019, when the Eisenach District Court fined her €300 plus the costs for property damage for spraying over a Nazi slogan totalling €1,050.
“Since 1988, I have been reported 15 times, arrested 11 times, indicted seven times in Germany,” she explains. “I’ve been convicted twice for property damage but the proceedings have always been discontinued or dropped at appeal.”
In March, Irmela contested the judgement and the case again was dropped at a higher court in Jena because it was deemed ‘not in the public interest to proceed’. Irmela always states on these occasions: “I did no wrong and made no mistake.”
For all her efforts of being – in her own words – the “political cleaning lady of the nation”, Irmela receives ongoing threats of violence and even death through letters to her home, emails and on the streets. She has been the victim of several assaults while undertaking her cleaning mission.
None of this has dissuaded her and she adheres to a strong sense of moral duty: “I was born in 1945 at the end of the war. So, what happened before with the Nazis and National Socialism was not my responsibility. But whatever came after I was born, it is.”
Asked if she will continue during these times of the COVID-19 pandemic, she says: “I follow the distance rules, wash my hands frequently,” adding playfully: “I haven’t had anyone trying to kiss me on the street! Walking is still not forbidden and I am alone in my work and no one has expressly forbidden me from continuing.”
Surprisingly, Irmela has just received another criminal order served on her from the town Königs Wusterhausen pertaining to an incident at a protest against the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in 2019.
Time will tell if this new criminal accusation will also fall by the wayside as others have done.
“It’s like the Nazis are trying to wear me down,” Irmela says. “But as long as I have the strength I will always continue with my work.”