“Über Freaks” Film Documents High-Risk Actions of Berlin Writers
Deep in the heart of Berlin...
Photos: Thomas von Wittich
When Bulgaria’s most notorious expat, Paris-based Good Guy Boris, releases a new video, it is usually worth paying attention. The graffiti films made by him and writers from crews such as 1UP, MUL and PAL that he has collaborated with have set a high bar for production quality, risk and adrenaline. Why, then, did it take more than three years for part 6 of the Grifters Code series to emerge?
Here’s the background story as he tells it in his promo write-up: The original episode 6 never got finished due to the arrest of its primary subject, SAEIO PAL. Subsequently Boris himself spent several months in a French prison and emerged with a different outlook on life and film-making.After broadening his horizon on other projects, he decided to film Berlin’s Über Freaks (ÜF) for the grand finale of the series, which was released online this week.” The film is also accompanied by a new book, “Grifters Code: Documenting Modern Graffiti Writing.”
Boris is a showman and a born marketer, both great qualities for a writer, and he doesn’t shy away from grand claims and the occasional hyperbole. It is difficult to separate the real-life Boris from the character he created for himself in his videos over the years: Ebullient and clever, with a thick Bulgarian accent and happy to show his face to the camera as if to deflect attention from others, a kind of cheerful self-styled martyr willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of everyone else’s graff enlightenment.
As his films matured, they acquired a style of their own. Asked by Mass Appeal what made his work different, Boris tells us via email: “First of all, the good energy and the humor. ‘Grifters Code’, except ‘Über Freaks’, which follows different format, are a fun thing to watch. They transmit positive energy and they show graffiti how I knew and lived it—as a fun thing to do.”
Boris was not interested in showing graffiti actions merely as a competition of mental and physical toughness, though there is plenty of that in his films as well. “My videos were made not only for a graffiti audience but for everybody,” he says. “I wanted my grandmother to understand them.”
“Über Freaks” opens with shots of a subway-surfing writer doing a—note the irony—LIFE extinguisher piece on top of a rolling train on an elevated line in Berlin. Berlin’s trains, as recognizable as NYC’s taxi cabs, subsequently become a recurring presence in the film that tie many of its scenes together.
More so than previous Grifters films, “Über Freaks” doesn’t just string together action shots, but also shows all of the efforts that go into executing and shooting each death-defying stunt. Conspiratorial phone calls and conversations, voices obscured, hint at the coming adventure. Doors are pried open, access to shooting locations is secured and, as a humorous aside, bikes end up in all sorts of places they’re not supposed to be. Captions generously name locations, breaking with an unwritten rule in graffiti culture.
The Über Freaks themselves—FRESH, STYLE, PARADOX, LIFE and CHAMP, among others—are a crew of gangly free-climbers getting high on non-stop action. Inspired heavily by São Paulo’s pixação in method and style (with a rounded, more ornamented twist), the ÜF kids have harnessed their own unique approach to conquering Berlin’s buildings, gratuitous free-running moves included. There’s no dramatic story line, but the film delivers plenty of Oh, shit! moments and entertains by adding elements of suspense and humor, similar to previous Grifters episodes.
Boris remains mostly off-camera, narrating the adventures of the Berlin Kids and ceding the spotlight to them, and perhaps therein lies the biggest difference to his previous films.
“I am inspired by the good in people,” Boris asserts, “by the strength of their passion, their ambition and especially by how and what they are ready to ‘sacrifice’ in order to achieve their goals. We are not speaking only about graffiti here but everything. On the other hand I am inspired by the beauty of the moments that I have had the chance to experience. I think the combination of those is the source of my inspiration.”
Style is not important to him. “I don’t care. I only pay attention to graffiti made by good people, those who I have met in person. Once I like you as a person I will like your graffiti.” Nor does he believe that high production values are necessary, or that documentation is necessary at all for graffiti to exist. “Documentation and high quality are two different things. I just like to put them together. It’s like that extra mile you run when you are already exhausted that helps you build more strength. I have high standards.”
“Documentation is not required in order to do graffiti,” he continues, “people have just linked graffiti and documentation for other reasons. Some to preserve the information for other generations—historians, graffiti spotters, collectors. Some to collect and fill their ‘trophy shelves’—the writers who collect footage of their creations. Some people do graffiti only for the documentation and the process of publishing—social media publishers, who paint in order to deliver content to their followers. Some document for evidence—you can guess who.”
His own motivation, he says, is to be able to share the amazing moments in his life that he experiences, though he also acknowledges that his platform, The Grifters, is part of what he calls the “graffiti industry,” meaning “the institutions, corporations, galleries, museums and the graffiti artists who sell graffiti as commissioned services or products.” But to Good Guy Boris, there is nothing wrong with the symbiotic relationship between vandals, artists, dealers and promoters. “Nothing is black or white,” he says, “someone will always disagree and be unhappy, but hey, do something about it! The future is not what I or any other dickhead tells you, the future is what you make of it.”