70-year-old Irmela Schramm has a knack for spotting hateful graffiti.
She calls herself “Polit-Plutz” (which she says means “political cleaner” in German) because that’s exactly what she does. Schramm spends her days walking the streets of Berlin, seeking out racist, neo-Nazi messages scrawled on public surfaces and covering them up.
“I’m really concerned by this hate propaganda. And I want to take a stand,” she told CNN. “I could look at that swastika and Nazi Kiez graffiti and say ‘oh, that’s awful’ and walk by. … Well, I don’t want to wait for someone else to do something about it.”
She’s fine-tuned her graffiti removal skills over the past 30 years, ever since she first saw a flyer in support of Rudolph Hess at her neighborhood bus stop.
At the time, she only had her keys to remove the message. In the three decades since, she’s armed herself with more efficient tools like nail polish remover, a scraper, and a can of spray paint. She carries it all in a cloth bag that reads “Gegen Nazis!” or “Against Nazis” in German.
Born at the tail end of WWII in 1945, Schramm became politically active in the 1960s when West Germany still had leaders with Nazi backgrounds. While she joined many anti-Nazi movements, according to her website, she ultimately felt she could make the biggest difference with her graffiti-removing vigilanteism.
At this point, she claims to have removed over 130,000 Nazi stickers and posters, and she spends 17 hours a week on average doing so.
It’s not a glamorous job and can often be downright dangerous. Schramm racks up expenses for graffiti-covering supplies and regularly receives threats from neo-Nazi groups.
Once, she came across a graffiti message that read, “Schramm, we’re coming to get you.”
While the German government supports her work, and even reportedly gave her the Medal of the Order of Merits in 1994 (which she returned when a former Nazi was awarded it in 2000), they don’t offer her any financial help. When she worked as a teacher, she spent 10% of her salary on her efforts, according to the Wall Street Journal.
But she perseveres, and even collects photos of the hateful work she wipes away.
Today, she’s collected over 5,450 photos of graffiti, and 1,100 stickers and posters, which she shows at educational exhibitions.
“I just want to shake you up,” she told 16-year-olds visiting her exhibition in a Berlin high school back in 2001. “I want to prevent you from accepting dangerous and ever-present racism and hate as inevitable.”
At a time when hate crimes are on the rise, both in Germany and the United States, more and more people like Schramm are stepping up to stamp them out.
Sign painter Olivia Trimble from Fayetteville, Arkansas, has vowed to cover up any hate graffiti she comes across and even launched a movement called #RepaintHate, which called on artists around the country to paint over racist graffiti when they see it. Two days after the election, this couple covered up hateful chalk messages with messages of love outside Hillary Clinton’s headquarters in New York City.
As Schramm well knows, it’s a job that’s often thankless, but, at the end of the day, ridding the world of hate makes a difference and that’s what matters.
“People tell me I am intolerant, that I don’t respect the far-right’s freedom of speech,” she told CNN. “But I say: Freedom of speech has limits. It ends where hatred and contempt for humanity begins.”
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