Meet Graffiti Grandma, the 78-year-old activist removing far-right hate speech from German streets

·2-min read
Elderly woman posing in front of graffiti wall.
Elderly woman posing in front of graffiti wall.

When Irmela Mensah-Schramm leaves her house in the morning, you will rarely see her without a well-stocked tote bag. Its contents: a scraper, nail polish remover and spray cans. For over 30 years, the activist, a self-described ‘political scrubber’ who earned the nickname Graffiti Grandma, has been removing right-wing messages and hate speech from streets all over Germany. 

In 1988, Mensah-Schramm was on her way to work when she found a sticker at the bus stop demanding “Freedom for Rudolf Hess”. Hess was Deputy Führer of Hitler in the NSDAP during the Third Reich and in Spandau Prison at the time, where he would remain for the rest of his life. Mensah-Schramm, however, removed the sticker when she came home from work that night, and her mission began.

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Since then, she mostly goes to scenes of recent racist crimes and gets rid of the hate that is left behind. Swastikas turn into stick figures, hate messages get buried under hearts, and Graffiti Grandma goes home with a smile on her face.

 

Before retiring from her teaching position in 2006, she used to take to the streets outside work hours or on the weekends, but after, she started venturing out four days a week. Since 2007, she has documented everything she scrapes off, removes or sprays over. More than 90,000 stickers and 10,000 graffiti works can be found in her archive and tell the story of a fight against indifference to hate messages. 

She organises workshops for schools, and her collected stickers were exhibited in the German history museum in Berlin. Even though she gets threats from neo-Nazis, had to defend herself in court for what she does, and was attacked more than once while spraying, she doesn’t plan to stop. In her own words, she’s “not known for ending something before it’s finished.”

 

Having gained online recognition for her activism in the past years, the 78-year-old doesn’t give up the hope that more people will make it their practice to remove far-right hate from public spaces.

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