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An Interview with 1UP

Earlier this summer in Berlin, graffiti crew 1UP released their long-awaited book with legendary New York photographer Martha Cooper. We sat down with the crew to discuss their work with Martha, their global influence, and the viral videos they have seemingly perfected.



It’s easy to ignore graffiti. Living in a major city, it’s something you quickly become used to. It’s there, but like advertisements on billboards or the sides of taxis, you quickly allow it to wash over you, acknowledging it without really engaging with it. What once may have radically punctuated a neighborhood’s landscape, has now become so ubiquitous that it’s hardly worth mentioning.


That’s what I thought upon moving to Berlin last year, the city awash with tags, scrawled on like the front of a notebook by anyone with a spraycan and a sense of idle restlessness. But there’s something different about the graffiti here; you’ll notice one graphic, alphanumerical tag more than any other.


There’s a term, ‘Baader-Meinhof phenomenon’, that was coined in 1986 by Terry Mullen, writing in Minnesota’s local paper, The St. Paul Pioneer Press. Taking its name from a 1960s left-wing German terrorist group, often referred to as the Red Army Faction, it describes the process of learning of an obscure or unfamiliar piece of information, only to then regularly encounter it in the coming days and weeks. In Berlin, once you learn of 1UP, such a phenomenon takes hold.


Visually, as a graphic tag, the name is powerful. But what it stands for – One United Power – is also significant. 1UP operate as a guerrilla group, presenting a united front, rather than spotlighting individual members. With between 20 and 30 members, mostly male and in their mid-20s and early 30s, they are decidedly anonymous despite their omnipresence in Berlin. Most hold regular day jobs, living relatively low key, keen to hide their identities from local authorities. You won’t see any one name of its members on bus shelters, bins, roofs, or pub toilets cubicles. 1UP, the same in Kreuzberg, Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, pretty much any neighborhood in Berlin.



Intent on leaving their mark on the city, but also shaking up what is a pretty standardised practice, 1UP have become known for leaving no nook or cranny un-tagged, as well as viral videos of them in action, creating huge scale works. “Actions” is how they refer to what they do. One recent “action” perfectly illustrated the group’s power to act as agents of agitation in the modern city, stopping a train at Schlesisches Tor in Berlin’s Kreuzberg on New Year’s Eve, proceeding to spray paint an entire carriage in a matter of minutes. These “actions” take a tremendous amount of planning, with each painter allocated a specific role, and the crew’s cameraman scouting rooftops to film from well in advance. One “action” even had the crew practising how to abseil in order to make a quick getaway.


The video of the New Year’s Eve “action” has amassed over 450,000 views on YouTube in its first week – a fairly standard response to one of their videos, which has seen their influence extend beyond Berlin. They readily admit they’re not the best or most aesthetically accomplished graffiti crew, or even the most willing to flirt with danger to get their message across, but they are perhaps the crew which best understands how to make an impact – especially as early adopters of social media and YouTube, repeatedly going viral with their urgent, on-the-run queasicam videos. They don’t seek fame. But they do want to be unmissable, be it on the streets or online.


"When we were in Mexico last year, there were like 250 kids coming onto this crazy rooftop spot and freaking out." 


As a result, their global reach has inspired other would-be artists across the globe. “When we were in Mexico last year, there were like 250 kids coming onto this crazy rooftop spot and freaking out,” one member recalled. “There were a hundred kids who wanted tags on their Nike jackets, or sketches. We did some live t-shirt printing stuff with them and we showed one of our videos.” Every day their Instagram DM-inbox swells with messages from kids from all over the world, they add. Last week, it was a kid in Iraq who wanted to show them his work. Their relative notoriety and anonymity has its drawbacks, however, with the fandom and easily-aped graphic resulting in a slew of unofficial tags (often by young kids looking to catch their attention). One errant, unauthorized tag on a motorcycle last year saw 1UP members having to explain themselves to a local gang of Hells Angels.


Many of 1UP’s members have taken to journeying across the globe, tagging other metropolises as they do Berlin. One ten day trip to Barcelona last year saw the city receive 500 new pieces, while Syria, Indonesia, New York, Paris and Athens now also bear the group’s name. In Bangkok, the 50-storey high Sathorn Unique Tower – said to be haunted, according to local legend – also saw its highest point sprayed with 1UP’s graphic logo. Soon after, it was “buffed” (painted over) by local authorities, only for one member to fly back to do it again. The piece has since been buffed again, but over time, rain has rinsed away the paint revealing a distinct piece of artwork atop this towering building. It’s just about clear enough now to make you pause, tilting your head for a better look. It’s hard to ignore as the highest piece of graffiti in the city. Squint and you can just about make it out though – 1UP.




A: She doesn’t need much sleep. She’s just a maniac. She’s working all the time and editing photos and all that stuff. When she came out with us, she was so much fun with us, making dirty jokes all the time. The time doesn’t matter anymore, suddenly it’s 3 o’clock, she’s sitting in the bar with us drinking beer or wine, asking: “Where do we go next?” We’d stay out until 4 o’clock in the morning and tell her: “Ok, but we have to go out again tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock – you have to go to sleep.” But she’d want to do one more action. Totally insane. I don’t know any person at this age who has this power. She always has these big camera bags around her. Sometimes when I ask: “Can I carry your backpack?” she would let me, but mostly she’d say: “No, no. I want to be ready anytime.” I heard she is starting a walking group in New York, for training. She says she wants to keep up with us. [Laughs]


"She doesn't need much sleep. She's just a maniac. She's working all the time and editing photos and all that stuff."



B: What opened a lot of doors for us was the Youtube videos that went viral. But also we travel all over the world and we put our name in every big city. There’s this connection.

A: The impact really comes when we visit one city. Last year we were in Barcelona for ten days, and did something like 500 bombings in the streets. The kids who lived there, they would go out of their house and see 20 new bombings. And then they’d walk around and see 20 more, or a hundred more. Then they’re like: “What the fuck? How is this possible?” It’s nice to show the world that you can actually bring colour into the street, you can bring your name into the street, and that not everything is gray, or covered by security and watched by police.




D: I think especially in some countries, painting is understood as work that you do. In Sri Lanka, the people were asking us: “Why do you do that? You’re on your holidays and you’re painting houses? What the fuck is wrong with you guys?”

A: They always ask how much money we want. They don’t get it.

B: But it’s nice to give the kids some cans or a brush and they start painting. It shows them some new perspectives. Sometimes you’ll do like one small tag somewhere on the other side of the world, and you’ll see it five months later on Instagram… That’s really nice.

There was also a documentary about the Syrian civil war, and they passed by some walls and there was a 1UP tag, because two of our crazy guys went to Syria.


"They went to the northern part of Syria called Rojava to learn about the democratic revolution happening there, not to paint."


A: They went to the northern part of Syria called Rojava to learn about the democratic revolution happening there, not to paint. It was a war zone and nothing happened as planned. Because of Turkish repression in that region, they had to stay much longer than they wanted to. Meanwhile they made lots of contacts, started to learn the language and started to paint a lot. They worked with kids from one youth project, painting murals with them. Unlike in Germany, they could just walk around the city and choose the walls they wanted to paint together with the kids – people were pleased to have their houses painted. They were regularly invited into the houses they painted, these families would share the few things they had at their disposal with them.

D: One of them was a tall blond guy. After a short time, everyone knew them as the two crazy Europeans who would paint. They even ended up on the front page of the only newspaper published in Rojava. Unfortunately, they couldn't bring anything back with them. After two and a half months they crossed the border into Turkey, illegally, together with some Syrian refugees running over a big stretch of highly-lit scrubland. They had to hide in the corn fields from Turkish tanks patrolling the area. They couldn't bring anything pointing towards their stay on the Syrian side, because of Turkey’s ruthless attitude towards democratic processes happening there.



B: We respect old buildings or churches, we don’t paint those. Or buildings of historical significance. There are some buildings that we have a lot of respect for. You could do a crazy video at Brandenburger Tor and release it, and it’d go viral, but why would you paint a historical building when you know it’s definitely going to be buffed?




A: We plan everything second by second.

D: When you enter the station, there are a lot of cameras, so you need a good team where everyone knows who is doing what. It’s not like five people who just go and paint, it’s much, much more. We have a time window of less than three minutes. After three or four minutes, the police will arrive. So, you have to just be fucking fast.



When we wanted to paint the whole train in the center of Berlin, everything was really well-organized. But when we met up – twenty-five of us – we saw there was some security, so we couldn’t do it. We met next night, but the train was on a different track, so we had to go back home again. Back the next night… It took us four nights before we could do it.

A: It was six nights... But it wasn’t at night, it was at like six in the morning. Super fucked up time, super cold. Everybody was chilling in a little flat, shaking hundreds of cans, some were sleeping on the floor. And then you go outside and hide in the bushes, super cold. Then, suddenly, it’s not happening anymore. Those twenty-five people have to go home again. And the next day, we’re calling everybody: “Ok we’ll again try tomorrow morning, are you down?”

A: For me, the aim is to reach some goal with the crew – to make something happen which you thought maybe wasn’t possible. It takes so much planning and so much energy. We’re not all adrenaline junkies. Personally speaking, the action is often no fun at all – it’s often super stressful. The fun part is after. And then you have that “crew feeling,” you meet up after and you know that everybody had their little part to play. That’s how it works, it’s super clear. Like as if you were shooting a movie.




D: The most important thing is to stay visible in the world. For example, we went to Athens a few weeks ago, and I was really happy to see some old pieces from six or seven years before. If you paint a train, it’s gone almost instantly – you just have the photo.

The funny thing is, we’re still painting. I think ten years ago, I wouldn’t have expected that I would still be painting at this age. I don’t feel that I have to stop. I think even when we’re all old and in wheelchairs, we’ll do some grandpa actions.



Byline: Calum Gordon | Photos: 1-UP & Martha Cooper
Taken from Issue 1 of WIP Magazine - a new publication by Carhartt WIP