MILK is a seminal writer in the history of graffiti and if graffiti at some point spread from New York to the rest of the world, it is also because of him. 

Born in the 70s, he grew up in Munich, Germany. He got in contact with graffiti from an early age and he got hooked on the game. In the 80s graffiti was starting to appear in Europe. In the pre-internet era, the number of information was scarce and the media often filtered and distorted the reality of this movement. These obstacles didn’t stop the young MILK from dreaming about New York. His vivid curiosity will bring him to travel to the Big Apple and connect with some of the most active writers in the city. These recurrent exchanges between Europe and the US will transform the New York based TFP into the first real international graffiti crew. MILK and his crew-mates will end up having a deep, long-standing impact on the graffiti culture that can still be felt today. At The Message we believe that exist two kinds of writers: the ones that know TFP and the ones that don’t. The latest group is missing something important 😉

Someone may argue that graffiti would have gone global even without the contribution of writers like MILK. Maybe, but MILK and his crew helped bridge the gap between two continents, beat off media distortion, brought a new, authentic attitude to the culture, and pushed the standard of the game a step further. MILK’s life is an adventure hard to match.

Hi MILK, thank you very much for joining us. It is a surreal experience to exchange some words with a living legend like you. We grew up with your pieces.

Let’s start from the beginning, before your first trip to New York in 1987. Those were the very early years of graffiti in Europe and you must have been very young too. We read somewhere that you wanted to go to New York since you were ten! At that age, were you already aware of the existence of graffiti? When did you start painting? How did you get in contact with graffiti? There were some active writers in your city before ’87?

Growing up in Europe in the 70s and 80s everything cool basically came from the USA and New York City as its epicenter of cool. To give you an idea – in the early 80s there were absolutely no sneakers available in Germany, except proper sports shoes for running, soccer or tennis. So of course there was a great fascination for everything that came from the US. But the sources for information were scarce. Only three TV-channels and the occasional trip to the library. I lived in Munich at the time and there was graffiti around as early as 1984. I saw some pieces by people like ROSCOE, ROY, DON M. ZAZA and RAY.X on the bridges along the river that runs through the city, but little did I know about the idea of graffiti. So one day in 1985 my friend from school told me about this documentary he had seen on TV – Style Wars. He described the entire thing to me, scene by scene, so that is when I first understood the concept of writing and it immediately electrified me. The next days my friend brought a sketch of a NY subway car to school and had made a few copies and then we started drawing our first styles on these ‘subways’. A bit later I picked up Subway Art, got me a marker and started writing my name. It took a little while until I did my first piece, a bad copy of  DONDI’s ‘2MANY’ piece that said ‘MTA’.

Unfortunately I missed the innocent days of graffiti in Munich. When I started writing, most of the first generation writers had been caught and some of them hit with tremendous fines. In Bavaria they don’t play and a vandal-squad was formed after only 3 trains had been painted.

“We met a group of writers that had a fresh copy of Spraycan Art which had come out that summer and for the first time gave people an idea that graffiti had spread around the globe. And here I was, a 17 year old kid from Germany standing right in front of them in the Bronx.”

In 1987, you went to New York, and you spent one year there as an exchange student. At that point, things started to move faster. You were in New York and in 1988 also NEON traveled there to paint. How old were you at the time? How did you manage to travel to the US and go around the crime-infested New York of the 80s at such a young age? What happened during your time in the city? You and NEON already knew each other before traveling to New York? And when in 1988 he came to New York were you in the city at the same time?

By now, 1986, I had an even greater urge to go to the US, so I put quite some effort into getting myself into an exchange-student-program. I finally succeeded which brought me to the US in the summer of 1987 and that summer had a chance to spend four days in New York. I had an appointment to meet LOOMIT on a certain day in front of a wall painted by WEST and the FC-CREW, but he never showed up. So I made my way up to the Bronx and spent hour after hour on the platforms to take photos of the painted trains. Sometime on the second day these kids riding in between subway cars yelled at me to meet them at East Tremont. It turned out to be the writers bench. I met a lot of writers there that day and showed them photos of the graffiti in Munich. They were fascinated by the fact, that graffiti existed outside the US. One of them took me on a great tour around the Bronx. We passed a layup of freshly painted trains on the 2s, they went to the 238th Street bridge. Walking towards the bridge we met a group of writers that had a fresh copy of Spraycan Art which had come out that summer and for the first time gave people an idea that graffiti had spread around the globe. And here I was, a 17 year old kid from Germany standing right in front of them in the Bronx.

I then started my high school year in Philadelphia and got a bit distracted by all those high school-parties and didn’t return to NY until early 1988. I went straight back to the writers bench and waited for someone to show up. I ran into CLARK and DISK of the ID Crew and they offered to take me painting that night. We did a rooftop right next to the East Tremont station – my first piece in New York and I couldn’t have been happier. By the next time I returned, I had picked a new name. So CLARK and I went to the handball courts at Crotona-Park in the Bronx and I did the first MILK and CLARK added a really cool character next to it.

Over the next months I kept returning, cutting school on Fridays and taking the 2 hour ride up to New York. I hooked up with CLARK and DISK and did a number of pieces all over the city. My exchange-year came to an end, so I made a last trip up to NY. On my last night there CLARK took me to the famous Baychester-Layup and the plan was to hit a train. We entered the layup through a big hole in the fence and I was hiding under a train, while the others were checking out the place. The entire ground was covered with empty spraycans, right in front of me was a beautiful car with pieces by SENTO, CAVS and ISUE. We set up our paint and had barely begun, when flashlights started to appear and we had to make a rapid exit, jumping down a bridge at the end of the layup. There went my chance to paint a New York subway. A week later or so, I returned to Germany, a large stack of photos in my suitcase and determined to really start painting now.
Back in Munich, I met NEON, whom I already knew. I gave him my contacts from New York and a few weeks later he went there, spent several weeks in the city, met SENTO, painted subways and made history.

You had made the first contacts in New York, and in the summer of 1989, you returned to New York with NEON. We heard the story that you made the money for the trip by writing an article for the German edition of Playboy, is it true? This time you met SENTO and CASE2 and we suppose it was when you joined TFP. Can you tell us more about that trip and your encounter with the local graffiti writers?

When NEON returned from New York, there was nothing stopping him. Hanging out with SENTO his style had advanced a lot and he was doing amazing pieces. I was very motivated too and we partnered up to do quite a lot of good productions around the city.

So one day we got a request from a journalist, who wanted to write a story for Playboy magazine about graffiti. It was DON M. ZAZA, SCUM, NEON and I that were in the story and we also painted a large wall which was featured in the article. With the money we made from that article, NEON and I decided to return to New York the next summer. It was several weeks of steaming hot NY summer, I got to meet SENTO, CAVS, KEY, SPAR, got to paint my first subway, we basically went painting every day. We met CASE2 at his building near Jackson Av. where they had filmed him for Style Wars, went painting with him and we were living a dream. NEON and I went out paint a lot by ourselves, climbing into abandon buildings to get up to the rooftops along the subway lines. And this is 1989, large parts of the Bronx were still in rubbles and burnt down and the crack-epidemy was full on. I was an extraordinary adventure that ended with a DAMP, NEON, MILK end-2-end painted in the Ghost-Yard and me being introduced into The Fantastic Partners.  

The 90s were at the door and during that decade, you and your crewmates were often traveling all around Europe and to the US. In these years, your name was up to countless trains and subways, and often you were partnering with SENTO, ATOME, and PURE. How was your life in the 90s? Can you share with us your favorite story about these crazy years and graffiti trips? Did the New York Times post a picture of one of your whole-cars in those years?

For me, the essential part of writing is meeting other likeminded people. I am not a style-master like so many in my crew, for me it was more about the adventures shared with people of which many became friends for life. Eager to meet people, I was making contacts with other writers across Europe through trading photos in the mail, through the emerging network of graffiti magazines and by just going places and sheer luck. After the summer in NY I went to Amsterdam to meet GET an active writer and photo-collector. I got to paint a subway there, then went to Rotterdam to meet CES53 and just hours after arriving, was standing in the yard painting another subway with him and SOURCE there. Quite common today, it was very exciting back then and within the next year, we turned this into a bit of a traveling circus which lasted all through the 90s. But New York was always on my mind so I kept going back there every other year. But it wasn’t a one way exchange. SENTO kept coming to visit us as well and started traveling in Europe. By the mid 90s it was quite common to be in New York, paint there, meet the people like ATOME, SENTO, PURE, KAMI and many others and a few weeks later, you would paint trains in the Netherlands or Germany with them. First Amsterdams subway being the destination of choice, then by ’95, Italy became the new graffiti-paradise.

After the last graffiti-trains in New York got cleaned by May 1989, it was only a hand full of writers that kept on painting on the clean trains. It was mainly SENTO and people like GHOST, VEN, REAS, KET and a few of the old-timers like IZ THE WIZ, SACH, SAR. But SENTO being the ultimate tourist guide, more and more of us writers from Europe started to hit the subways in New York. I do not remember how the article in the NYTimes came about, but by then the vandal squad had figured out that their subways had become a destination for writers from abroad. It was in that article that they coined the term ‘graffiti tourism’ for the first time and it featured an image of one of my pieces, part of a SENTO-MILK whole-car.

Looking at your pieces, we have the impression that you belong to a different league when compared to the classic German graffiti mold. Do you think that, despite the different backgrounds and styles of its members, your crew shares some common attitude towards graffiti? What was your relationship with the rest of the scene back in Germany? 

As I mentioned before, the style of my letters concerned me much less than the act of painting and the adventure. Therefore it often was influenced by the circumstances and also by the people I painted with. But the basis of it all is still New York, the love for that original flavor, the love for all those beautiful pieces from the 80s and 90s. When I think about it, I guess that is what all the members of TFP share. And everyone adds his little twist to it.

Back in the 80s and 90s in Germany and especially in Munich, criminal prosecution of graffiti was fierce. You only trusted very few people, so I only painted with one or two people from my city, but my place was often like a hotel for all my foreign friends. It was a method to keep safe, but also I had to work a lot and divide my time wisely between traveling and painting, so I never was deeply involved with the scene in Germany.  

Almost 40 years have passed since you started painting, and you are still out there doing your thing. That is an incredible achievement. How did you stay active for so many years? What motivated you to paint back then, and what motivates you now? What has changed? Would you have done anything differently?

I am very fortunate to experience the things I did in my early days of writing. Consciously or not, a lot of times I ended up at the right place at the right moment. I made an effort to go beyond what the others did, because I saw the reward of a life less ordinary. Would I have done anything differently? I am truly grateful for what was and hopeful for what’s to come. Okay, I could have invested a bit more time in drawing and developing my style, but who knows, I might still do that, because I am not finished yet. The feeling to sneak into a yard, it is still the same as all these years ago.

The last question is for the young writers who are reading this interview. What advice will you give them? 

Graffiti is a state of mind. It is not about the perfect piece, perfection has no place in graffiti. It is the soul, your beautiful soul that makes graffiti beautiful. I see pieces by kids, by absolute beginners, but I see the innocence and that is what makes those pieces cool. And I see pieces executed with all the techniques that modern spray paint offers, but they lost their innocence. Graffiti is also more an act, than an artwork. It is you standing on that wall, maybe with a friend and many years from now, you will remember that moment, the beauty of doing it, the common adventure, the sounds of the city, getting away with it. And if you do it with all your heart, no matter if you paint a year or 40 years, you will always be a writer. It’s for life.  

Thanks again for sharing with us your story and your knowledge. We are sure that this interview will leave a sign that the legacy of TFP will long live!

Be sure to follow MILK on Instagram @milkfantastic, the Message @the_message_zine and you can also read the interview in Chinese here: