Ulrich and I discovered our first ghost during our second week in Wuppertal*.
We were on a late afternoon walk after Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) at a nearby café. “Ooooooh, look!” yelped Ulrich, pointing at a concrete façade across the street.
There on the wall was a painted white ghost in the vague shape of a snail, with a powder blue surgical mask on its face. Graffiti art from the COVID era! We gushed over how cute it was.
I saw another one on an errand the next day: a she-ghost, signified by a little pink bow on her left ear. Her eyes were closed, accentuating thick Betty Boop eyelashes.
I snapped a photo and showed Ulrich when I got home. He was intrigued.
A week after that, we saw a ghost with no face mask which had its mouth wide open, eyes squinting in inverted sideways “V”s. In the middle of the mouth was an orange blob resembling a tongue. I thought the ghost was vomiting, but Ulrich insisted that it was coughing because it’d caught COVID.
Ulrich started a shared photo album which we added to whenever we discovered a new ghost, which turned out to be every few days.
There was the one carrying an umbrella with “I <3 HK” scrawled on it, and another which looked stoned with (-.-) eyes, a dopey smile painted on the outside of its mask. There was also a homeless ghost, asleep under a newspaper, with a bottle of beer perched to its side.
Oftentimes the same ghost would appear in more than one spot and I’d think we had seen it already, but Ulrich’s instincts were sharper. He’d stop mid-conversation, walk over to a spot about two meters away from the ghost and retrieve his phone from his pocket, checking the existing locations in our shared album. Upon confirming it was new he’d snap a photo, carefully adjusting the lighting and focus. Ulrich strikes a certain pose when he takes pictures using his phone: feet staggered far apart, hands grasping the phone over his head, elbows jutted out perpendicular to his sides, his eyes crossing slightly in the final step.
We swapped ideas about what the ghosts might symbolize. Were they an artist’s protest against lockdowns? A caricature of Germans’ attitudes towards COVID? Or perhaps a public health message to follow protocols? (Except for the vomiting/coughing ghost, all of them wore face masks.)
After lunch one day I watched as Ulrich raised his phone over his head, documenting the latest ghost on the side of a residential building. Just as his eyes were starting to cross, I saw a blurry figure approach us from the other side of the street. It was a teenage girl with a bulging backpack slouched over one shoulder, wearing overalls with holes at the knees.
“Hi,” she said as she crossed the street towards us, her mouth full of chewing gum. She was holding something bulky and metal in her left hand, her fingers extended in an “ILY” gesture in order to keep it firm in her grasp. Her gait was impatient and slightly menacing.
Ulrich stepped towards the wall to make room for the girl to pass him on the sidewalk, but she stopped just short of us and stood there, motionless except for her jaw (which mashed away rhythmically at the gum), her eyes darting back and forth between his face and mine.
It was then that I recognized what she was holding: a metal stencil, the possible silhouette of a snail – or a ghost. A knot formed in my stomach as I imagined her backpack loaded with heavy spray cans. Here was a girl who was not inspired by art but rather burdened by it.
“Would you like to pass?” asked Ulrich in German, using the formal “you” (Sie), which sounded a bit awkward in front of a teenager. He hadn't seen the stencil yet.
“Alles gut [all good],” said the girl, still chewing, and she continued to stand there with the stencil in her hand, a smirk starting to crawl across her face.
“A-are you the artist?” I asked in my shaky German, exacerbating Ulrich’s out-of-place usage of Sie.
The girl laughed; I sensed disdain. “I’m getting paid to spray the same five ghosts all around the city, if that’s what you mean,” she replied. “It’s a mini-job for the Jugendamt [Youth Office]. I guess it’s better for me to make bad art than to sell drugs or get pregnant.”
“Ach so!” I exclaimed, meaning I see! or is that so! in German, a phrase to indicate surprise. I find myself using it more and more, regardless of its suitability to a situation, because I like the way the “ach” feels as it slides across the roof of my mouth, like the beginning of a sneeze.
“Does the art have a purpose?” asked Ulrich, and I cringed at his bluntness, even though I should be used to it by now. Germans are direct, after all.
“Keine Ahnung [no idea],” said the girl, shrugging. “One would have to ask the Jugendamt.” She was looking at something in the distance, behind Ulrich’s head, and I tried to trace her gaze but found nothing.
“How do you create the different variations?” I asked. “Are there separate stencils for each ghost or…?” my voice trailed off as I lost confidence in the question.
The girl was still looking off into the distance. “I have different stencils. But I also draw some details myself, like eyelashes or the pattern on the mask. And the ‘Z’s for the homeless one, I drew those too. But I only have one stencil with me today since I’ve only got an hour.” She raised her left hand to show us the rusty outline of a ghost with a single line across the middle of the blob, which could be interpreted as either part of a joker-esque smile or the top of a face mask.
“Well! You’ve done a very nice job,” Ulrich said. “May I know how old you are?” (He continued addressing her as Sie; by now it was too late to switch to the informal “you”, or du).
“Sixteen,” replied the girl, snapping out of her reverie to look at us again.
“Ach! Cool,” said Ulrich. “My daughter Greta is the same age. Turning seventeen next month.”
“Mm,” said the girl, jamming her free fist into the front pocket of her overalls. She was clearly waiting for us to leave. I nudged Ulrich with my elbow.
“Okay,” he said, showing his dimples as he smiled. “We have to go now. But we wish you the best. The ghosts are very nice.”
“Okay,” I said, tugging him by the sleeve.
“Okay,” said the girl, swiveling on her heels as she glided off in the opposite direction.
*Note: this story has been fictionalized.