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Confessions of an expat bike thief

Where does that ‘secondhand’ bike you bought on the bridge came from? If anyone knows, it’s ‘S’, a Detroit native with four years of bike-stealing experience.

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Photo by Craig Hull

According to official stats, there is a good chance that you did or will fall victim to Berlin’s underground bike market. In the first four months of the year reported bike thefts went up by 45 percent!

But have you ever asked yourself where your two-wheeled friend ended up? Or where that ‘second-hand’ bike you bought on the bridge came from?

If anyone knows, it’s ‘S’, a Detroit native with four years of bike-stealing experience. The 29-year-old father of two is a thief with a conscience: a man who believes in fair trade.

I started stealing bikes in 2007 or 2008. I moved to Berlin in 2006 because I got a baby with a German girl. The problem was that I had, like, no money. I was waiting for it. I was asking my family for money, but it was just taking so long and I couldn’t take it anymore. I just wrote my auntie, like, “Well, I’ve gotta steal a bike then.” And then it just kind of spiraled into that.

My first bike

The first bike I stole, I had an argument with my girlfriend about fixing her bike. So I go outside to steal a bicycle wheel or something and fix her stuff with it. Then I see this bike lying next to the bakery, unlocked… like the guy must have just gone into the bakery to buy some bread and left it there.

I just hopped on that shit and ran – just rolled off as fast as I could. There were a bunch of people blocking the sidewalk and I was just hoping that no one would push me off this bike, because the guy is trying to chase me. But yeah, I just rolled through those people, nobody pushed me, and I ran into the house as fast as I could.

My neighbor at the time thought he was an anarchist, and he was really into stealing things. I had seen lock cutters at his place. So, I got them off him and just went crazy. When they’re good, they work like a charm, y’know? They cut through shit like butter. And bikes in Berlin are very badly locked.

Where I’m from [Detroit], you wouldn’t even leave your bike outside locked! That’s the crazy thing: it’s just so easy to steal bikes in Berlin! And it’s fun, bro – I’m telling you, doing bad stuff, it’s fun sometimes!

Selling on the Brücke

I started selling on Kottbusser Bridge. At first I used to do the middleman shit. I didn’t hustle, because I knew how territory works and everything. And I was scared of getting caught by the police, or by whoever’s bike it was. So I’d just take it to the sellers, take €15 (15 is the maximum you’ll get for any bike), and that was good enough for me.

But then I started selling myself, ’cause, if you’re only gonna pay me €15 and I can sell it to someone else for €20, like, what the fuck are you thinking?

So I would come in: €30-35 was my price. €40 was kinda like too much to ask for, because y’know, it only takes five seconds to steal one, so… I couldn’t justify selling a bike for €40 to somebody – it’s just a rip-off.

With Mauerpark, it’s a bit different: it’s a tourist spot, a hipster attraction, y’know? There you can sell your stuff for €60-70. But the competition is getting tough; it’s easier to sell at Kottbusser Brücke, even if you don’t get the same money.

“Not everybody’s a hustler.”

It’s real easy to sell on the bridge. I don’t hide it – I’m out there and say it out loud, like I’m selling grapes: “I got bikes.” If you stand and kind of hold your bike and draw attention to it, even if somebody didn’t want to buy it, if it’s nice and it’s a good price, they’ll buy it.

But you gotta be able to talk to people. You gotta be able to be a hustler – not everybody’s a hustler.

There could be competition, people could come, y’know, you gotta still be calm. I once got caught by a guy, for example. I had this bike that I’d stolen too close to the market, and when I got to the bridge, he was there, videotaping me with his phone and shit: “Oh yo, that’s my bike that you stole and blah blah blah.”

He didn’t see me steal it; he saw me on it – I guess I was on his daughter’s bike. So I was like, “Oh shit,” turned around and sold it to a guy for €15, or maybe €12, and just got the fuck outta there.

I’ve had a few close calls with the police too, but nothing really. I never actually worry about the police. As long as no one gets hurt, they don’t really care, y’know?

The business is unique to Berlin. When I lived in Hamburg – where there’s more respect – I’d bring bikes I stole to Berlin to sell them! I don’t know why. But I think if the rich people let us get away with this shit, they’re getting away with a lot of shit!

I don’t know, I’m just stealing bikes… I’m not even trying to get the most money possible. That’s not my intent, y’know, ’cause, you feel a little good, like, “Oh man, I’m happy that you bought this bicycle from me because it’s cheap.”

Hipsters to blame?

I almost exclusively sell to hipsters, or tourists, or people just moving here for a summer. You do have Germans, but when I’m out there, I look for people who look like they’re not from here.

That’s mostly the situation: “Yeah, we just moved here, and we need bikes.” [Laughs] Or, if you have your bike stolen, you’ll be more likely to buy a stolen bike, rather than someone who hadn’t.

I don’t think people would steal as many bikes if there weren’t as many hipsters. I mean, I only steal bikes that appeal to hipsters, these cruiser bikes, these racing bikes, or old school… Whatever’s trendy and cool.

High life, easy money

I guess stealing bikes is a sort of pussy job. It is pussy, but then I’m also selling to pussies. I’m not the only pussy, there’s like multiple pussies. I was doing it and it just kind of got addictive. It’s easy money. I used to make about €800 a month.

Tuesdays and Fridays on the bridge, Sundays at Mauerpark, two bikes at a time, average 35 a bike.

I could easily have done more, but I only needed so much money. So, I’d make 70 a day, then I would go buy some weed for 25 and then I had 45 for the night to spend at the bar, and whatever, y’know, to spend the next day. But I was also on Hartz IV, so… I was ballin’! I had money all the time, all the time. It was so fun too.

I even met women selling stolen bikes. You meet a lot of women selling bikes. Even girls I got with, they want bikes too. Like, on the bridge one time, this girl’s like, “What’re you doing?” And I’m like, “Selling bikes”. And then she’s like, “Okay”. And later on we hooked up, and then she wanted a certain bike! [Laughs] It might even have been that same night – she was like, “Well, can you get me a bike like this? Maybe pink?”

Making it big

Except at the very start, I never did it because I needed the money. It’s pocket money: it’s beer, weed, get-hoes money. That’s what it is! Plus, you can’t really do it big in the selling-bikes business.

There is no mafia. I mean, doing it big is just having a van, a shitty van, like the guys in Mauerpark. Yeah, they’re the most organized, but it’s really just a few guys who get deliveries from individual thieves – they always tried to get my number too.

Or maybe there’s the people filling tankers up with bikes and shipping them to Africa and shit. I guess that’s doing it big. Then you’ve made it in the stolen bikes shit! That’s what I need to do, right? You’re giving me ideas, like, yeah… Oh boy, fuck it, I gotta get a connec’. I just need an African connec’, a bicycle African connec’, and there we go!