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“OZ,” Germany’s Unrepentant 61-Year-Old Graffiti Artist, Going Back To Jail

Graffitist “OZ”, who's been tagging Hamburg buildings for two decades, was sentenced again Friday to 14 months for continuing to deface property. An underground hero to some, criminal vandal to others, the spray painter insists that not even jail

Hamburg graffiti art by Walter F., aka
Hamburg graffiti art by Walter F., aka
Martina Goy

It comes down to this: is graffiti art or vandalism? For 20 years, a single man with a spray can has forced Hamburg courts to weigh this very question. On Friday, a judge ruled it was in fact vandalism, sentencing the 61-year-old spray painter, who goes by the name "OZ", to 14 months in prison.

Referred by the courts as Walter F., the Hamburg resident has more than 120,000 graffiti to his name. These consist mostly of smiley faces and the letters OZ, and they are sprayed on the walls of buildings, on gables and manhole covers, and on electrical distribution boxes. He also once painted a concrete block house in the Hamburg district of St. Pauli.

The Hamburg justice system's position on the matter has remained firm. The courts had already forced OZ, who in the early days of his activity also used the alias "Johnny Walker," to spend eight years of his life behind bars.

His first conviction was in 1992. Neither that, nor subsequent convictions have done anything to change his outlook or behavior. "He has no intention of stopping," says defense lawyer Andreas Beuth, who says he took the case because the matter lay "close to his heart."

"Society has to cope with him"

OZ is a small man who at his court appearances wears sunglasses or a hoodie pulled down to cover most of his face. A medical evaluation carried out way back when he began spraying states that he has a "functional disturbance of the brain."

But this isn't part of the current conversation. "It may be a pain," public prosecutor Wilhelm Möllers said recently, "but society has to find a way to cope with him."

Based on past experience, no one is expecting cooperation from the defendant on that score. He is not interested in winning the sympathy vote. He refers to the authorities as "cleanliness Nazis," and believes they are trying to keep him from the happiness he finds in his spraying activities.

OZ has been saying he's half-Jewish since the 1990s, which is why – in his opinion – "Nazis and the squeaky-clean brigade" are after him. These are the kinds of statements that in the past have motivated authorities to give OZ psychiatric evaluations.

Walter F.‘s jail sentence this time around may have been sealed when OZ sprayed a concrete post on April 18, after court hearings had already gotten underway.

That played against him, as did the fact that he vigorously resisted arrest by police officers. The prosecution no longer sees a suspended sentence as justifiable.

But Walter F. is by no means a delinquent in everybody's eyes. A sometimes sympathetic media has dubbed him "The Wizard of OZ." His material has been featured in a coffee table book called Sprühling, which clearly considers OZ to be an artist, not a vandal. And in the hip-hop scene, he's a hero, Spiegel writes. In Hamburg, many claim his street art brings a smile to the faces of passers by. Galleries in Hamburg and Berlin exhibit his work.

Is OZ a pioneer who, after a long career, can now be considered a recognized graffiti artist, or a stubborn maniac using spray painting as a way to get attention that – were he to lead a socially acceptable and unremarkable life – would not otherwise be forthcoming?

Despite the fact that the known aspects of his life have been publicly dissected in the years he's been in the public eye -- born in Heidelberg, raised in a home for kids, educated by nuns, apprentice gardener and later wannabe hippie in Copenhagen -- so far nobody has really been able to figure out what he's all about.

It's unlikely that anything will change. The dynamic between OZ and the courts is long-established. Nobody is going to stop him. Another conviction and jail stint will merely interrupt his activities. As OZ likes to say: "F--- the norm." And that's exactly what he's going to go right on doing.

Read the original story in German

Photo - Udo Herzog

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Image of Colombian President Gustavo Petro speaking during a press conference in Buenos Aires on Jan 14, 2023

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Manuel Cortina/ZUMA
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