“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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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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