An insight into a legend
Some weeks ago, our friend Pietro Rivasi has proposed us to interview Thomas Meier, the former assistant of Walter Josef Fischer, also known as OZ, one of the most interesting figure of Hamburg's graffiti and street art history. OZ passed away last September. It is a great honour to share with you the text and the images that Pietro has collected. Thanks also to Elisabetta Orlacchio for her kind and precious help.
PR: I only discovered Oz around 2003 because of the book Hamburg City Graffiti (Gingko Press, 2004), a collection of pictures and texts about the city's scene from its beginning in the early 80's. Amongst the evidences, the one describing a full-page entirely dedicated to Oz by Keats said “The HW (Hamburg public transit corporation) has barely escaped its ruin: Oz has never done any trains! Oz is probably the most industrious bomber (not) known to the world! Only interested residents of Hamburg will realize the true extent of his work! Every attempt at a description defies its true scale. King of streetbombing… OZ. One has to add though that his motivation is probably different from that of typical writers”.
Since then, I started noticing all his tags and "signs" in other writers' pictures in the book: some of his works were always, incredibly, present, somewhere, in the pictures’ frames. Than I discovered that Oz appeared also in the majority of Hamburg’s flicks published in other graffiti books and magazines.
Now that Oz is no more among us, I thought it was due to focus on his monumental work to allow the more people possible knowing the history of a pioneer that represented, for more than 30 years, a bridge between the most borderline tendencies of the international art panorama; a man that, partly unconsciously, worked as a link between neoist practicies and art brut, starting from a relationship with public space dictated by New York style graffiti writing before, and “street art” and the “post - graffitism” then, from the late 90’s on. All this, managing to gain acceptance by three generations of graffiti bombers, who offered him a unique tribute on the occasion of his funeral.
This essay could not be possible without Elisabetta Orlacchio, who took the beautiful photos and helped us to get in touch with Oz’s assistant, Thomas Meier, who actually manage this facebook page about OZ and who preferred to write a portrait more than answering our questions. Last but not least, thanks to Francesco Barbieri, for putting us in touch with Elisabetta.
Oz at work in the studio of a friend (photo: Thomas Meier)
TM: OZ started scribbling as a young boy as an act of rebellion against the clean walls and hypocrisy of the nuns in the catholic orphans home he grew up in. He discovered it as a way to take revenge for being treated injustly and fight back the authorities. He told me, he saw himself as "the revenge of the orphanage kids". When growing older and starting to move around different cities in Southern Germany like Heidelberg, Karlsruhe, Stuttgart, Mannheim, Frankfurt, OZ continued painting, doing first tags and political statements. He travelled Asia through former Yugoslavia, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, where he was impressed by the beauty of tropical nature, especially the birds, which he loved all his life. At times he even thought of becoming an ornithologist. He dropped out with his travelling companions and visited the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Korea and Japan, all with very little money.
In Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, he met Baronesse Maria von Trapp, youngest member of the famous "Von Trapp Family Singers", who tried to help OZ get a visa for Australia, which he was not given due to a mistake in the validation time of the first visa OZ had. He was unable to speak English. Maria von Trapp triggered OZ´ deeply built-in fear of hell and pressed hard to keep him with her and join her Christian missionary. It was the first and maybe only time in his life he had a mother figure. OZ wanted to stay in Asia but was asked to bribe the Indonesian policemen. He saw children starve and didn´t pay, "they had more than all the others, it was wrong" so he got taken to a plane and expelled and deported back to Germany.
Back in Germany OZ moved to Stuttgart and made a discovery that changed his life. He met people with spray cans who painted political statements like "Freedom for all RAF prisoners". In an interview OZ stated, he "didn´t know about such things as spray cans, never heard of it until then". OZ had scribbled and scrawled through the Sixties and Seventies, in Germany and on his travels abroad, written expressions like "Yes I do" on bus stations in Singapur and elsewhere. His first ever sprayed work was the same exact statement, those activists wrote: "Freedom for all RAF prisoners". That was in 1977. OZ continued writing and shifting around in Germany, when he decided to leave his homecountry for good and move to Christiania, Copenhagen. He left his trace in all cities he touched on his way up North, Hamburg, Rendburg, Kiel, Flensburg, where even today, about 25 years later, some old "Smileys" can be found. Because of toothache he came back to Hamburg in 1992. OZ never left the city again.
In Hamburg he reached a whole new level. Everyone who has lived there at that time knew his "OZ" and "Smiley", even without caring or even knowing about graffiti at all. One just could not escape the "OZ". OZ got all city within weeks. Kilometers of tags, in a rhythmic manner, OZ OZ OZ OZ OZ OZ OZ OZ OZ, repetitive, simple, pure, outstanding. On all train lines, on all switch boxes. Most of the tags in blue. Blue was OZ´ favorite color, it represented the ocean to him. He infact sometimes extended the "OZ" to "OZEAN", meaning "ocean". The "OZ" itself came from "Zadoz", I don´t know, if it had anything to do with the Seventies´ movie "Zardoz". Because it took too long to tag, it got shortened to the last two letters: "OZ" was born.
I read about the character of letters in a book ("Theorie des Style") a tagging friend showed me, and it called the "O" because of its circle form the perfect letter. Imagine cutting the "O" in two halves, move the left half up and you get the "S", that contains of two half circles. The "S" therefore is the "Queen of the Alphabet". So take a square, do the same with it, and you get the "Z", the "King". OZ has unconsciously chosen the strongest two letters of the alphabet, making "OZ" the best tag ever. It´s short, it´s a oneliner, it´s easy and quick to paint. No, it´s not a complete oneliner, the dot OZ painted in the end of the tag makes it something totally different. Now it is perfect, it is complete, it is personal. A tag like a brand, ready to take over the world.In Hamburg OZ settled and developed. Hamburg has many lonesome places, long walls, plenty of anonymity, it is big enough to not get bored or caught too easily and small enough to make it all city. Here OZ painted his first mural. A combination of the dots and lines, maybe twenty-four meters long. Max-Brauer-Allee. In the early days OZ only used skinnies, but often times they would be blocked with color and not work properly. He would never interrupt a tag, even if he got busted for it, and that happened every once in a while. Since then OZ was tagging with fatcaps, although he preferred the flowing effect of the skinnies.
OZ dug deep into anything he did, he called himself a workaholic and named "the can" his addiction. OZ´ work included tagging, scratching, painting, gardening. He cleaned public spaces and took the trash to grey walls or billboards, "junk and advertisements go together, it´s the same", piled up twigs and branches for insects to live in, picked up food and beverages from the streets to throw in places some rat or pigeon could eat. OZ collected caution tape and plastic bags to wrap around lampposts, leaning his bike against them, climbing up on it and reaching extremely high. "One can fuck them this way too" he explained to me. OZ saved his piss in big bottles at home, waited for it to go foul and poured it out in front of freshly painted grey walls. "Look, all is clean, no graffiti, but this smell..." OZ has scratched almost every single public transit car in Hamburg. He did it in the daytime, with people sitting right next to him, pretending to be stumbling and leaning on the window. He picked up a tiny little stone and did it with that, he could always throw it away quickly and inconspicuously. On the escalator he kept his wax crayon in his hand, pressing it towards the surface, leaving a long terror line. "Now they can go and clean it again!" he always grumbled. OZ called his writing "cleaning" and stopping to do so "healed". "Maybe I will be healed sometime" was an ironic quote I often heard him say.
OZ was a pioneer. Most of the times he was the first one to deflower a wall, encouraging others to follow him and gain back the space. When some nice "Smiley" got buffed, he would go and paint a frown in the same spot. "Bad Smiley" he called it. "If they don´t like smiling faces now they get a bad one". He never forgot any of his paintings or tags, and most of them, especially the murals, have been destroyed by today. Many writers used to take his freestyle pictures as a background for their cheap bombings, ignoring any oldskool graffiti codex. OZ painted "freestyle", the highest form of graffiti. Some people even dedicated their pieces to him after they crossed a spot, OZ showed them to be possible to paint.
During the day, he tagged his "squiggle", a tag he simplified from an older version he did in the Nineties, to make it easier to copy, so "they don´t know if it was me or not, the original is too special and recognizable". He held his rucksack up in front of the surface he was going to tag, making it impossible for an observer to be sure about the application of color. At night, OZ took his bike and worked hour after hour, tagging his way through the city. He would keep a good spot he discovered in mind and go there as soon as possible. He never cared too much about a tag being worth the effort, any place was good. But still he tagged the most dangerous and prominent places in Hamburg. He had the ultimate eye for a good spot. OZ even re-painted bleached-out tags of other writers, being the complete opposite of the standard ego writer.
It has always been said that many people have been copying OZ´ tags. This is bullshit. This theory was made up by journalists, who couldn´t believe it was all the work of one man and later continued by his lawyer to protect OZ from further trials. Of course, after "SEX" "OZ" is the most tagged name by non-writers who never sprayed before, but whoever set themselves up for fame would never copy someone elses name. Logic! OZ was forced into prison for an overall of eight years. This is exactly an eighth of his lifetime! He told me he had planned to stop painting, but got angry while in jail. "I didn´t want them to win. I wanted to retire, but being locked in for spraying got me so angry I continued". Wether his tagging got more and heavier, I wanted to know. "Yes, I would say so". "This was worth it" was another famous line of his. After being released, OZ started tagging the names of some local crews. There were some outstanding taggers their names OZ adapted as a sign of respect. Tagging different crew names gave him some security, because the average citizen would not recognize them as his work.
OZ used many different tags, some of them million-like times, others only once. If he didn´t want to be linked to it, he would make up a disposable tag for a certain spot, usually a wall he has been fighting for to be colorful for a longer time. OZ had many fans but also many haters amongst the graffiti scene. Some people simply envied him, others couldn´t understand his style and message. He has gotten many legal writers (whom he despised!) jobs by calling a wall again and again. Often times a legal painting is cheaper than continuous buffing. Some writers who dedicated their "RIP OZ" pieces to him have knowingly crossed his work after his death. This is evil hypocrisy! During his lifetime he was threatened by crews and gangsters, whom he showed good spots. They crossed him and when he complained, they threatened to beat him up.
OZ exhausted what today is called "streetart". He would buy some chocolate pudding and splash it on otherwise unreachable freshly painted grey or white walls. He called "freshly painted" "freshly shat". Walking through town with the Master was always fascinating. In the beginning it was hard for me to relax, but later I got used to it. We could never make any appointment, because OZ would stop every second move and do a tag. He got recognized often, people uttered their respect, sometimes he got asked for his autograph. Many of the people he didn´t remember, some of them said, they met OZ ten or fifteen years ago. He knew a lot of people from his prison years, and they were always the most respectful. OZ was being exploited by all of his so called "friends", beginning with his lawyer, to his gallerist, to his publisher. There have been forgeries, stolen paintings and his press archive, forced collaborations and titles to his works. OZ was never allowed to control his interviews, gallery texts or pre-read the books that came out on him. People who never even had a cup of tea with him were putting a tread on OZ, using their chance to get some publicity. OZ was unable to stand up against it, because he felt indebted to his lawyer.
To me, OZ was a mixture of a helpless child, a holy man and a grumpy old guy. He could be charming and sweet and then again too nervewrecking. I always felt I had to protect, guard, shelter and shield him. Then again he was a father figure to me. He had a lot of experience and wisdom and he always knew what he wanted. Doubt and hesitation didn´t seem to exist in his world. OZ was one of a kind, a real hero, tragic, giant, peerless, matchless, singular, unique. OZ was the greatest artist of our times. It is our fault not to have noticed earlier and helped him get out of his struggle. After thinking about it from all perspectives, I am sure he committed suicide. May you rest in peace, Jozef, my Master!
This interview to OZ was recorded a few days before his death by Vocativ. We judge it useful to look for those who did not known OZ.
PHOTO CREDITS: "Elisabetta Orlacchio"