Another man found. I tracked down the artist of the street sticks, again with the aid of my neighbour. It seems many of the answers lie just across the hallway.
The street sticks hold quite a story; of one Swiss man born in 1939. But it’s also an age old tale. It’s a story of crime and fleeing to exile; of friendship and harbouring of the underdog; of the battle between authority and popular opinion; the power of controversy to boost the reputation of art; and the cumbersomeness of wearing glasses.
It begins in September 1977 when the street sticks first emerged on the concrete walls of Zurich, in Switzerland. They appeared suddenly and surprisingly, and provoked curiosity and discussion by the denizens of the city. They were always recognisable as coming from the same artist, but each one unique, and sprayed so as to fit in with their surroundings. The figures multiplied quickly but the identity of the graffiti artist stayed hidden for a long time. He sprayed secretly, mostly under the cover of night.
The sticks delighted many people of Zurich, although mostly only other artists and some intellectuals. The people who lived behind the walls he sprayed on did not like the strange stick figures that suddenly greeted them when they emerged from their homes to go to work one morning. The police didn’t appreciate the rebellious artistic expression that was eluding them either, nor did the city council. To them it was a malicious and illegal defacement of public property. They commenced the hunt for the Zurich sprayer.
One day in May 1979, the artist returned to the scene of his last night’s crime to fetch his glasses he had regrettably left behind. The police were there as well, and two years after his first graffiti, the Sprayer from Zurich was captured. It was Harald Oskar Naegeli, who by this time had painted about 900 of his figures around the city, although most of them had been washed away by the council. He was arrested and released on bail to await his sentence.
According to German journalist Hubert Maessen, the Attorney General of Zurich was determined to make an example of Naegeli and his offences. He was charged with wilful damage to property, sentenced to nine months imprisonment and fined 200,000 Swiss Francs. The local artist community was shocked at the severity of the punishment and circulated a petition. But no matter how many signatures were scrawled on the clipboard, the authorities would not back down.
There was only one thing for Naegeli to do. He fled the country and found safety in Germany. He was harboured first by the editor Marianne Lienau in Cologne, where he continued on his spraying escapade. He unleashed around 600 figures on the city’s walls in a series which became known as the Kölner Totentanz, the Cologne Dance of Death. Not everyone liked his street sticks but they were discussed a lot less here than they had been in Switzerland.
After he ran out of walls in Cologne, he came to Düsseldorf, where he sought asylum with Maessen and became acquainted with the artist Joseph Beuys. And the Sprayer from Zurich just kept on spraying.
Meanwhile, the Zurich Justice Department had not forgotten the crafty criminal and were determined to see Naegeli recaptured. They issued an international warrant for his arrest and demanded his extradition from Germany. He was finally caught on the border to Denmark when the artful rogue was attempting to visit his mother. Despite widespread protest by many people including the ex-Chancellor Willy Brandt and the artist Beuys, the Swiss government demanded the German authorities hand him over. Germany was reluctant to cooperate but they eventually agreed. They informed Naegeli, who turned himself in and carried out his jail term in 1984.
This brave move enhanced his artistic reputation greatly. Suddenly Harald Naegeli was recognised in both Switzerland and Germany as a great artist. Museums and galleries exhibited his work. A documentary was made for Swiss TV and he was awarded a prize for his outstanding contribution to the environment of Zurich. But after serving his prison sentence, Naegeli returned to Düsseldorf.
In 2004, the Sprayer from Zurich was vindicated in his hometown and his graffiti formally recognised as art. He had illegally sprayed a wobbly woman called Undine on a building of the University of Zurich in 1978. When the building was renovated, the picture was deemed ‘valuable art’ and covered for protection. Undine was restored and unveiled to the public after the renovations were completed. Other graffiti added nearby has been removed but Undine remains.
A couple of weeks ago I discovered a fresh street stick around the corner from here on the concrete wall of the local petrol station. I know it was new because I had ridden past that same wall the evening before and it was bare. The two jagged hands of the figure were sprayed deftly so they appeared to hold up signs which said, “Do not park here or your car will be towed.” When I returned with my camera the next day, the stick man had been washed away. The Sprayer from Zurich turned seventy this year, and he’s still on the move in the ‘dorf, under the cover of night.