Street art is a very particular art form. During my 6-month stay in Hamburg, I was intrigued by OZ’s graffiti, which can be found on the four corners of a local street. He also exhibited in a gallery, the OZM Space Gallery, based in the alternative neighborhood of Sternschanze.
How I discovered OZ
I have been living in the beautiful city of Hamburg for 2 months now and my attention was drawn to the many smileys that decorate the most unlikely places; a traffic light, a manhole, an electrical panel. The most amazing thing is that I do not meet these smileys in one neighborhood. They are everywhere, borrowed from their simple and innocent origins. This intrigues me. Upon taking a closer interest and I discovered that they are the work of a famous Hamburger graffiti artist: OZ. After reading several reports in German on this artist, I discovered the OZM Art Space Gallery which hosts several works by OZ. Upon a closer lock I became particularly interested in the topic and realizing that there were no further sources in English to investigate further I decided to interview the gallery manager.
After getting permission I met with Alex Heimkind, a friend of OZ as well as his manager. We meet in his art gallery which lists several works of different street artists. I became immediately fascinated by this place. The building itself is a work of art. Artists have taken possession of this place and actually it’s their playground. I was delighted to find a whole room is devoted to OZ. I have several questions to ask Alex about OZ and street art and it was in a white room, surrounded by works of art that the interview began.
OZ died in 2014, hit by a train while he was exercising his passion. Two years before this tragedy, he had been electrocuted by the cables of a subway line while trying to escape in front of police officers and 6 months before his death he was the victim of a small stroke. That is why his motor abilities were diminished and that on the day of his death he was not fast enough to avoid the train.
OZ is certainly the most prolific graffiti artist of Hamburg. It is necessary to know that the spraying in the city is seen as a crime and heavily punished by the law. Most graffiti artists therefore spray no more than 4 meters of wall during their career. OZ, for his part, totals at least 200 meters! As a result he was also arrested several times by the police for his graffiti, and spent more than 8 years in prison.
New color to the palette: the fanatic grey
If you walk around the streets of Hamburg, you will inevitably fall on one of the famous smiles of OZ. The artist had the idea of embellishing the city of Hamburg. For a month, he has been painting a grey wall of several different colors with the idea of making people smile. This project took him more than 4 weeks and in one day an employee of the Hochbahn (Hamburg metro) painted over his work in plain grey. Since that day, OZ calls the grey of the streets, fanatic grey!
The meaning of spirals
Upon close observation, you will notice one or more black spirals right next to the smileys. According to Alex Heimkind, manager of the OZM Art Space Gallery, there are several meanings to these spirals, two of which relate to the Second World War. OZ would have drawn these spirals to represent each victim of the Second World War killed by the Nazis. Besides, every time OZ was arrested by the police, he said he was a Jew. He actually made a parallel between his case and the case of the Jews during the Second World War. At one point, OZ was so well known by the police, that whatever he did, the presumption of innocence was sometimes lacking. Whether he draws with erasable chalk on a wall or with permanent spray, he was treated in the same way simply because he was OZ.
Another interpretation is related to the Zyklon B gas used during the Second World War to kill Jews. The spiral represents the Zyklon (= cyclone in English). And finally, the last interpretation concerns the traveler side of OZ. When he was young, he went to Asia with hippies and saw a cyclone which he then wanted to represent on the walls of his city.
Why did OZ choose the beautiful city of Hamburg?
He certainly chose Hamburg to paint his many graffiti pieces because it is a city open to the world thanks to its Harbor. Alex Heimkind also informed me that Hamburg is known across borders so it is a good starting point to get a message across and that echoes it further.
Interviewed by Julie Erard on June 2017