The Final Days of the Most Prolific Graffiti Artist Ever

Oct 01, 2014 at 7:26 AM ET


He made his way across the roof with difficulty in a slumping posture. He stopped, surveyed the wall he’d chosen as a canvas and started painting. People inside the building yelled at him as the paint went into the vents. Passers-by gawked. Others shouted. He focused only on the painting.

On the street, a man looked up. “Is that really OZ?” he asked. “I’ve never seen him. He’s legend!” He took out his cellphone to snap a picture. “He’s a fucking legend.”

Walter Josef Fischer—known here in Hamburg, Germany, as OZ—was a fucking legend, even if most people could never pick him out of a crowd. Aged and slow with a worn, creased face and a hunch, he walked unseen with me through Hamburg as he painted walls and swore at trains. And yet, with his spray can, he’d changed the face of this city.

Up until his death last Thursday, the 64-year-old left his tag—a simple smiley face—hundreds of thousands times on local walls, sidewalks, roofs and lampposts. Hamburg police spokeswoman Ulrike Sweden told me that detectives estimate that OZ painted 120,000 tags over a period of just a few years in the ’90s. No one kept track beyond that.

When I connected with Fischer last month, only weeks before one of those hated trains killed him as he was leaving a tag nearby, I found him angry, fascinating and monomaniacal in his work. Throughout, he spoke with difficulty—a result of numerous operations for a cleft palate—said little and did not identify himself as an artist.

As we first met, he shook my hand, then tagged a McDonald’s ad behind me. We couldn’t walk half a block without Fischer whipping out a crayon or a Sharpie to draw swirls.

By then, he’d already spent eight years in prison, just one part of his decades-long battle with the police. He narrowly avoided jail again in 2012 and was rearrested as recently as June. At one point, he even had his own detective assigned to him. Standing on a bridge overlooking tracks, he described being thrown from trains by police, running through darkness and being beaten up. “They would love it if I quit,” Fischer said, looking down at the rails. “But I’d rather die than quit.”

“You don’t know what to do,” Sweden said before Fischer’s death about the times her department had collared him for tagging this or that with his instantly recognizable scrawl. “He has been to jail. He has been examined by a psychiatrist.” But the psychiatrist’s examination wouldn’t allow police to commit him to an asylum or declare him insane.

The press often attributed Fischer’s mania to a difficult upbringing in a time when Germany was just starting to recover from a period of massive violence against deviants. All those swirls and smiley faces, he told me, were his attempt to make a mark for each victim of the Nazis. For him, painting was protest—a war, as he put it, “against Nazi gray.”

“It’s his identity, and I think it’s admirable,” said Andreas Beuth, OZ’s lawyer. “It’s not crazy. Unusual, but not crazy.” His assistant, Thomas Meier, told me, “OZ is something different. He’s raw, rough. He does it just for the sake of doing it. He wouldn’t feel complete if he didn’t do it.”

When we finally sat down to interview Fischer, it was hard to get a word out of him. When he did speak, he mentioned his rough childhood growing up in an orphanage, troubles with police and lack of relationships. He described his wanderings and travels during his 20s. He said he stopped off in Hamburg on the way to a hippie commune in Copenhagen just because he needed medical care. He never left.

After he started spray-painting in the ’70s, it seems Fischer had no desire for commercial success. He lived entirely off welfare for decades. Late in Fischer’s life, a gallery owner and Meier convinced him to paint some canvasses. He hated it. He wanted to work only outside, and the few paintings he did sell went to pay lawyers fees.

“He wants to change the world in this way,” said Beuth. “He wants to show that not everything has to be sterile, boring, desolate, but that you can make the world more colorful.”

As I walked with Fischer at night, I watched him struggle to get over a low fence. When he finally got in front of the wall he’d targeted, he pulled out his can and time slowed down. Patiently, deliberately, he painted another smiley face. OZ stepped back for a moment and moved on, looking for the next blank space.