The Sprayer of Zurich - Harald Naegeli vs The City

Graffiti & Street Art

June 28, 2020

On Tuesday, the 9th of June 2020, after letting them thrive on its façades for more than one month (they reportedly appeared around the 20th of April), the Kunsthaus Zurich ordered the removal of three graffiti pieces by Harald Naegeli, also known as The sprayer of Zurich. After the thorough effacement of what was perceived as an “inconvenience”, the walls of the most important art institution in the city are all cleared up again, ready to host and protect the art they contain, shielding it from urban rascals, such as Naegeli.

A complaint about criminal damage according to art. 144 of the Swiss Criminal Code was issued and then, later in the week, revoked. On the same day though, the press reported that the construction department of the canton of Zurich had also filed a complaint about criminal damage, allegedly for other new graffiti pieces.

The decisions to remove the graffiti, file for complaint and then withdraw it after a few days, were taken by the Kunsthaus's trust, an entity composed of members appointed by the city of Zurich, by the homonymous canton and by the Zurich art association, closely linked to the Kunsthaus itself, that administrates the property and the building of the art museum.

Some of the most important newspapers of Switzerland reported the news, at least online, and an enflamed quarrel started in the respective comment sections. Some reminded the readers’ community, at times with verve, that all are equal before the law, no matter the “artist status” of the putative offender. Others instead pointed the finger towards the Kunsthaus for its choice of removing the graffiti and filing a criminal complaint, underlining the hypocrisy of choosing with such authority what art is and what it is not. And again, some readers called Mr. Naegeli a genius, like a certain “A. Bopp”, who provided a reversed lecture of the events, and commented:

[Naegeli’s] action was not only a Sprayerei, but an installation whose significance resides in its removal. The artist is not only Naegeli, but the Kunsthaus headmasters as well. Naegeli will probably have to pay a fine, so he is the real purchaser of the de-installation. The Kunsthaus walls are the canvas, and its headmasters a kind of anti-artists.

As already mentioned, the complaint was later withdrawn, and the reactions to this last decision, taken on Friday the 12th of June, were similar. On one side they showed relief, at others indignation. The discussion around these new graffiti could not be more polarized.

The walls of Kunsthaus Zurich before and after the Harald Naegeli graffiti piece was removed. Photos by Giulia Walter

Naegeli vs Zurich - A Complicated Relationship

The story of Harald Naegeli and the city of Zurich can be summed up as complicated relationship, where both love and hate had their fair shares.

In the late 70s, Naegeli began spraying the walls of the city, both on private and public property, causing public outcry as well as praise. In 1980, a Court in Zurich condemned him for repeated criminal damage to 9 months of jail and the payment of a fine – a judgment described by many as “exemplary” in duress, and that probably aimed at being a deterrent for fellow street artists roaming around the city.

In order to escape incarceration, Naegeli fled to Köln first and then to Düsseldorf, where he received a much warmer welcome and became friends with important personalities the likes of Willy Brandt, former West Germany chancellor, and Joseph Beuys, who then already was an internationally renowned artist. Both of them publicly defended Naegeli and his art in times of clashes with authorities.

In 1982, in the occasion of a visit in Denmark, the Danish authorities arrested Naegeli on the basis of an international arrest warrant. Extradited to Switzerland, he spent 6 months in jail, devoting himself to creating drawings and a ceramic series. Once he served his sentence, he went back to Germany, established himself in Düsseldorf and lived there ever since.

In the meantime, in 2004, the construction department of the canton of Zurich, which had reported him for criminal damage, cleared Naegeli’s name as an artist by restoring “Undine”, one of his first artworks, and applying the monument protection regulations to it. In 2009, the same happened with other stick figures painted in the parking of the department store “Jelmoli”. As testified by the strain of graffiti he painted on many walls, the sprayer of Zurich recently returned to his hometown.

Now 80, Nageli declared wanting to spend his last years close to his roots; in the city where, before being chased away, he had studied and spent 40 years of his life. Once back in Switzerland, in solidarity with small enterprises, many of which got into financial shortage during the coronavirus quarantine, he donated 50 drawings to different landlords, inviting them to temporarily lift the rent obligations towards their renters. Harald Naegeli is definitely back, and as a consequence, new stick figures – now mostly dancing skeletons – appeared in many urban corners. Among them, the walls of the Kunsthaus. 

Harald Naegeli, sprayer from Zurich, one of two graffiti in the corner temple of the Ehrenhof ensemble, Inselstrasse and Joseph-Beuys-Ufer, Düsseldorf, 2016. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Street Art Removal - A Much Bigger Conflict

Naegeli’s artistic practice, now established and widely recognised, is particularly interesting because since the early days, it has been concerned with boundaries and thresholds, those that exist between art and public nuisance and between art and law, always crossing them.

The very existence of his art raises a dust storm of contradicting reactions not only of the general public, but most of all of the authorities – be it the city council or the courts. His art begun as a direct protest against the urbanization of the city, its top-down uniformization and the alleged Swiss “tidiness obsession”, which was and is evident in Zurich.

Naegeli’s figures are indeed spontaneous, light and fluid. They evoke natural landscapes and seem to be in an ongoing movement of change. These features locate them in clear opposition to the toughness and rigidity of the urban architecture, planned in executive assemblies and made of straight lines that are meant to endure. In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1980), Deleuze and Guattari describe this relationship as the intertwining of “striated space” (of the city) together with “smooth space” (of street art). Whereas striated space is fixed, sedentary, ordered and stratified in a hierarchically layered order, smooth space is multiple, nomadic, rhizomatic.

Street art intrudes itself onto grey walls and opens a space of randomness in the predictability of the city architecture. Before being colonized by street art, urban space is not empty: it is dense of regulation, it is the space of law. Naegeli’s work represents, and it does so with stunning evidence, the possibility of an alternative reality, with its own logic and rules. When law comes back, it reminds the passer-by and everyone that the city might be free to use, but not to shape.

After this legal intervention, art will continue to thrive according to its own motives. There is absolutely no need to legitimate art with law, and the art world will eventually reinterpret the events into its own standards, as it happened in the past with Naegeli’s trial and condemnation, judged by the art world as “Gesamtkunstwerk” (a total work of art). What happened on the walls of the Kunsthaus is no different, even if maybe the conflictual interaction of law and art becomes exacerbated by the fact that those walls are not anonymous but are the walls of one of the most powerful symbols of established art in Switzerland, if not worldwide.

In this example, the conflict is strikingly spatial, as these walls manifest “in” and “out” of art, both in a figurative and literal sense. They stand there to certify that what they contain is undoubtedly art, and what they exclude is something else, surely not art. This reverbs in the art world as well, asking the unspeakable question of who, based on which criteria, decides what art is. 

History Repeats Itself

One can easily guess the motives that pushed the Kunsthaus headmasters to arrange the removal of the unsanctioned artworks and the canton to file a complaint against their author: just as the court did back in the 80s, they probably wanted to create a binding precedent, a deterrent for other writers and street artists not to do the same as Naegeli. What is at stake is indeed a risky matter, because once the border is blurred, it will be blurred forever.

Art. 144 of the Swiss Criminal Code protects property. More specifically, the ideal relationship that exists between the property and its landlord, thanks to which the latter has the complete mastery above it and can decide about its “destiny”. Contrary to art. 197 of the Swiss Criminal Code, regarding pornography, art. 144 does not provide an exception based on a potential cultural value of the result. As a consequence, a street artwork might be considered criminal damage even if it objectively augmented the value of the building on which it was painted.

Admitting a transversal effect of the constitutional artistic freedom (in Switzerland, art. 21 of the Constitution) as a justification for the act would be a step too far in the direction of dismantling the absolute status of property. If Naegeli’s art, although not commissioned, was unconditionally accepted, the door would be set wide open for other artists to do the same. The imaginary walls between what is art and what is not would fall step by step as every street artist of the city goes along painting its own contribution on the physical walls of the art museum. 

At the same time, the decision of the authorities astonishes for its naivety: you cannot delete the huge conflict underlining the art world by simply avoiding it to be displayed on the walls. You cannot mute its loud grievances to be heard, to be seen, to be spoken and written about. Maybe the Kunsthaus realized this when reconsidering its choice to file a complaint.

The solution to this paradox – if there is one – is surely not that of the iron fist: on the contrary, coercion propagates the vibrations of the unsolved conflict like an echo chamber. And this is even truer in a city where, in the next weeks, the dilemma in which Naegeli’s work oscillates will be staged in a trial before some criminal court. The principle of division of powers separates the judiciary and the executive, so that the court or the department of public prosecutions that have to decide in the matter will not be bound in any way by the decisions made by the canton in the years 2004 and 2009.

As I mentioned above though, if the law returns to the space once occupied by street art, the oscillation will be perpetuated, and the conflict will persist. Maybe this was a lost opportunity to try and take into account other solutions.

Maybe it would have been possible to find a friendly agreement, especially between equals (the Kunsthaus and Naegeli), in the name of art. Instead, now some judge has to decide the undecidable. It has to “play the game” and repeat the never-ending dance between art & law, which is a quest of sense, of dominance and reconquest of the public space.

Will this trial solve it once for all? Of course not. Will it raise another dust storm? Of course it will.

Written by Giulia Walter. 

Featured image: Harald Naegeli Graffiti at Kunsthaus Zurich, 2020. Photo bu Giulia Walter.