This is the story of why I put that smiley on a shipping container

(This story was originally written in 2014) There is far too much about me in this story and not nearly enough about the person who paints those smileys all over Hamburg, OZ, but I didn’t know him at all. In fact, I barely even knew of him. Chances are, we never would have crossed paths. Now, it is certain that we won’t—he passed away recently. I feel the need to put this disclaimer on this story because I don’t want it to seem that I am appropriating him or his works around Hamburg for my own benefit.

One of my earliest memories of visiting Hamburg is of arriving by train and seeing one smiley face after another, after another, spray painted on the various walls, buildings and utility boxes that line the train tracks.

I like street art and I tend to think of it as more than just urban background wallpaper. If you look around the alleys, the nooks and crannies of a city you will find out there are lots of people saying thousands of things. A lot of it isn’t eloquent, some of it makes no sense. But all of it was put there, by someone, for a reason. Because I'm always looking for these things, I started wondering, “Is that just one guy, painting all of these smileys everywhere?”

The train kept rolling, getting closer to the main station. I had lost count of them—not that I was trying to keep an exact number—but I had even lost any idea of how many I might have seen. Hundreds? Maybe.

And I hadn’t even gotten off the train yet.

The conclusion I came to was that it was just something that street artists in Hamburg did. While, one person may have done many, it was just ridiculous for one person to have done them all.

I was wrong.

In August of 2014, my girlfriend and I moved to Hamburg. Once we settled in, we went for a bit of a wander around our new neighbourhood. It didn’t take long to see that the smiley faces are not just confined to the areas around the train tracks. They are everywhere.

Over the course of the next few weeks we explored further. We rode our bikes around this beautiful city. The smileys were ever present. We talked about them: Who was doing this? Why? What do they mean? Why smileys?

I took photos, joked about it on twitter—with a reference to an obscure 70's movie that almost no one will get…

Our opinions about them went through phases. They started as a mystery and a curiosity. Then they became funny little happy images that always somehow caught the corner of your eye. Then, we started to wonder if they weren’t so much just a smiley, but a reminder to smile. Of course, after a while of being constantly reminded to smile, it began to feel—in a very small way—a little like an order: SMILE. Almost like a grinning, spray painted version of the ubiquitous Obey stickers. Then it went back to just being a funny little happy image.

I played a little mental game as I got to know Hamburg, spot the smiley.

It was during this time that I was in the process of creating this new portfolio site. I wanted a main graphic that showed that I had moved, that I was now in Hamburg.

Since I’m from a major port city, Vancouver, and now I live in another major port city, it seemed that having a shipping container as the main graphic was pretty logical. It’s a quaint little metaphor, I know, but I like it because it’s relevant to Hamburg and it’s also personally relevant. It also avoids any kind of touristy cliché. I might be new here, but I’m not a tourist, I live here now.

As I was making the container, however, it looked too clean, too devoid of character. Well, that’s easy to fix, everyone's spraying those smileys everywhere in Hamburg, so naturally there should be one on the container as well.

Little Stars Scribbled on the Sidewalk

Of course, before placing something right on the front of your website, you should probably find out a little more about it. So, I did some searching. I found out that it was indeed one guy who had painted all those smiling faces. Not only that, but the spirals too. And dots. And bugs. And Amoebas.

Now he had a name: OZ. I had seen the letters OZ scrawled around too, of course, but now I knew it was the same person who did the smileys. He was an orphan. Originally from Heidelberg. He was a Sankt Pauli fan. He had spent more than eight years in jail, off and on, for his incessant spraying and civil disobedience. He said each of the spirals that he drew represented one of the jewish victims of the holocaust. He’d been doing this since the late 1970’s. He did actually work a little bit with some galleries sometimes. And, he said that he did want to bring people smiles.

He brought them. It turns out, no one really knows how many smileys and other tags there are. Over 100,000. Maybe 200,000.

Because I now knew his name, the game wasn't called 'spot the smiley' anymore, now it was 'OZ was here'.

I finished the container graphic on September 22nd. On September 25th, OZ died. He had been hit by a train during the night, while tagging near the tracks close to the main train station.

He was 65.

The smileys aren’t gone though. They’ll be around for a long, long time. Effectively, forever.

In my head, I still say, ‘OZ was here’, when I see them but now the stress is on the was and not the OZ and, it still brings a small smile to my face, but it’s more of a sad smile.

I know that cities are full of people. There are millions of them in Vancouver, there are millions of them here in Hamburg. But for me, someone just moving here to this big city, those first smileys that I saw, they were quintessentially human. They took all of those hard, unfamiliar walls and made them friendly. Whether it was one person doing it, or many, there were characters here and the message that they sent came with a smile. It’s hard not to like that.

It turns out that it was just one person doing it. His name was Walter Josef Fischer, or OZ. I’ll never meet him and, like I said, I barely even knew of him, but I’ll mourn his passing all the same.

He’s basically the first one that said hi to me when I got here. And he said it, with a smile.


Amoebas on the Osterbekkanal