City Stories: Naegli – One of Europe’s oldest working urban artist

 In September 1977, a collection of simple line figures began appearing on walls and public spaces around Zurich, Switzerland. These unique drawings leaped down steps and peered around corners and within a short period of time, ran foul of the law. While the figures were painted in the dead of night by an anonymous artist, it didn’t take long for authorities to draw a connection back to Harald Naegli, a young man who had studied art at the prestigious Swiss art academy, the Kunstgewerbeschule. In 1979, faced with an arrest warrant citing 192 criminal charges, Naegli fled the country, heading for Germany, where he was welcomed by the likes of Joseph Beuys, not as a criminal but as a fellow artist.Naegli did not waste time. Until his eventual arrest in 1984, he was prolific, creating hundreds of pieces across Germany and establishing himself as one of the most well know street artists in Europe. After finally serving his nine month sentence and hefty fine, Naegli returned to Germany to make Düsseldorf his home and to begin the next phase of his career: out of jail and back on the streets. Thirty-two years later, he is still spraying.

While Naegli’s art has a light-hearted feel to it, the underlying message is one of protest and opposition to the urban experience. Rebelling against ‘the destruction of cities and nature’ Naegli has sought to use his art to raise awareness and challenge the status quo. Throughout his career, he has actively maintained his economic independence, deflecting requests to work on commission or to sell his work, preferring instead to retain a commercial aloofness and integrity.

At 77, Naegli is without a date the oldest street artist still creating in Düsseldorf. While street artists still walk a fine line regarding the legality of their activities, there is a quiet acceptance of Naegli’s work, with the focus now on preservation rather than prosecution.

Naegli’s work can be found all over the city. The more you find, the more you’ll discover that there are narrative threads and commentary that runs through his work. Numerous works can be found along the Rhine including under the bridge near the Apollo and around the Tonhalle. But keep an eye out for his flamingos which are some of his more recent works.