Interview: What does graffiti & street artist Sozi36 want from Kreuzberg?

Sozi36 likes to decorate mattresses and rubbish on the streets of Kreuzberg with his political messages and provocative jokes. I asked him why and how and he responded with very elaborate answers.

Walking to work, going to the supermarket, looking outside of my window: All I see is Sozi36.

While others may loathe these kind of “Schmierereien”, graffiti and tagging makes me feel like I’m home. Or, as my foreign relative once asked, “do you people in Berlin have an obsession with graffiti or something? It’s 2016, after all!”

But not all graffitis are equal. Some crews love to go wild with their paint. They abseil from rooftops to leave their names behind.

In Kreuzberg, THC, Berlin Kidz and 1UP are the most visible ones, but Sozi36 – a one man show – is not far behind. While he rarely leaves big pieces, he is literally everywhere I go.

What makes Sozi36 stand out from the other tags and graffitis in Berlin? Well – it’s not just the abundance of traces he leaves behind. Sozi36 doesn’t just leave tags, he also likes to decorate mattresses and posters and things he finds on the street. But it’s not just that, either. It is also the messages that his pieces tend to carry.

From globally relevant politics way back to the small and local issues, there is nothing he leaves uncommented.

So I took the chance and asked him – anonymously, per e-mail – a few questions about his works.

“This installation is made of election posters of political candidates.” Falckensteinstraße, 2016.

 

Since when have you been tagging by the name of SOZI36?

Sozi exists in Kreuzberg36 since 1996 – there was a 10 year break due to personal reasons.

Do you mainly work Kreuzberg or do you leave your name in other districts, too?

When I tag, I tag everywhere I go. Whether I visit Pretoria or the family court, I’ll leave my marks anywhere. But over time I became more settled. Kids, a big gut, an LPG membership, the first real job and a good old detox have definitely restrained me from venturing into other areas.

Sometimes I’m in Kreuzkölln, that’s where I lived for a while. And that’s when I get angry and start insulting everybody. I’m not against change, but what’s happening in Kreuzkölln is such trifle, it’s excruciating. And that’s not the kind of hate that I want for myself, so I stay in [Kreuzberg] 36.

Are you a Berliner? Do you see yourself as an agent of your neighborhood or even Berlin as a whole?

Berliner? No, I consider myself a Kreuzberg. I can’t really deal with the rest of Berlin: bouncers don’t let me into the clubs, I don’t care for Hertha and to be honest, I don’t even see most districts as part of the city.

And yet I am part of why people come to Berlin. Doing what I’m doing carries on the myth of Kreuzberg – I continue to write it. And people come to watch the myth unfold. How much is real and how much facade is always up for discussion, it keeps changing. Most of the time it changes at the expense of authenticity.

So what’s the message behind Sozi36?

First of all, I hate this system of society: capitalism and imperialism. I hate Germany and the West, the police, the Jobcenter, media, all that talk about Western values. When I see pictures of injustice – Guantanamo, cops killing blacks, sweatshops, the massacre of Marikana, the German mobs in Heidenau/Freital, I get angry – or cynical. I like being angry more than being cynical, which often feels like resignation.

But what makes me even angrier are the people on the street. There are too many here who are accomplices to this system. They refuse to leave their comfort zone. They want to believe that Obama and the Green Party and the so-called “Western Values” are going to do good for the world. Regardless of how much exploitation and misery they cause.

Some people watch that Steve Jobs movie, but choose to ignore Foxconn.  It’s a quite similar thing with the AfD. Everybody’s pointing their fingers at them because they’re disgusting – and I agree, they are disgusting. But the AfD didn’t destroy Iraq, they didn’t occupy Afghanistan, they never exploited the global South, made the Mediterranean a graveyard or covered up what the NSU did. Those responsible are the “democratic parties and the political and economical structures”, which so many people call their values.

Sometimes you just have to fuck with people’s comfort zones to make them think outside of the box. But I’m not exclusively hateful. I believe truly that people are able to build a different kind of society, one with meaning and heart. And every time I see the potential, my heart burns for it: 1st of May in Kreuzberg (2001), Tahrir Square (2011) Gezi Park (2013), Ferguson (2014).

What are the issues right here that you want to share with the locals in Kreuzberg?

There’s a big buffet to choose from. There are still leftovers of an old resistance culture. There’s life at and around Görlitzer Park, the hustle against it, the raids and the discourse about it. You can experience Kiez vs. Gentrification live.

And Kreuzberg has the best audience ever to do stuff on the street. I can communicate with the people here. There are so many majorities and minorities to offend! Sozi36 wouldn’t make it far in Reinickendorf. The homogeneity would drain the conversation really quickly.

“Sozi36 is an invitation and encouragement for communication.”

What is it that you want to achieve with your graffitis? Are you targeting as many people as possible or just one certain group?

In my youth, there were two Berlin writers who had their tags everywhere. Every school kid knew their names: LEVEL in the West and UTE in the East. Many graffiti writers scored points in their own scene by proving their skills, actions and discipline, but I wanted the other kids to simply know me. I want to address “everyone”.

I’ve got something to say. The powers that be have the media, the manufacturers have advertising. My opinion and my interpretation of reality is not represented well enough in public. But my opinion is a lot more relevant – it’s more important than whatever company or Spiegel Online has to say.

Am I right? Perhaps not. What do you think about it? Just write it down somewhere, shout it out, show it and we can talk about it. That sounds super hippie, but this is our space, WE are the ones who live here. I am not claiming the streets for myself. Sozi36 is an invitation and encouragement for communication.

Do you sometimes engage people in conversations while you’re working? How’s the feedback?

Yes, people sometimes approach me and we get to talking. There are many interesting and amusing anecdotes to tell. “Papa, what is he doing?” “Ah, he’s cool, he draws stuff on mattresses and other things he finds in the streets – but not on the walls! It’s rather artistic.” Ouch! It was supposed to be a compliment, but it really hurt. Or when 14 year old boys want to try out the spray can, they always draw penises!

And when I do something for good spirits, against gentrification or against Trump, everybody becomes cheerful. But once I wrote something against Bernie Sanders, and immediately there was this American lady runner shouting at me, and a barber was storming out of his store and threatened me with his scissors. Anti-Obama mattresses had to be re-arranged hourly or draped with barbwire. And sometimes I have to spray on both sides of the mattress because it gets thrown around so much, and that’s when people start tearing off the casing as well.

But there’s a surprising amount of support, too. People give me their sharpies and old men want to help so they hold my posters while I climb up somewhere. I don’t need people to celebrate my opinion, I want them to celebrate its presence in the public sphere.

 

Criticism of the political system in public space is naturally provoking. I see that especially the Antifa and left-wing radicals use graffitis to communicate in public space. Do you see yourself in the political left?

First off, I would definitely object to the first part of your question. The radical left neither wants to reach everybody, nor do they use a lot of graffiti. Their graffiti is basically a variation of 10 letters, from Smash AfD! to FCK XYZ! and R94 Bleibt! and so on. But often there’s no courage in what they do, no elaborate sentences or pieces.

I think that has political reasons. The radical left is pretty tamed nowadays. Refugees Welcome, AfD bashing, “Mieten runter – Löhne rauf!”. I mean that’s nice, but not radical. It’s official policy of the Senate. No vision worth fighting for. And without vision there is no strong action. There’s no courage to fight for a radically different society – and no courage to spray.

And most of those radicals go and vote for the Linkspartei, if not worse. Many of the interventionist leftists have the same social democratic objectives as the youth groups of the parliamentary parties, with the sole difference that they would actually carry out sit-ins. So I am part of the radical left, but I don’t force myself to align with it.

Do you believe that graffiti is a tradition in Kreuzberg and should therefore be preserved?

A while ago I was in Exarcheia, the resisting town in Athens. The walls are covered from top to bottom, painted and smeared. Street art, art, graffiti, political speech and so on. That’s what I imagine Kreuzberg was like before my time. But it’s probably never going to get back to that again. You can’t conserve graffiti, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Graffiti as single element of a social structure can’t be preserved. A lot of things are still possible today, but it’s something different.

“Sometimes you just have to fuck with people’s comfort zones to make them think outside of the box. “

Do you have an Instagram account or another media to share your work?

One characteristic of my work: it’s extremely transitory. In some cases I was really disappointed, I mean I put work into it, you invest time and skills, and after an hour comes the BSR-Kolonne and demolishes everything.

One day I noticed that many were posting my stuff on Instagram, sometimes with the hashtag #Sozi36. So I created an Instagram account to publicly conserve some work that is important to me – when it isn’t posted by other people. But most stuff is in the search feed #sozi36. But using social media can be dangerous: you have to keep it real and produce for the streets, and not for the picture.

Are you ambitious about making more out of your interventions? Do you see them as art?

I am happy about everything that happens on the street in terms of artistic communication. I love it when hits Kreuzberg, the kreuzbergbirds share their good vibes and even when little fanboys throw Ufo361 on the walls. More people should do more stuff on the streets.

But if I were to call my work art, then I’d have to meet expectations. That’s the good part about my niche: I can do whatever I want. I don’t have to measure myself against the street art scene or the graffiti scene, or even consider their norms. I am happy with my engagement. But of course the goal is to have children who will one day carry my name on in honor ;)


 

Big thanks to Sozi36 for answers all those questions. If you have anything to say about Sozi36, leave a comment!

Four comments

  1. wow.
    precise.
    funny.

  2. I really love your Graffiti sometimes and sometimes i don’t like them, but keep on doing what you want to do and keep on thinking what you want to think! I really enjoyed reading the interview thanks for doing it. I thought about what your saying and here is what i am thinking about it and i also have some questions. If anyone is interested (lol). First of all, why are you so intolerant towards everything? Maybe it is good to let people think what they want to think and live like they want to live? Im not saying that one has to tolerate every group of people, but being even a tiny bit more tolerant would maybe help to great a more healthy relationship and a better communication between people? So instead of spraying extreme stuff and provoking people, you could also go out and talk to people you don’t understand and try to find out why they think what they think, and tell them why you think what you think and maybe you could change a life or two? But maybe you are doing it already. Anyways, how do you get money to buy you food and survive if you don’t have a job within our system? Maybe you have a good alternative plan? Because im sure a lot of people would like to know. And if you don’t want „those People“ to come to Kreuzberg, why don’t you stop to spay if it is the thing that in your opinion attracts them? At one of the pictures i saw that you like communism, would you really change your life as a free artist to a communist worker, who maybe has to work a lot in a boring job to serve the people? Isn’t it maybe better to benefit from a capitalist system where a lot of people also work in a boring jobs but nevertheless there is some space for artists like yourself who get credit and fame from the ordinary for being different and wild? And maybe some people will even, if you make it far, make a film about the legend of Sozi36, and the normal boring people will buy allot of tickets with the money they get from boring work to see the brave artist and escape their own lives for a little bit more then an hour? But thats a personal question. And one last thing: You are criticizing people who go to clubs and party – and earlier in the text you talk about that the bouncers won’t let you in to clubs, does that mean if the bouncers would let you in, you would go and also enjoy yourself like the other people who are allowed to go in? If yes, does it mean that only because you can’t have it, you hate that others do it?

    Please note, this is not a hate speech or anything like that i am really interested and it would be cool to get some answers, but if you don’t have the time to communicate with some random internet commentators, its fine! It would also be equally cool to get some other opinions from other readers!

  3. This is an interesting interview, thanks for sharing!
    And Frank, thanks as well, I felt the same questions arouse while reading this…

  4. Hey Frank, thanks for raising your questions.
    I’m puzzled by some of them. They sound like if I’m “anti party, anti fun and let’s just hate everyone“. Yes, I hate a lot, but not without a reason. Hating the bad things can make you love the good ones even more. It’s not one-sided. And there’s enough street art out there emphasizing partying, sex and other sweet things in life. There’s no need for Sozi36 wishing you a nice day.

    I am not “intolerant towards everything“, but towards ignorance and a me/us first outlook.
    You said: “Maybe it is good to let people think what they want to think and live like they want to live?“

    Of course, you’re right. But still there’s a no:
    I think people shouldn’t just get away with: “You have your own reality and I have my! So, don’t tell me what to think or to do.“ – Let’s stay in the picture in the interview: If you talk about Apple and Steve Jobs and you only talk about the beautiful new design of the iPhone XYZ and you’re not willing to talk about Foxconn – that’s a very privileged western position. I can’t force people to talk about Foxconn, but – with my possibilities – I can force them to not ignore it. Look at Trump and Co.: “We don’t believe in climate change – the explanation of the scientists is just their opinion. We have a different one. So, don’t tell us what to do only because you don’t agree with us.“
    Exploitation, oppression and climate change – done in our name – is not a question of what you like to think or not – it’s real and it has to stop.
    And As I said in the interview: “Am I right? Perhaps not. What do you think about it?“

    “So instead of spraying extreme stuff and provoking people, you could also go out and talk to people you don’t understand and try to find out why they think what they think, and tell them why you think what you think and maybe you could change a life or two?“

    You’re right: writing stuff in the streets is most of time a one-way communication. Still no reason for me not to do it. And you’ll find the answer to this question in the interview: The opinions of the powers that be, of the industry and even of Sara of this blog;) are out there, but my is missing.
    But please be assured that I try to learn what people of different strata of society think: I love my subscription of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, I’ve watched a lot of speeches of Trump, I’ve read a lot of anarchist leaflets, I talk to people when I do my stuff in the streets. During my life I distributed literally tens of thousands of political leaflets and I discussed them with as many people as possible. But knowing other opinions doesn’t make me like: “Oh, my reality – their reality – Let the people think what they think!“ People should struggle over what is right and what is wrong. And yes, often things are complex.

    “How do you get money to buy you food and survive if you don’t have a job within our system? Maybe you have a good alternative plan?“

    I’m more a destructive critic. Other people have a plan for getting some where else with humanity. But not presenting the master plan doesn’t make my questions worthless.

    „And if you don’t want „those People“ to come to Kreuzberg, why don’t you stop to spay if it is the thing that in your opinion attracts them?“ Fucking contradictory – this is life!

    „At one of the pictures i saw that you like communism, would you really change your life as a free artist to a communist worker, who maybe has to work a lot in a boring job to serve the people?“
    To me this sounds like: “In communism they slaughtered the intelligentsia, wearer of glasses, there was no art, everyone has to work in boiler suits, weather was bad and everyone was sad.“ I don’t want to confront this anti communist prejudices here.
    But artists are not as free under capitalism as they should. In the first place they have to produce for the market.
    Interested in what (some) communists think about artists in a socialist society? Check out:
    http://www.thisiscommunism.org/ThisIsCommunism/CRinterview.html

    See you in the streets!