The distinctive stick figures were a form of protest against a dull, conservative banking hub – a city very different from the lively Zurich of today.
The graffiti divided the public, with people split over whether it constituted art or vandalism. Meanwhile, city authorities were distinctly unimpressed, offering a 3,000-franc reward for anyone offering information about the artist’s identity.
In 1979, the culprit was finally arrested after he returned to the scene of one of his paintings when he realised he had left his glasses behind. He was unveiled as Harald Naegeli, a Swiss artist who had trained in both Paris and Zurich.
During the subsequent trial, Naegeli fled to Germany, the opening gambit in a legal drama that lasted nearly 40 years and involved everything from an international arrest warrant to public petitions by artists and intellectuals and even an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
But the long-running dispute finally ended on Tuesday in highly unusual circumstances when Zurich councillor Filippo Leutenegger and Naegeli appeared together before the media and announced they had found a way to bury the judicial axe.
Under the deal, Naegeli – now an internationally recognised pioneer of street art – has presented Zurich with a painting. In exchange, the city has dropped claims for damages of 9,000 francs related to cleaning costs for the removal of 25 artworks painted by the artist on the city’s walls from 2012 to 2013.
— az LiZ (@azLimmattaler) May 30, 2018
“We have found a non-bureaucratic solution with him and now we can draw a line under the whole affair,” Leutenegger told journalists.
Naegeli, for his part, spoke about the painting ‘Utopie-Auge’ (literally ‘Utopia Eye’), describing himself as a dedicated Utopian.
The deal announced on Tuesday comes after the Zurich district court judge overseeing the case called on the two parties to look beyond the courtroom for an answer.
As Swiss daily Tages Anzeiger pointed out, things have come a long way in Zurich since the 1970s.
Life on the run
After fleeing during his 1979 trial, Naegeli built his artistic reputation in Germany receiving commissions from the Social Democratic Party and the University of Tübingen among others.
GRAFFITI HISTORY. 1984:HARALD NAEGELI (links) wird trotz Protesten an die Schweiz ausgeliefert. Joseph Beuys (rechts) unterstützt ihn. pic.twitter.com/E5KwGISYS9
— HARALD NAEGELI (@haraldnaegeli) January 1, 2017
In 1981, he was sentenced in absentia to nine months in prison and in 1984 he was deported from Germany to Switzerland where he served out the prison term.
He then returned to Germany only to start spray painting again in Zurich in 2012.
In 2005, his 1978 Zurich painting ‘Udine’ was restored.