Taking art to the streets

LAURA WALTERS
Last updated 05:00 08/06/2014
Amsterdam art
Zachary Chant

LOOMING LARGE: A passerby is dwarfed by the painted figures behind him. 

Amsterdam art
Laura Walters
STUDY IN CONTRASTS: Unofficial street art tour guide Rachel Somers Miles with a work by graffiti artist Laser 3.14.

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When the sun sets, Laser 3.14 takes to Amsterdam's streets.

The middle-aged street artist combs the city's cobbled paths for construction sites and temporary surfaces to add his two lines' worth on social and political matters.

The brief notes are signed with his distinctive tag: Laser 3.14.

Modern art curator and unofficial street art tour guide Rachel Somers Miles describes Laser's graffiti as "poetry".

The street artist, who has been painting his poetry for more than 15 years, has become sought after and is now paid to leave his mark on the city, Somers Miles says.

"It adds an interesting layer of social commentary."

Laser's work has become notorious in Amsterdam and around the world for its ability to speak to a diverse crowd, she says.

As our group, made up of an Australian, an Italian, a Brazilian and a Kiwi, starts the tour, Somers Miles tells us to keep an eye out for Laser's latest work.

He was out the night before, scrawling his thought-provoking musings on pieces of plywood and scaffolding.

Laser's work is not the only street art to lend a modern hand to Amsterdam's old cobbled streets and canalways.

While the city of about 780,000 people is not known for its graffiti, the Dutch capital has drawn renowned street artists from around the world who feel compelled to paint the city red with their spray cans and brushes.

About 30 per cent of Amsterdam's residents work in the creative fields and with museums like the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk and Van Gogh - the granddaddy of Expressionism - you have an art environment that's a natural place for artists to be, Somers Miles says.

"It's both very old, yet is really progressive and connected."

The architecture dictates the scale of the street art, which is spread out on walls, doors and fences, unlike in Berlin and London where artists and taggers fight for space.

Somers Miles eloquently argues that street artists who respect the surface they work on deserve the recognition they receive. But there is, of course, a dark side.

Some graffiti artists and taggers lack respect for the city, the architecture and other people's property, giving a bad name to street artists worldwide. And Amsterdam has their fair share of these, Somers Miles says.

Officially, street art and all it involves is illegal in Amsterdam but, like many places, it's not stringently policed.

Dutch regulations stipulate a street artist has to pay for the damage they do. The cost of cleaning spray paint from the brick walls is 150 euros ($241) a square metre and fines for big pieces can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Street artists can also be thrown in jail and judges are not so lenient on second-time offenders.

Somers Miles says, partly for this reason and partly to avoid any public backlash, street artists work under the cover of night, often wearing hoods and masks, and rarely reveal their true identities.

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Plus, it adds to the mystique.

Part of Laser's MO is to only paint on temporary surfaces, but a large spattering of street art in Amsterdam also appears on doors, fences and gates.

Finding walls to paint on is a challenge but non-profit organisation Made Creative, started by artist space and gallery The Garage, has created options for people to showcase their talent.

The organisation has secured the use of a 100 square metre warehouse wall in the city and brings in street artists from the Netherlands and around the world to work on the wall.

Somers Miles says the artists whose work has already featured on the wall have street art and gallery work as part of their practice and are considered at the top of the game in terms of their individual styles.

Generally, each artist's piece stays up for about three months until the next artist is invited to the wall; their work is then painted over, "creating an ongoing and ephemeral cycle of new artwork".

Britain's Ben Eine, the Netherlands' Niels "Shoe" Meulman, France's Ludo, the United States' Amanda Marie and Israel's Broken Fingaz have had their work featured on the wall so far.

Amsterdam's local government is also trying to create legal opportunities and places to paint.

As it does with mainstream practitioners, the city offers sponsorships and commissions to leading graffiti artists. To encourage street artists to work on canvas, it sometimes sponsors exhibitions and buys works for museums such as Noord Brabantsmuseum and Kroller-Muller Museum.

However, Somers Miles' graffiti tour is all about taking it back to the streets, where some of the world's most notorious street artists have left their mark on the city.

If we didn't know where to look, we could easily walk right past some of the more subtle works scattered throughout the city.

The first piece is tucked behind temporary fencing, lending itself to a barrier not unlike those used to protect priceless art at Rijksmuseum.

Hero de Janeiro's colourful characters are obvious to the street art-trained eye.

The Amsterdam artist is a DJ and his recurring characters, including a penguin, Andy Warhol and a 17th century soldier, are always drawn holding a boom box.

Hero de Janeiro's "stickers" are drawn, cut out, then stuck to surfaces using wheat paste.

As we continue our alternative treasure hunt we come across a colourful painting of a woman and a young man with purple hair, created by London-based artist Inkie in 2008.

The walls which are his canvas used to be part of a parking garage that was constantly being painted and re-painted by street artists until the new owner commissioned the piece. The work is still intact, perhaps a sign of respect for one of London's greats.

We move on to a piece by Duo Faile, Brooklyn-based artists Patrick McNeil and Patrick Miller. A horse in scuba gear has been hand-drawn as a sticker, cut out with a craft knife and stuck to a front door.

As the pair grew in popularity, spurred on by a commission from New York City Ballet, collectors made offers to buy the door but its owner turned down all offers, some in the thousands.

As the tour progresses we move onto larger pieces such as a mural commissioned by the Netherlands housing corporation, Ymere.

Painted by Dutch street artists and clothing designer Piet Parra, two walls are inscribed with a phrase suggested by a seven-year old girl from a nearby school: "I play in the city with everything that exists."

Parra started out designing flyers for parties and is now a "heavyweight" on the Dutch creative scene, according to Somers Miles.

Our next stop is the end wall of a four-storey building, home to a mural by a duo who call themselves The London Police.

When city officials tried to have the mural removed, despite the building's owner defending the piece, the city rallied in protest. The mural, an animated self-portrait of the artists, stayed put.

The tour ends back at The Garage for a meeting with the mysterious Laser. We anticipate a grimy, slightly shifty young man with authority issues. In reality, the notorious street artist is a middle-aged businessman.

FACT FILE

Getting there

Fly from Auckland via Guangzhou, China, to Schipol Airport, Amsterdam (24 hours not including transit) on China Southern Airlines. Other options include Emirates (via Dubai), Air New Zealand and KLM Airlines.

Staying there

Sir Albert Hotel, next to Museum Square, offers luxury boutique accommodation with rooms from about $320 a night. See booking.com.

More information See amsterdam.info, iamsterdam.com and thegarageamsterdam.com.

The writer travelled to Amsterdam courtesy of booking.com.

- Sunday Star Times

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