At the end of January this year, I got an e-mail from Shoe (Niels Meulman) about an ARTE Creative documentary that was being made, which wanted to tell the tale of how the style-writing culture travelled from New York City to Europe, in the beginning of the eighties. He explained to me that the two guys doing it, René Kaestner and Lars Pedersen, who are also known for their I Love Graffiti blog, wanted to be able to interview Bando, myself and him in Amsterdam, and have us also painting a wall for the occasion; so yeah, it sounded good to me, and I was down from the start.
We both got talking to Bando, and tried to work out when would be the best moment between the three of us, and the filming schedule of René and Lars. We finally agreed that the middle of June would be optimal, and made our travel arrangements accordingly. Bando, Shoe and I threw around a couple of different ideas for what we could paint, but in the end we went for the essentials; baby-blue background and silver letters, like the SENSHOEDEEN piece the two of them did with Colt, in Paris, early ’86…
In the meantime, I got talking some more with René and Lars, wanting to know if they had included the UK in the documentary; but it seemed like they had no connections. They had already a fair amount of experience in moving image, operating under the name Red Tower Films; so I thought I’d find out how adaptable they can be.
Given the time when I started out in London, and the names of those who I remember as already existing back then, I thought that they had to try and get over to the UK; so I hooked them up with Pride, hoping that he could get Zaki on board, as they both started before me. There were other names too though, like Snake, Can Man, who had painted the hoardings in Covent Garden in 1984 even before Scribla and myself did; and they had more skills than I did, for sure. It was through an old friend from those days called Ariane that I managed to put René and Lars in touch with Snake; and he might also be helping out with photos, as he has an extensive archive of his own shots from those early days of the Covent Garden scene.
The other writer who had to get a mention was, of course, 3D from Massive Attack. I had always wanted to know how the hell
graffiti ended up in Bristol, because I liked the dude’s letters and his Wild Bunch flyers from the mid-eighties. He also had some paintings in the windows of some agency in Soho, back in ’84, and those also represented a level to aim for. I see myself as being indebted to those who came before me and inspired me, while also seeing it as my duty to transmit the culture to those who came after me in as open and free a format as when I started out; though of course the New York City roots will always represent the foundation of all that came after. There’s no escaping this.
So I got in touch with Steve Lazarides, Bristolian born and bred, and close friend of mine since that time he came over to Paris in February 2002 for a Banksy show at Surface 2 Air, when those guys were based on Rue de l’Arbre Sec. He got 3D to e-mail me, and we got the ball rolling from there. 3D’s manager fixed a date for the film crew to go down to Bristol and interview him on home turf, and we now had an added element to the documentary that would reach a much wider audience; as opposed to being a “writers only” format. So we had some key elements of the beginnings in the UK sorted out, and I was glad I managed to make this happen; not for my own sake, but because the story itself must be told; and I must thank those who agreed to give their time for it. I wanted to get Goldie on board as well, but he’s too busy touring with his Journeyman project since a while. As for how 3D got into it, you’ll have to wait for the documentary to find out…
I found it a little odd that there wasn’t that much done about Paris either, as it truly was the crossroads of Europe in the mid-eighties; but René and Lars explained that there will be another episode in the future, where other countries with early scenes will get their coverage as well. It is difficult for me to imagine the mid-eighties without the likes of Jay, Ash, Skki, or Lokiss… Italy also doesn’t appear this time around, so let’s hope we see what legacy was left by the Arte Di Frontiera event in 1984. I would also guess that Paris does get a mention of sorts, given that it is where Bando, Shoe and I met in July 1985…
Anyway… time slipped by, and soon enough, I found myself on a six and a half hour train-ride to Amsterdam; trying to minimise flying as much as I can, and enjoying the changing landscape, the people getting on and off along the journey, and sketching away or catching up with some reading; namely Le Monde Diplomatique. I arrived in Amsterdam Centraal at 5pm on June 14th, and grabbed the ferry to NDSM Wharf, where Bando and I were booked in at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel, along with René and Lars, who were catching the setting sun with their camera-man Aris, as I rolled up with my luggage.
Bando and I had adjoining rooms on the eighth floor, but he was still stuck in a stop-over in Frankfurt; having arrived there from the Dominican Republic that morning. The view was nice from up there, if you could make it out through the security grill on the windows. I guess there are fewer and fewer hotels wishing to take any risks on how mankind has regressed to the levels (depths?) of stupidity that we have to deal with today…
Though Shoe had caught a cold on the flight back from Greece (which reminded me of Miss Van’s flight from Barcelona to Hamburg a few weeks earlier), compounded by hay-fever, he did show up a little after I myself checked in, and we got talking a bit about how we would juggle with outdoor filming and the interviews, along with what the weather report had in store for us. That didn’t go on too long though, because we instead went off on a wide range of
graffiti-related subjects, and about the filming they did in New York and in the UK, until the sun went down, it got cold, the mosquitoes came out; and I was getting really hungry.
Aris had gone to check up on his equipment or something, and we moved indoors and sat at a table, and carried on talking, while Lars went to explain the reason for our moving in to the guy at the bar. Bando finally showed up, acting as usual as if we’d only parted ways the day before; when Shoe and I in fact had not seen him since our one night only group show in Amsterdam on June 27th 2014!
Once again, the conversation drifted from the planning for the next days, to a whole range of other topics from the near or distant past; but we were so much into it that we didn’t check that the waiter had misunderstood that we wanted to eat, then found out that the kitchen was closed… The take-away and delivery options that came up on iamsterdam looked SO grim (the website now seems defunct!) that Bando and I, the only ones who hadn’t yet eaten, opted instead to make do with the Walnusswecke and Studentenfutter that I had packed in my luggage for the trip. It’s actually quite incredible that such a cosmopolitan city as Amsterdam has so few options for decent food after 10pm. Breakfast would be our next meal then…
After the long-awaited breakfast the next morning, Bando and I got our stuff together, as did our hosts, and we walked with Lars over to Shoe’s Unruly studio, with Aris filming us along the way, after fixing me up with a mic; while René drove their people-carrier slowly alongside us. We have no idea what will eventually get used, but they have a hell of an editing job on their hands in August!
We got to see the wall that we were going to paint, along the way, which helped in giving us ideas of where we could go with our sketches…
When we got to the Unruly studios, Shoe was still feeling knocked out from his cold; so he sorted us out with paper to sketch on, and went for another nap, while Aris set up. We got into some sketching, before Bando was first up to be interviewed; so René put the questions to him, while Lars hung in the background to take some shots with an iPhone. They usually roll with an extra photographer, but he had another engagement somewhere; but it all went fine, and I took some shots of my own.
When Bando’s interview was done, and Shoe was back with us, we went down for lunch to a spot nearby that shall remain nameless; as much for security reasons as for the straight out of the freezer crap that they sold as food. We were obviously not having much luck with eating up until then, and Shoe remembered a little too late why he never went to this place…
After “lunch”, we did my interview, which I obviously could not take any photos of, before we called it a day, and retreated back to the hotel. We freshened up, while Aris backed up all the day’s footage; after which René and Lars planned to try and help us all forget lunch (and the fact that Bando and I missed out on dinner the night before!), by making a dash for Pllek, less than a five-minute walk from the hotel.
Though it was looking pretty busy, there was a waitress who actually knew her job, and sorted us out with a table which was probably not the best place, right next to the stairs; but given how crowded the place was, “beggars cannot be choosers”. So we finally sat down and could talk about the day’s work, and have another think about the next. As luck would have it, we had a lot of time to talk, because the food took ages to come. That said, when our patience was beginning to wear dangerously thin, the dishes finally came out; though René had gone outside for a smoke by that point…
It felt so good to be actually eating something so far away from what we had experienced up until then; so peace returned to our table, and the conversation flowed freely, on into the late evening. We then walked back to the hotel, and sat in front of the projected fireplace, chatting over a last digestif (I opted for an alcohol-free beer), while I did a couple of sketches for René and Lars, before we called it a night…
We started off with Shoe’s interview, the next morning, when we got to his studio. We had already seen the paint that was in the back of the people carrier, and had our sketches sorted out from the day before. The reason why I am not posting these is that there will probably be a limited edition print made from them, so you’ll have to make do with what you see on the finished wall. One thing I must say about the interviews I had heard, was to be able to find out more about friends I have known since 1985. Back then we were just too young and caught up in doing our thing, in order to stop and ask ourselves any introspective questions about when we started out, or what scene existed already back then in our respective cities. I was especially curious to find out more about Shoe’s links with Dondi, and Bando’s trips to Amsterdam, after Pride and I had last painted with him in Paris, September 1985. Mutations in his and Shoe’s style really sped up around that time, leading to the letters that he had developed by 1986; the ones that really caught on all over Europe…
Once the interview was done, we headed over to the wall, allowed for Aris to set up, while Shoe and Lars (or was it René?) went off to get a scaffolding tower from the Neef Louis antiques warehouse, who are the owners of the wall. There is a small waterway that runs along the wall, and they had placed beams to span this gap, and screwed plywood boards onto them, so that we had something to stand on. The structure could take our collective weight, along with the equipment, so our only worries were what to paint on the surface that Shoe and his assistant Jerry had primed using a compressor a few days prior.
In order to make filming easier for Aris, we were going to start in turns, with Bando going first. Since Shoe had contacted him about this project, he had been going on and on about being rusty and so on, being fully (and literally) immersed in his cave-diving projects; but all that “stage-fright” was over within minutes, once he had a can in his hand; and the whole process kicked into gear.
Shoe had paced the wall out into our three sections, then had to go and sort something out, while Jerry went to get some snacks and drinks. I therefore had to leave him the space in the middle; trying to allow him as much room as I can, even when I didn’t quite know how squeezed my own one-liner piece would be. With regards to complexity and legibility, I took the long road on this, but I thought that our very different styles complemented themselves well enough. Yes, there’s always a sense of competition somewhere, but it’s more to do with competing against oneself, in order to be able to contribute as best as one can to the whole group wall. Soon enough, there was no time for me to take any more photos, as I knew that my piece would take the longest; so I just got on with it…
It cannot be said enough, but, had it not been for Shoe and the Calligraffiti that he set into motion, there would not have been such a resurgence of lettering in the wider field of “urban art”, which has seen a lot more figurative work this last decade or more, as well as the arrival of artists with an academic background. Calligraffiti has got a lot of youngsters who are maybe not so good in figurative representation to be able to have their voices on the street, complementing the tags that are already there and reigniting the pursuit of style where it had been on the wane. As far as our immediate situation went though, it was simply good to have Shoe around to drop his brush-strokes here and there on the wall; bringing it all together, and keeping it strictly lettering. Bando and him had been trading the appropriate slogans throughout the day.
As we neared the end of the painting, Delta showed up, and it was nice to have another crew member around, as these little reunions are few and far between. The sun had come out before we started taking photos, and a group of youngsters turned up, having checked what was going on, and actually having a clue who these older dudes painting were…
So we took all the shots we needed, packed up all the equipment, then Bando, Shoe, Delta and I went over to have a chat with the guys at the antiques warehouse, which is actually quite a treasure-trove, besides being the place where Shoe found that “thing” with which women used to beat the dust out of the house-rugs.
We then had to move quick, to see what the film-crew needed to pick up at Shoe’s studio, before leaving Delta and Shoe and heading back to the hotel. Strange how things go, as we grow older and have our own projects, priorities, and family-commitments to take care of; that we don’t see the time going by with old friends, or the geographical space that separates us; until we meet at moments such as these, or like when I hung out with Shoe in Los Angeles for Art In The Streets at the MoCA in 2011. The reason I mention this is that Delta pointed out that he himself had in all this time not passed through the Unruly Studios. Go figure…
The restaurant where we were going to eat was near to Shoe’s studio, and Bando and I had stayed in the adjoining guest-house, back in 2014. I think that René and Lars were determined to end the stay on a high note, with regards to how food had been so far. However, before we were going to dinner, we went to visit the Street Art Museum Amsterdam, where we were given a private tour by its curator, Peter Ernst Coolen. We all met up outside of our hotel (Shoe and Delta having coming over on their bikes), and went on to have a look at a vast space (you can see on the link), with lots of huge paintings hanging everywhere; many being from Latin or South American artists, some from Eastern European or Russian maybe, but a LOT of figurative or photorealistic imagery that just felt a world away from our own universe.
René and Lars had initially planned for us to paint there, but Shoe suggested, and rightly so, that we were not comfortable being associated with any cultural structure that wasn’t our own; but Peter came to the wall to watch us paint, and we graciously took up his invitation to have a look at what he had been working on, and hear his story.
Writing is what brought Bando, Delta, Shoe and I (as well as Lars and René!) to the place where we were standing at that place and time; and writing is basically what mainly interests me in the street. It is based on A-B-C-D, and therefore gives access to anybody who can write, regardless of any art education; and all you need is some form of marking implement that is either improvised, stolen, or eventually bought; but it was traditionally stolen.
What you also needed of course was the drive and the nerve to want to write your new-found name wherever you went, applying whatever style you wished to it; though generations of New York City writers had churned countless possibilities around, and a slew of different styles became the common foundation for all tags and throw-ups. Innovating and finding new variations with as much swing and flavour was the challenge set to future generations; but it is only by continuous research into the past that you may just find that your own innovation had been done by some near-anonymous writer years before; somebody who didn’t make it to Subway Art, Spraycan Art, or any of the books that came out these last years.
It’s a case of live and let live on the urban art scene for me; but I don’t want to hear anybody talking or writing stuff as if to say that what is happening today would have happened anyway. It is writing that made generations of youngsters want to put their names as high up on buildings as they could, as far down in the tunnels or on the bridges, in building hallways or on pavement level store shutters, bollards, fire-hydrants, post-boxes and so on; and all over the inside and outside of public transport rolling stock.
The artistic relationship that the youth of today have with the architecture and urbanism that surrounds them would never have developed to such a depth, had it not been for writing. So let’s give credit and respect where it is due, and put all of today’s happenings into their proper historical and cultural context.
So we evidently turned down the offer to be part of the museum (I think it was I who had to diplomatically break down it to Peter), as it would dilute our work, to some extent, by mixing it up with unrelated art-forms, and artists who have no idea from where what they are doing actually came from. There are other eventual exhibition spaces and events better suited to our culture which have not even been thought of yet, because we had too many bullshit jams and bullshit fanzines in the mid to late nineties to muddy the waters.
Anyway… With that behind us, it was off to the Cafe Modern, where Shoe had booked a table for us, and Peter would be joining us a little later. It was way easier to get there by bike, because of roadworks that were sending us into a long one-way diversion; but we eventually got there, to find Shoe and Delta already chilling at the large round table near the main entrance. Delta got busy with René or Lars’ book, while Shoe wandered off after a bit to check the place out. He pointed out that Cafe Modern had changed since he was last there, and was rather irritated, wondering if this meant the end of a dining experience that he had always enjoyed, along with the hospitality that was habitually afforded to him; namely a table and a glass of chilled white wine when he would walk in. That said, the four of us CTK guys were just happy to hang, while we traded stories with the film crew, and later talked at length about different
graffiti-related issues of today and yesteryear.
To Shoe’s relief, familiar faces that he knew from the restaurant finally showed up from the kitchen, and things started to roll right… well; almost right, for me. I had stopped drinking alcohol since January 2016, and I tend to dread that moment when I have to ask what alcohol-free beers are available. Jever Fun is absolutely NO fun whatsoever; so I knew what was in store for me beverage-wise for the evening. The others had no such issues to worry about drinks-wise, as the snacks and then the dishes started showing up;
I guess that the food alone at Cafe Modern made up for our first night (when we didn’t eat), our first lunch (like, what was THAT?!), and the long wait at Pllek the previous evening. It was incredible to think that so much had gone on in such little time, but the filming was over, the interviews done, and René, Lars and Aris could finally relax just a little.
Given the fact that Peter Ernst Coolen was also with us, the conversation had wandered to what Urban Nation, another “urban art museum”, was doing to Berlin; pretending to be supporting “street art”, when in fact it had hardly any contact with any Berlin artists or activists from the scene. I mentioned how it was also a pity that Carlo McCormick and Martha Cooper had also been taken on board by this rather dubious organisation, giving it a sense of credibility, while the international artists they invited to paint added another layer of legitimacy to what amounted to cultural Neo-colonialism in my book. I know, I’m a little opinionated, but I can’t let fraud slip in front of my eyes like that. It’s a pity that we stopped vetting “outsiders” to our culture when they would show up on the scene, like we used to back in the days; whether they were journalists, curators, collectors, or whatever.
We moved on to wondering about the next day, and finally left the restaurant, at which point Delta and Peter made their way off home, and Shoe stayed behind to find out what changes had been going on at Cafe Modern since he had last been there. The rest of us went back to the hotel, and planned to meet at breakfast, as they were all leaving the next day, apart from me.
René and Lars had wanted to paint, having finally got all they needed done on this trip, so I found out that they had already been out in the morning, using the remaining silver across a couple of the containers outside the Street Art Museum next to the hotel. Lars was still waiting for some friends from Melbourne to show up, before they would paint along the side of the “museum” building.
It was time to say goodbye to Bando however, though it seemed pretty much certain that we would come back again in 2018, probably with Delta joining us, and have fun painting together once again. René and Aris were off to the jam in Eindhoven, and Lars’ flight would be in the early evening.
I went back to the my hotel-room, and waited on Shoe to give me a shout, as I had assumed that he would have had a late one at Cafe Modern. Well… he forgot that we were supposed to meet and go to the art store, because when I eventually called, I found out that he had gone and got stretcher-frames for the two paintings that had been drying on the floor of his studio, while we were doing the interviews.
So I walked back over to Unruly, as I also had to pick up some art materials I had brought over, in case we were going to make some works on paper for the on-line gallery. The filming schedule had dictated otherwise though. I took some photos along the way, and checked up on our finished piece as well.
Getting to Shoe’s studio, I found him stretching those two paintings, and we planned to go to lunch, after dropping the paintings off at Galerie Gabriel Rolt, for a show that was going to open a week or so later. I got all my stuff together, then off we went; first to check out Paul du Bois-Reymond’s show of pencil works on paper at A Juan Project, called All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, then to drop those two paintings off, before looking for somewhere that serves food after 2pm…
Once again, things were looking pretty grim around the corner from the gallery, but we somehow stumbled upon a place that was looking pretty empty, but they were serving; Fa. Pekelhaaring felt like a Bingo! moment;
I checked the time, and it then seemed almost impossible that we were going to make it to Peter van Ginkel; the only art-store still open, though we only had about twenty minutes before the 6pm closing. So Shoe was going to give it his best shot…
Whenever I travel, I like to visit art-stores; the older and more traditional they are, the better. I primarily look for different types of drawing and aquarelle paper that I don’t already have; the material that’s easy to take back home and to the studio. Shoe showed me some of the type of paper that Paul du Bois-Reymond uses, though I didn’t find some of the rougher and heavier ones that I had seen at his show a little earlier. We had only got there about seven minutes before closing, so I was rushing up and down the aisle where the shelves carrying the paper are, and I had to make quick decisions. I eventually walked out with fifteen sheets of paper the richer and € 104,18 poorer!
I gave Delta a call, as we finally sat back in Shoe’s car, and he told us that he was still working, doing some graphics in the stairwell of a new office development a little way away from the art store. I had felt pretty bad for missing Delta’s A Friendly Takeover show in Brussels, as I had family-commitments that I simply could not walk away from in time to catch his show.
Though I met Delta a little later than Bando and Shoe, I had ended up hanging out a lot more with him in the 1990s, and the huge difference in everything that we’re about made for a lot of complementarity as well. He was the one who suggested to me that I should try using pastels, so a great deal of my indoor work in the last twenty years has been influenced by that little suggestion alone. So yeah; there was enough time to catch him, and Shoe was also up for driving out there…
It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon outside, but super warm in the stairwell; and Delta and his assistant had to get this all finished before the offices opened again the following Monday. They had the skylight open, through which you could feel the hot escaping from the space below.
Shoe and I also checked out the terrace, from which there was a lovely view on the canal below, and people enjoying the early summer. I won’t go too deep into my thoughts about the eventual rising of sea-levels, due to the climatic changes that our planet is going through; but these beautiful moments in our busy lives must be cherished for all that they have to offer. Enjoy them while they last…
It was time to call it a day, to say goodbye to Delta, his assistant, and for Shoe and me to go back into the city, driving back past the Citroën 2cv specialist’s collection we saw on our way in, then through what had seemed like a park with lots of trees on either side. I had asked Shoe on the way there where would be the oldest and least touched part of Dutch countryside to be found; as it is a small country, and the proximity of everything doesn’t seem to allow for wilderness. He mentioned something about a national park, which I think must mean the Veluwe. There’s apparently also a museum there that is worth a visit. I would like to check it all out one day, maybe on the next trip that we had promised to each other, to paint again with Bando and Delta; and why not get a couple more of the Dutch CTK contingent on board?
Niels dropped me back off at the DoubleTree hotel, after what felt like a full day, and I guess I am only thanking him right now.
The evening meal at Brooklyn, the hotel restaurant, was really nothing to write home about; supposedly a truffle gnocchi that was nowhere near hitting the mark. I guess that our afternoon lunch and the night before at Cafe Modern would anyway never have been topped. I let the waiter know about the blandness of the meal, for which he thanked me, so that he could pass on my feedback to whoever would actually do something to improve on what got served. That wouldn’t be too hard to do, should they actually bother.
I checked out of the hotel the next day, went to the where the ferry docked, and realised that the next one would be in about half an hour. Given the sun and the heat, I went back to chill in the hotel-lobby, until it was time to roll again, grab the ferry back to Amsterdam Centraal, and wave goodbye to what had been some fun days with some old friends, courtesy of René and Lars, along with Aris, the “camera-guy”. They will be editing throughout August, and we should be seeing the end result on ARTE in September. There might even be an event thrown for the launch in Paris.
Thank you for reading, if you got this far. I don’t do short story-telling much, even if it was just three and a half days in Amsterdam; but I also want to make sure that what really went down is actually written somewhere, before some opportunists start claiming that it went otherwise.
Until next time…