Issue #029 Published: 16-03-2020 // Written by: Chris Kelly

Amsterdam’s Undervalued Street Artist’s

Leave Graffiti Alone!
Over the course of the last decade, global appreciation of graffiti (or street art) has grown exponentially. What was once an art form only appreciated by those who created it or those immersed in the culture it originated from, has become a widely appreciated form of expression that adorns the walls of the best museums in the world. Amsterdam and its residents have come a long way in changing their attitudes towards graffiti artists, yet it may not have always been for the right reasons. This transition has by no means been a universal success.

Graffiti and Hip-Hop are two sides of the same record. The effect of mainstream acceptance of graffiti is comparable to the effects of the commercialisation of Hip-Hop. Corporate involvement in Hip-Hop production resulted in a fragmented understanding of what an underground art form is when it’s suddenly claimed by the masses. When large record labels realised the financial potential of underground culture, they tried to tear apart each component to be sold for parts. In addition, Hip Hop became framed as a new genre when white teenagers started dancing to MC Hammer, as if it wasn’t already a universal sound among many US minority communities. Today, those who used to call graffiti a public nuisance will queue for hours to see a Banksy at the MOCO. In the meantime, every cool cafe, restaurant and club has spray paint dripping down its walls.
There are a few questions that need to be answered as graffiti becomes universally beloved, like its cultural counterparts Hip-Hop & Cannabis. Is the reality of graffiti artists any easier now that public perception has changed? Will those who pioneered the culture be rewarded appropriately as museum and art collectors begin to make millions off their street art collections? Has the meaning of graffiti as a form of social commentary changed now that it can be gazed upon from far beyond the block or community that always appreciated it? Finally, what more can we be doing to appreciate the artists that make Amsterdam what it is?

Amsterdam’s Street Artist’s
For someone visiting Amsterdam, it would be relatively easy to miss that the city is home to a thriving and talented street art community. Unless, of course, you find yourself wandering around NDSM Wharf once the crowds of IJ Hallen have dwindled. When dark descends, the steady hum of spray cans begins to travel on the wind like metal crickets.

Eduardo Cobra’s depiction of Anne Frank has sadly overshadowed the work of local artists since its commissioning. In fact, the mural entitled “Let Me Be My Self”, is a rather poignant embodiment of the government’s desire to capitalize on a culture they had deemed illegal and unwanted for decades. Instead of appreciating or supporting the messages and creations of local artists, they tried to turn the area into a tourist trap by plastering Anne Frank’s face 20 feet in the air with an Instagram caption looming over it. Not only is this a disrespectful exploitation of Holocaust victims, it is also a key indicator of the government’s intention to gentrify Amsterdam Noord by replacing a thriving art community with a constructed and controllable one.    

However, below this one mural there is a whole world of weird and wonderful creations that are irreplaceable components of NDSM Wharf’s immeasurable character. Artists that have bombed the walls of Noord have gone out to international recognition, such as Ox Alie, ATOMIK, Pez & the legendary London Police. In addition, local artists like Even & Gest, Kems Mats and Dennis are all keeping the walls of Noord adorned with art that reflects an authentic interpretation of Amsterdam. Including street art as a part of the urban environment of NDSM has been extremely beneficial to the local government, stimulating economic development in the area. Admittedly, areas such as the NDSM TreeHouse Creative Network and the copious number of independent and local in shipping containers, demonstrates some self-awareness of the character of the area.

However much more paid and commissioned involvement by local artists needs to happen in order to fairly compensate the fiscal benefits brought to the area by creators choosing to show their works. What would Noord be without its artists and what would we all be without Noord?

The Paradox of Acceptance
I’m aware that I have not provided many examples of how artists have been helped by the new acceptance of graffiti. This sadly, is because only time can tell if artists will indeed be involved in the process of street art development and rewarded by the cities decision to embrace its artists. All too often, the profits go back into the system that saw graffiti as a smudge on an otherwise picturesque city. The right thing to do is for the government to commission local artists & crews to decorate new construction projects and tourist facilities, allowing them to create new works whilst becoming a part of the process and the reward. This is much more rewarding than locking off famous graffiti artists’ work in a museum that costs 20 euros to get into. A thought that would sit wrong with almost every graffiti artist in the world.

As for the meaning of graffiti as an art form, the power of the message does not decrease, or its value diminish, by the amount of people who view it. No, in fact it is quite the opposite. You can’t kill an idea, and to my mind the more people who observe, appreciate and learn from works of graffiti the better. That is as long as they are treated as legitimate forms of art while they remain outside in the world. Not just as a means to draw tourists in by utilizing the contemporary trend of the bohemian & underground. The artists of Noord are just as talented as those in Los Angeles, London, Hong Kong or Barcelona…they are just less appreciated.


Photo: The 2&6 Collective