Street art in Eindhoven: latex, stickers, and sell-outs
When Eindhoven had little to lose in terms of economy and image, there was one culture in the city that gained worldwide fame. At the end of the 1980s, a graffiti scene that was innovative and raw emerged in the city. It set a standard in terms of style and forever changed the lives of some. A portrait of a culture that likes to show itself but doesn't necessarily wants to be seen.
Part 1: Teens taking the trains
Vincent Huibers, brown cap, black hoodie, walks into café Usine for this interview. He has just dropped off his French intern at the Berenkuil: ‘So he can spray paint some graffiti while waiting.’ Vincent lives with his wife and children and runs a graffiti agency in Venlo under his own name. He paints walls, canvases, and campers on request and still spray paints just for the fun of it, if time permits. Graffiti continues to fill a large part of his life. But the fact that he would ever touch a spray can again seemed unthinkable a few years ago.
Subways of New York City
‘Graffiti is all about writing your name’, says Vincent. ‘It is about showing yourself. To put your name on a wall is the ultimate way of saying: here I am, I exist.’
In the Netherlands, graffiti really emerged in the 1980s. Before that, it already existed in the punk scene. Writing your name in gothic letters, for example, like the famous Dr. Rat from Amsterdam did. It was only until VARA broadcasted the film Style Wars in 1985, about the hip-hop culture in New York City, that the typical American style came this way.
Some books had a great impact, such as Subway Art and Spraycan Art. They were seen as the bibles of graffiti and massively stolen from the library. And if the books were returned, then full of tags from yet another beginning graffiti writer.
Interestingly, when Spraycan Art was published in 1987, an entire chapter was devoted to Eindhoven. The book contains several pieces from, for example, FREAKY (later: PHET) made in the Berenkuil. It instantly put Eindhoven on the map as a graffiti city.
In 1989, Vincent started spray painting graffiti at the age of seventeen (long hair, 'a really horrible mullet', camouflage bomber jacket, and sneakers of the brand Troop).
He takes the train through the Netherlands with friends during the summer break to discover new names. 'If we saw a nice piece from the train, we would get out of the next station and walk back a few kilometers along the track. He exchanges letters with other graffiti sprayers in those days, sharing tips and photos. He keeps track of all the telephone numbers and addresses in a little book.
'Back then, I was happy with every piece of information I could find. We had no idea what was happening in other cities. The voyage of discovery was completely different than it is now. If I go to Amsterdam these days to look at graffiti, I've already seen most of it on Instagram.'
In the beginning, graffiti is mainly about writing letters. Later on, characters and other shapes and figures are added. Vincent has been fascinated by typography from the start. He chooses his initial artist name CAZ simply because he likes these letters. When he finds out that a prominent graffiti writer from Eindhoven already uses the same characters, he changes his name to CHAS. He endlessly spray paints the letters on walls in the city. Later he adds 'LoveLetters', the name of his crew. More about these crews later.
For Vincent, his graffiti life came to an abrupt end in 1992. One day, he is about 19 years old, he finds the police knocking on his door. He had been ratted out and received a huge fine. But after considerable mediation by his lawyer, things could be worse: instead of paying tens of thousands of guilders, he ends up doing duty for the Dutch Railways for five weeks.
Nevertheless, Vincent decides to quit graffiti. 'I had been lucky this time, but I also realized that I couldn't do this again.' He takes his life in a new direction. He applies for college, finds a job, and starts a family. Living a normal life. As the internet gets bigger and bigger, he sees all these pictures online of graffiti artists. He recognizes many of them from the time he was active himself. Not long after that, Vincent drives to the nearest shop and buys a few spray cans. After years he puts his name back on a wall. Cheerfully: 'That felt awesome.'
Vincent not only regains a lost passion, but he also decides to earn a living as a graffiti artist. He now runs a successful agency. 'I'm a sell-out', he says with a wink, referring to the controversy surrounding commercial graffiti work. But he loves what he does and still enjoys writing in his spare time. Alone or with his friends.
Many graffiti writers unite in a crew. A group of like-minded people with whom you can identify in terms of style. The members help each other while making pieces. As a crew, you represent yourself by using your crew name. The more visible you are, the higher your street cred. The dynamics between the different crews are now quite relaxed. Crews were more often connected to hardcore soccer supporters at the end of the '80s and the beginning of the '90s.
'When I started, TSC, The Shoarma Crew, was a familiar crew. Later you got the Sol Crew, which was very innovative. In my opinion, this was the most important crew in Eindhoven. Now there is a new generation going on. Huske, for example, or the DSR crew. If you pay attention to it, you'll see those names all over the city.
Must-sees according to Vincent
‘The largest legal graffiti spot in the Netherlands. An open-air museum with an ever-changing collection.’
The Sound of Strijp-S
‘A wall of 8 meters high and 140 meters long, located behind the Klokgebouw. On the wall, you can see seven artists who performed in the Klokgebouw (Motörhead, Fresku, Faithless, M.I.A., Die Antwoord, Kovacs and Peter Pan Speedrock).’
Along the railway tracks
‘Take the train from the north to Eindhoven Station. You’ll see a wall of fame of Eindhoven graffiti writers along the track.’
Part 2: Latex paint and stickers
Whoever you talk to about graffiti in Eindhoven, the names of the Sol Crew members pop up in almost every conversation. With other means (goodbye spray can) and new forms, they stretched the concept of graffiti considerably in the 1990s. Their work is still known far beyond the borders.
When Jeroen Heeman looks out of the high windows of his studio, he sees the well-known clock of the Klokgebouw. His workspace is located behind Strijp-S, a quiet spot in an old school building. Connected to the city, but at a distance at the same time.
Together with Zime and Sekty, Jeroen was one of the founders of the Sol Crew. Everyone knows him in that time as Erosie. An interview about graffiti? He hesitates. He's not that involved anymore with the graffiti scene. His international work as a visual artist is what drives him these days. But during the interview that he eventually agrees to have, one thing becomes clear. You can take the artist out of the graffiti, but not the graffiti out of the artist. Or something like that.
The Sol Crew is known for its straight lines, graphic elements, and raw colors, something quite different from the tags and pieces coming from New York City back then. The experiment begins when the Sol Crew members start making their outlines with latex paint. The clean lines from using a paint roller give a totally different look than with a spray can. And it was cheap, too. 'For ten bucks, we got a few buckets of paints from the local shop.'
The Sol Crew was founded when many subcultures were blossoming in Eindhoven. In addition to graffiti, there is hip-hop, drum 'n bass, and artists' collectives such as Betamaxxx and Space 3. Because of the scale of Eindhoven, a lot of crossovers take place. Jeroen: 'Eindhoven is a large village, and all those scenes were too small to form a separate group. We often met and experimented together.'
And, he mentions this a few times, in Eindhoven, it was much more about people than in other cities. 'There was something pleasant about it; there was not much decoration to it. It wasn't about your job. Not about who you were or who you knew. It was about what you did.'
Stickers and posters
Besides graffiti writing, Sol Crew members start experimenting with posters and stickers. Computers are on the rise, and people have printers at home for the first time. This development suits their style. 'The graphic power of a symbol is very different from a tag. There is something illegal about that. Our work was much more playful.' Visually you can do a lot more with print. You can add text or complex drawings. It completely changes the medium - the city, the public space - to deliver a message.
It also raises the question of whether this is still graffiti. Jeroen cheerfully: 'Our work often evoked strong reactions, and we would find other writers going over our pieces. I've always tried to emancipate myself from the rigid graffiti rules. For me, they were a means, not an end in themselves.'
Jeroen takes his black book, an indispensable item for every graffiti writer. 'Actually, I still work according to the same principles. With graphic elements and straight lines. I try not to sketch. It's about intuition and pushing that further and further. It has to be done quickly, without thinking, as if you're surprising yourself.'
Must-sees according to Jeroen
The old Dommel tunnels
'A spot where once the (illegal) Samplism parties were held, close to the Berenkuil. Typical forgotten places where graffiti has been spray painted for decades.'
Tunnel along the small river the Tongelreep under the A2
'Another forgotten place that seems to be only visited by graffiti writers, just like along the Dommel river under junction De Hogt.'
Johan Moorman's mural on Aalsterweg
'A successful example of contemporary graffiti.'
Part 3: Street interventions
Driebergen is not exactly the place to be when it comes to graffiti. Bouke Bruins was looking forward to moving to Eindhoven for his studies. Online he knew the work of the Sol Crew and Eindhoven artists like Erosie and Late. It was great to discover those pieces in real life, walking through his new city. But beyond that... In 2008, when Bouke became an Eindhovenaar, the local graffiti culture was almost dead.
It was around this time that Step in the Arena was founded. The graffiti culture needs a boost, is the idea, and deserves a large stage in the city. The festival now attracts thousands of visitors every year. International artists, but also locals and enthusiasts without any experience. Everyone is welcome to watch the big names perform or join one of the workshops.
Graffiti is no longer purely an underground thing in Eindhoven. The Berenkuil is Europe's largest legal graffiti spot these days. Also, the municipality has undertaken various projects in which graffiti artists are commissioned to paint the city. 'Tunnel vision' is one of these programs. Some graffiti artists navigate between both worlds; others always remain independent and anonymous.
At the Design Academy Eindhoven Bouke meets fellow student Pim Bens, who works with aerial platforms to make murals. They both see public space as a playground. A place to leave messages and provoke reactions. From 2D (pieces and paintings), they shift their focus to 3D: placing objects in the street.
They call it street interventions. The first was when Bouke had to get rid of an old exercise bike during their studies. 'We decided to bring it to Strijp-S and place it next to a bus stop. We were curious to see what would happen.' Unlike when writing graffiti, they don't work secretly now. 'We put on road workers' vests, neatly cordoned off the area, and removed a few tiles from the street. The bus drivers who passed by cheerfully waved at us. Then we placed the exercise bike and poured the concrete.' The bike ended up staying at Strijp-S for two and a half months.
'We were very curious to know what kind of reactions the bicycle would provoke. We regularly watched it from a distance, and sometimes we had a chat with bystanders. Did they notice the object? We saw people playing with it and jumping on the bike to pedal while waiting for the bus.' The exercise bike also became a target of vandalism. 'We were surprised to see that others would interfere in such cases. People really considered the bike to be part of their street.'
Street interventions require the same kind of instinct needed for writing graffiti. You make a plan in advance, but while you're going, you have to be very adaptive to the circumstances', says Bouke.
Bouke and Pim consider these unexpected street objects a frisky way to start a dialogue. 'If you place something in the public space in a playful manner, people respond differently. They tend to open up', says Pim. 'It's a fun and accessible way to explore what's going on in a neighborhood or area.'
Must-sees according to Pim en Bouke
The gateway to Strijp-S
‘The wall that runs from PSV Eindhoven to Strijp-S. At first glance an ugly spot, crowded and unprofessional, but also one of the last preserved walls where graffiti is as it should be: tags, throw-ups, scribbles, and slogans in the beating heart of the city. A place where many stories can be deciphered and that has not yet been destroyed by commercially motivated graffiti sell-outs.’ (Update: 30 international artists have recently painted a 220-meter mural here)
The Eindhoven highway
‘Once the target of good actions during the construction, after the construction a facilitator for many new hidden places such as junction de Hogt and the Beatrix Canal. The glass walls/sound barriers make it a beautiful canvas for renowned and starting graffiti talent for many years now.’
Graffiti is no longer the blueprint you find in books like Spraycan Art and Subway Art. Since the 1980s, new forms and styles have emerged and graffiti has become part of the broader concept of street art. When walking through Eindhoven, you will find all these different experiments. Interventions that play with the question: who really owns the public space? For those who see the city as a platform, the possibilities are endless. Or as Erosie puts it: 'Graffiti is dead, long live graffiti'.
Step in the Arena takes place at the Berenkuil every year in June
More graffiti exploring in Eindhoven: Street Art Cities App / Eindhoven
Book tip: Sorry For Damage Done
Video tip: Eindje Graff & Streetart