Welcome to the latest installment of Skandl’s 1-on-1 interview series. Below, we speak with prominent street artist/poet Laser 3.14 on graffiti’s heritage in the Dutch capital, gentrification, and the poetics of tagging impermanent walls.
You got involved in graffiti in the early 80s, how was the Amsterdam scene at this time?
It was an electric time, few people today know that Amsterdam was the epicenter of graffiti culture and the gateway for NYC writers in the 80s.
I started out tagging around ’82/83 in my neighborhood because I saw tags by Ego, Tarantula, Dragon, Dr Smurry and Dr Air everywhere around the city. I started emulating their work and started writing here and there under a couple of tag names. I didn’t even know at the time that it was called “graffiti” and “tagging” but I liked to do it and I liked what I saw on the walls of the city. I wasn’t a direct part of the scene in the early 80’s because I didn’t meet the writers I loved in those days, but what I saw was how it evolved from only tagging to New York style pieces by the likes of the USA (United Street Artists) which included Shoe, Delta, Joker, and Jaz. Of course Shoe (Niels ‘Shoe’ Meulman), Delta (Boris Telegen) and Jaz (Jasper Krabbé) continue as established and successful contemporary artists.
I went to the Amsterdam graphic school in ’85 and I finally met a lot of people from the graffiti scene in that period. People like Try, Altar, Krush, Pogo, and I got to meet my heroes of the time, people like Euro, Yat, Amer, Magic, Style, Harakiri, Rayen, Rhyme and many many more. I went around the city checking out new pieces when a new one went up.
I really loved wandering around the city and finding new pieces and checking out all these tags and meeting writers. The scene really exploded during this period and there were so many epic and legendary works made. I did my very first piece with a guy who was a classmate who wrote Space, it said ‘Are Space’. It was an electric time.
It’s Yaki Kornblit who deserves credit here. Yaki was the gallerist who recognized the potential of graffiti and brought writers like Quik, Dondi, Blade, and Lee over to do shows in Amsterdam. This was the catalyst for tag based graffiti crossing over to hip-hop graffiti whom the likes of Shoe and Delta made big in the city.
The foundation of art in the streets in Amsterdam is strong. I do my best to continue this legacy.
Talk to us about your poetry/typographic style, how did this develop?
Well, I did do a lot of graffiti pieces from ’87 to ’92 and was submerged in the graffiti culture in those years. At some point in ’92, I wanted to start developing myself more as a visual artist and started drawing, including creating a couple of comic books. I then started developing work on canvas and at the same time experimenting with poetry. I was listening to early rap music, new wave and bands like The Doors, Velvet Underground and Joy Division and wanted to write ‘lyrics’ like those bands. I bought an old typewriter and started typing away. At some point I started adding lines I wrote to my graphic works and valuing the words more than the graphics and by the end of the 90’s I decided to experiment with spraying the words on the streets and see what happened when I would write them in a public space.
You tend to tag on bits of the city that are soon to disappear, such as wooden boards protecting redevelopment sites. Is there a certain poetry to ‘disappearance’ that appeals to you?
Yes, I like the “here today, gone tomorrow” effect of it. I love the idea that you can walk around the corner, see a short poem or quote and not know the expiry date of the work. it could be gone the next day, next week, or in a month. I also like the fact that some pieces get to travel and pop up in different cities. Some lines actually don’t really disappear, even when they are not physically around anymore. Some people quote me their favorite lines from more than a decade ago that no longer exist on the streets.
Making work on these types of surfaces highlights the fact that there’s a lot of redevelopment/gentrification taking place at the moment, but also highlights that there’s probably going to be less room for street art and alternative art scenes in the near future. How do you feel about this?
I personally think the “cleaning up” has gone too far. When I grew up Amsterdam was dirty, filthy, run down, had lots of junkies, and graffiti on the streets, but it had soul. Now it’s cleaned up and lacks soul. But this is a trend we have been seeing all over Western Europe. They clean up the buildings and make everything look the same and a bit boring.
I truly believe a city needs those hard edges and space for alternative art, music and underground scenes because that’s where new ideas are formed and it’s the aorta of creativity. Without this life becomes a bit bland, dull and boring; a killer to creativity.
You’ve also showcased your work in gallery spaces. How do you feel about the relationship between ‘street art’ and more formal settings? Most people in or visiting Amsterdam who want to see ‘street art’ nowadays will head straight to the Moco..
Both have merit to exist in my eyes. The streets and public space are of course the best way to experience street art but in a gallery space you can stretch your artistic abilities and try other ideas. What I like about working in a gallery space is that I do things that I would not do on the streets. For me, it took a while before I got the art in a gallery space right.
Other than yourself, which graffiti artists operating at the moment should we keep an eye out for?
Well I really like the work Judith De Leeuw a lot, Ben Eine is killing it, Wayne Horse is doing really great stuff, Bortusk Leer, London Police are rocking the world, Lost Object is really good.
…and what would your top tips be for anyone wanting to start doing graffiti themselves in 2018?
Be honest, be real. Don’t be a ‘hive mind’ just because the masses demand that from you. Don’t be afraid to express what you really feel and think not everyone has to like what you do.