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The Graffiti Capital of the World

 

We discover the art of Hugo Kaagman a few years ago reading some books about the history of Urban Art, before to meet him in person in Torino last September. Hugo Kaagman is not only an excellent stencil artist. He is also one of the major representant of the history of what we actually call "street art", even if his way of seeing art in public spaces is quite different from today street art practices.

Before his arrival in Paris for a solo show at the Lavomatik, he has accepted to answer to some of our questions about Punk culture, Street Art and the way with which artists had interacted with public spaces.

 

People normally consider “street art” as an American phenomenon arrived in Europe during the 80’s as a part of the Hip Hop culture. Thanks to Banksy and to his recognition of Blek le Rat’s influence on his work, we know now that European streets were already a playground for young artists, when the first American graffiti appeared. You started to paint in the streets before Blek and the other French stencil artists. So, how do you define your original background?

I dropped out of school in 1976. I stopped my study Social Geography and continued my hitch hiking journeys trough Europe, South America and Nort Africa. I travelled to Fes in Morocco to document the Happening around the city gate Bab Boujeloud in a book. When I returned to Amsterdam in 1977, I published the book myself and immedialetly after that I started a Punk Fanzine in my newly squatted house in Amsterdam, the KoeCrandt (Cow Papers). I just learned how to publish in a Do It Your self way and was frustrated with the crisis and unemployment. That was inspired by the Punk Movement in London, specially the photocopy fanzine Sniffing Glue. We made in in photocopy and on a stencil machine. In that fanzine I wrote about new ideologies, No Future, anarchism, nihilism, dadaism and situationism. I did interviews and made collages. We attracted new people to join the movement. We started a Punk Club called DDT 666 (1978) and later gallery ANUS (1979) and promoted a new vision and a new art.

 

Some of the zines published by the Amsterdam Punk scene in the 1970s and 1980s.


As Punk was declared DEAD by the media we took over the streets of Amsterdam with tags and stencils. Amsterdam at that time was the Graffiti Capital of the world, tags everywhere. With the stencils I made collages on the walls with spraycans. From the technique of stencil printing I learned to make color separations, that knowledge I used for multi-layered stencils. I found out that visual language is more important than the written word. So we started to provoke (with humour) the society with End of the world visions partly based on punk and apocalypse visions from the regga/Rasta movement. Inspiration came from Malcolm Mc Laren and Lee Scratch Perry. In 1980 there was the coronation of Queen Beatrix in Amsterdam and on 30 april there were massive riots in Amsterdam. A lot of punks went into drugs after that, and there was confusion about ideologies. Some became junk, other skinhead, MOD, Rasta, Rude Boy, Grunge, and some tried to keep the punk faith.

 

Jah War (left) and Fire ina Amsterdam (right): two stencils painted by Hugo Kaagman in 1979


In 1980 I changed Gallery ANUS (what was a punk meeting point, distribution point for fanzines) into Gallery OZON and started with my stencils an “Art walk-in Service”, where I sprayed on request. The outside wall was changing every week with stencils and tags by visitors and in 1980 I changed it into the ZEBRA-house with zebra patterns. In that time I wanted to be positive and looked to World Music and World Art. After a trip to North and West Africa I concentrated on “jungle patterns” and arab motives. I wondered about the fact that everybody in Europe was negative in mind while everybody was pretty wealthy, and that in Africa where people are poor were very positive about life. These were the themes of my works that I sprayed around in town (illegal). Also I travelled with my stencils to Belgium and France and even went with my jungle stencils to Senegal and the Gambia to see if the people liked my stencil art. I painted a taxi and a club there, even in the holy town Touba I made a mural (at that time I didn’t even have a photo camera, so no images). Later in 1983 I got my first legal commission for a 80 meter fence on the Waterloosquare in Amsterdam.

 

A view of Gallery OZON in Amsterdam in 1980

 

In 1985 I found a French book called Le Livre de Graffiti, with a image of my fence in it and I learned about other stencil artists like Blek le Rat, Miss Tic and Jef Aerosol. The rat of Blek le Rat didn’t look very original to me as one of my punk friends called Dr. Rat used it as a symbol in his pieces and tags (he died in 1981, from an overdose of heroin). The year 1983 was also the year of the introduction of American graffiti in Europe. There were expositions with break dancing events both in the Gallery of Yaki Kornblitt and in Museum Boymans and Groninger Museum. A new generation of graffiti writers came up in American style with Hip Hop music. The punk tags and stencils were seen as outdated and old skool. Instead of critical messages they went for self promotion and commercial commissions. I kept on doing my thing.

 

The art world is more interested nowadays in Punk culture than in the past. The Europunk exhibition organized by Eric de Chassey has been presented in Rome, Geneva, Charleroi and Paris and has offered a general overview on the European Punk scene. I’m not sure that the Dutch contribution to Punk culture was in-depth, so can you tell us something more about Gallery ANUS and Gallery OZON? What kind of exhibitions and projects have you developed into these spaces? What artists and what kind of artworks did you present? Which were the international references that inspired you?

In spring 1977 we squatted a house in Amsterdam and started with the  Punk Fanzine the KoeCrandt. We sold in in shops and in an Art-O-Mat, a cigarette machine in the center of Amsterdam. We also started the Punk Club DDT666 (Dirty Dutch Trix) with new bands in our squatted house, but because of drugs and alcohol problems we stopped that and started Gallery ANUS. There we were the center for Punk publications and a hang around for graffiti writers. The expositions were ever changing and we combined our art with music. We also went out all together to perform in clubs and other squatted houses.

 

A view of Gallery ANUS in Amsterdam in 1979

 

We provoked the art world with vandalism and investigated new ideologies. We were on the mailing list of Rough Trade, who sended us all the new independent record releases. Also we got a lot of post from Poland and Switzerland and we were interviewed by the Belgium TV and were connected with the San Francisco Poster Brigade. We really thought we were the last generation before WWIII, but also realised that the “Electronic Revolution” could be usefull. Amsterdam had a  growing movement of “autonomous” residents who made their own society. We had illegal radio stations and even hacked a channel of the local cable TV. Amsterdam was very anarchistic and psychedelic in contrast to Rotterdam, where the punk movement was inspired by communism: RAKET (the Rondo’s). Though we were connected they opposed us in publications because of our use of marihuana and our love of reggae and interest in Rastafari. Of course they were against religion. We in Amsterdam were befriended with the older generation of Hippies and PROVO’s who revelled a decade earlier. They sympathised and advised us, and we knew that we had to carry the torch further. And we realised it was all DADA, a conceptual anti movement. The squatters who were first mostly long haired Hippies started to cut their hair and became more militant. We were against the capitalist city builders who were only thinking about money. And we laughed about the artworld, who loved the artist A.R.Penck with graffiti related paintings. We got a lot of media attention with our graffiti, because we were the center of it in the Netherlands. All the time the question was, is it art or vandalism? I published a KoeCrandt-special called The Great Art Swindle, so called after Malcolm Mc.Laren’s movie The Great Rock & Roll Swindle. In that publication I made collages of people holding up an artwork with a sprayed stencil. I never realised that that would be true later…

 

A view of the KoeCrandt's special issue The Great Art Swindle

 

Stencil technique has contributed, as much as the arrival of the internet, to the emergence of street art. Even without permissions, you can paint very quickly in the streets. That’s why lots of graffiti writers turned to stencil art, after being arrested in the late ‘90s. At the same time, in the last decade, stencil technique has totally been revolutionized by computers and laser printing, which allow to create very complex images and to work even with more than 20 layers. Why did you choose to work with stencils in the ‘70s and how your technique has evolved?

I choose the stencils for its realism. I went to libraries and was a real photocopy junk. Blowing up small images and spraying them in new combinations. That has been my style since then, building up big collages with small elements. Also for my love of decorative art I found stencils revolutionary because of the possibility of repetition. All my work on the street was subject for the media, is it Art or Vandalism, but people young and old preferred the stencil more that the tags and pieces. Just the new generation of Hip Hop writers looked down on stencils.

 

A view of the Zebra House in 1980

 

For me, I abandoned the multi layer stencils, simply because my stencil archive grew and I could’t archive them well together. I choose to cut the black and white to combine with handsprayed fill in. The cut outs were from the contrast I got through manipulating the photocopy machine. Since the computers and Internet things became easier. I didn’t have to go to the library anymore, as images were on Internet. Also photocopy was replaced by my printer and Photoshop helped me much more for making contrast images. And one thing that I didn’t realise so early was the advantage of  the digital photocamera and the possibilities to share the images world wide. I have been overlooked by the first stencil publications, as Tristan Manco wrote me. I had been in my own movement for more than a decade and found out about Banksy in 2002. Since he invited me to the Cans Festival in London 2008, I started following other stencil artists, who I met in the tunnel at Leakestreet.

 

Hugo Kaagman has translated the Dutch Delft Blue technique to Stencil

 

I am very happy to be part again of a world wide movement since Punk. My technique and styles have evolved and I am still mixing my styles: Punk, Rasta, patterns, jungle and, since 1990, I reinvented the tradition of Dutch Delft Blue. Besides illegal spray activities and studio paintings, I did commissions from tunnels to boats, trains and airplanes. It has been very hard to be taken seriously by the artworld, as they didn’t respect the technique nor styles and all the time it was looked upon as kid’s stuff and vandalism. I used the Delft Blue to confront the society with its own folkoristic imagery and confused them with my heritage of punk ideologies.

In 2009 I published a book in which I called myself the Stencil King. I think that I have cut the most different stencils compared to other stencil artists. I never counted them, but it must be ten thousands, big and small. I have a lot of small stencils and found out that they can be magnified at any time, from a distance they work the same. I can say that I was too early with this art form and I am on an age (59) that I cannot travel the world spraying and leaving my traces just like that. After more than 10 times in jail, now I only spray illegal when I am drunk. I am responsible for my kids and take my work seriously. But I love stencils and I like to be part of a subversive movement, it keeps me young and I feel still Punk (though that original generation is dying out and they look back on the Golden Time they had almost 40 years ago).

 

 

We warmly invite those really interested by Hugo Kaagman and the history of Punk "Street Art" to look at Kroonjuwelen - Hard Times, Good Times, Better Times, a film about the emergence of graffiti in Amsterdam. The story tells the adventures of the Amsterdam graffiti writers. From the first principles from the punk period until the apotheosis at the Amsterdam metro to the world of contemporary design and art. The history starts in the punk and late 1970s early 1980s cracking time. An era that is exposed by Hugo Kaagman and poet/writer template artist Diana Ozone. HIGH tells about the pioneering, territories and the heyday of graffiti in Amsterdam. Graphic designer Niels 'SHOE' Meulman, tells from his Office, and the neighborhood where it all started for him until today is how graffiti has an influence on his work. ZAP the subways of Amsterdam pops up in looking for history and above all adventure.

 

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