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Profile: The Secret Life of a Street Artist

November 7, 2011

Profile: The Secret Life of a Street Artist

By Maayan Arad

Late at night, when the whole city of Amsterdam is deeply asleep, it is time for him to start working. He goes out silently, armed with only spray paint and stencils, or some decorations made it advance and fills the dark streets with color and original images, straight from his imagination.

This is the story of a graffiti artist. Joe (pseudonym name) is a young man who decided to stay anonymous to protect his identity and allow him to continue to decorate the city. “The night is the best time to do that,” he tells me with a shy smile, while we are sitting in my dark apartment with only candle light reflecting on his face and a cup of tea, “it’s quiet and you won’t get arrested that easily,” he assures me.

He is calm and self-confident. He responds to my questions in a causal way evidently enjoying sharing his opinions about his work and the role of street-art in our society. He wears a gray hoodie and casual jeans and appears relaxed – not too fashionable but definitely a person who respects himself and others around him. No stain of paint appears on his cloths or body.

As a kid, while growing up in a small village in a neighboring country, he started to experiment with graffiti. At that time, street-art was very different from what it is today in Amsterdam, he says, “We would just make ‘throw-ups’ in random places”. Those are words written quickly and normally refer to the person who wrote it. “I would normally write the word ‘YOZ’ and then go away quickly. You have a couple of ‘throw-ups’ that you always do. You just know it by heart so you don’t need a stencil” he ends his train of thoughts.

Joe explains that he would skateboard a lot with his friends, “It just goes well together.” Since then a lot has changed and his artistic interests developed. It is not about just writing a name but has a bigger purpose for him. “When I started again I didn’t do graffiti so much anymore but I tried to experiment with different stuff like stencils or I would make stuff before I put it on the street.” He began expressing himself on the deeper level and the images he would draw changed, “you can also make other people question, what is that? It’s not just for you anymore but also for other people.”

After he moved to Amsterdam two years ago to study, Joe hasn’t lost his love for street art. He experiments with different types of drawing and wants to keep trying different things. Joe’s work depends on the moment, on his feeling, inspiration and the ideas that go through his head. “It all changes all the time” he says about his paintings. He assured me confidently that inspiration is everywhere and gave the example of the cup of tea that could be used as an anti-capitalism metaphor in one of his paintings. Inspiration from regular objects doesn’t seem to satisfy him though. He hurried and quoted Picasso, “good artists copy, great artists steal.”

He said that there is something that is common for many street-artists and elaborated, “There’s no money involved in street art and at least shouldn’t be. That makes it an unspoiled art form. It’s free for all. People can do whatever they want because it is not a commodity”. After thinking about this for a second he continues, “But there is the bad side that people try to sell street-art, it is entering a dangerous zone.” I became worried and asked him what the future holds for street art. “There are so many people out there that don’t care about the commodification but do it for the sake of making art.”

“You have to find a way to be really detailed but also kind of quick; this is a kind of a challenge,” he tells me about the challenges he faces as an unknown and anonymous artist. Even when he was young, and made ‘throw-ups’ on the walls in his village, this secrecy played an important role – it’s just a part of the life of a street artist like Joe.

What is nice about it as well, Joe says, is that he feels he is a part of an active community of artists. Even if he does not work with other artists directly, “There’s a secret communication between the artists but no one else understands this language, if you see that someone put his name on a wall, you also want to put your name,” he says.

“In the future I want to keep doing that,” he ends our conversation. He leaves my room and I can see him biking away into the darkness from my window. I know at that moment that Joe’s belief in what is doing will continue to take new forms and colors long after our conversation is over.

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