Think Europe, and you think of neat buildings and clean roads, where everything works in an orderly fashion. And you would be right, mostly.
But when I landed in Brussels on a rainy Saturday afternoon, it did not take me long to see colourful images and unfamiliar words splashed on buildings as my local train traversed the busy streets. They are impossible to miss because they are everywhere. They intrigued me.
So when I arrived in Ghent, 30 minutes from Brussels, I was compelled to look for more and found a cornucopia of street art at Werregarenstraat. Known as Graffiti Street, it is where graffiti artists are legally allowed to work, or rather play, to their heart’s content with spray cans and walls as their canvas. It was created in 1995 during the Gentse Feesten, a summer festival celebrated on a grand scale every July.
As you walk along Graffiti Street, colourful words and odd-sized paintings stare at you. The diversity of images was staggering, the art magnificent. There was one painting that attracted me the most. Spanning a considerable area, it showed a man’s expressionless face and his dead eyes. Each contour, crease and colouring on the face was detailed, and the work so professional, it seemed a shame to call it just a piece of street art.
I went there thrice within a week and realised that while the wall art kept changing, this particular painting remained untouched. Which is surprising, because the rule here is, if you don’t like what you see, change it. The lifespan of your graffiti could range from a few minutes to a few days, after which you will see new faces, colours and art.
During one of my visits, I got to meet Marijn Nelen, who takes graffiti seriously and has been a part-time artist for the past seven years. Besides painting walls for pleasure, he also earns money through this art form. When I greeted him, the six-foot artist with close-cropped brown hair and hazel eyes gave me a winning smile that revealed his dimples. And that was all it took to start a conversation on graffiti in Belgium. What draws him to this street art is the freedom to express one’s opinion, the business it provides (the motto is “If you are good, you sell”), and the extremely challenging environment.
“Each artist has a style that is unique to them. It could be letters, animals, humans or even symbols,” Nelen said. “I prefer to paint human characters you meet every day or someone people can relate to, and has symbolic value. The lifetime of each painting here is short but my painting of Nelson Mandela, when he died, lasted four weeks. It was only because Mandela was someone people related to, and didn’t touch it.”
But can street art help make a living? For Nelen it is only a part-time work, but he says there are professional artists who make money solely through street art. He mentions a famous Belgian street artist called Roa, whose art is inspired by animals and takes him all over the world.
But it is not easy. There is more to street art than meets the eye. “It is different from painting and much more difficult,” Nelen said. For one, the canvas is a large wall. You would need to understand what will work on this huge canvas and how to use the space efficiently. “You work in layers, starting with the background and then moving to the surface. You cannot move back and forth,” he emphasised.
For the same reason, it is difficult to cover up mistakes. “You either paint over it and start from scratch or make it a different painting.”
But there is one supremely important prerequisite for painting on walls — mastering the technique of using the spray can.
Nelen took out a white spray can from his black backpack. “I always carry one with me. You want to try?” he asked. “Sure,” I said, and took the can from him.
“First step, shake the can well before you start using. Otherwise, you won’t get the needed concentration,” Nelen instructed. I shook the can as hard as I could. “Now let us choose the ugliest painting and start spraying over it,” he said, smirking. “I get a kick out of painting over ugly ones.” Nelen pointed to an area on the wall that has been painted over many times. Coincidentally, it’s opposite the painting of the face I admired. “Try your hand here,” he told me graciously.
Shaking the can was much easier than what followed. While it might look easy to hold a spray can and just doodle on walls, creating something meaningful is much more difficult. First of all, even drawing a straight line with the can is difficult. Press the can too hard and it starts to smudge and drip; too little and it fails to make an impression on the wall. Additionally, after a few minutes the can begins to slow you down, your hand begins to shake, and uniform application becomes tough. Less than 10 minutes into it, there is a wide gulf between your enthusiasm and the way you move the can. This makes producing a decent piece of graffiti a distant dream.
“Every beginner will face this problem when he/she starts,” said Nelen. Pointing to a line which was faint and blurry on one of the completed canvases, he said, “This person is fairly new. He wasn’t able to maintain concentration throughout the art.
“Typically, it takes three years to master the technique and move the can the way you want. Unless you are serious and practise regularly, you cannot acquire the skill, as none of the art colleges teach you how to actually use them,” he adds.
If holding a spray can is one problem, thinking up what to draw is another. Suddenly the wall which was so fascinating a while ago becomes intimidating. “You need to know what you are drawing first,” Nelen said. “Is it going to be words or humans or animals? Next, how are you going to express it? Start with an outline in your mind, or as a beginner you can first put it on paper. But be careful. As I said, it is very difficult to cover up mistakes and it is time-consuming,” he cautioned again.
By the time I finished my graffiti, it barely reflected what I wanted to convey — an elephant. The painting had smudged and the shape was wrong. “It is alright. It is very similar to what teen students of mine do. By the time you are on your 10th graffiti, it will be much better,” teased Nelen. He conducts workshops for students and corporates during his free time.
It can take a few hours to a few days to finish a graffiti. That depends on the size. One has to not only master the technique but also develop perseverance and endurance to succeed. Nelen said, “The field has high visibility as everyone who passes by will notice it. It is important, too, if someone wants to make money. I have been featured in local newspapers five times and have got lot of jobs like decorating rooms and covering up bad graffiti in front of houses and business buildings. I have also been involved in the government’s beautifying projects.”
The downside is people begin to associate you with a certain type and it is difficult to break free from that. To sustain interest, you need to be inspired and motivated.
“I take motivation from public appreciation. I often paint from 9 am till dusk; there was this one instance where I was taking a break and a group of people stood in front of my painting, admiring and appreciating my work, not knowing that the artist was beside them. It made me happy and kept me going,” he said, with a laugh.
Has graffiti as an art changed over the years? Nelen said that while the art itself hasn’t undergone any transformation, the way it is regarded has. He believes people are much more aware these days and it is being considered a serious art. He said, “It has found its way into museums too, though it is a point of debate among artists whether street art has place in a museum. The way graffiti is used has changed over the years. Just because it is street art, it does not have to be ugly. Making it beautiful changes the negative image graffiti typically carries,”he added.
Even as he talked, Nelen began to use the spray can. I waited to see what kind of graffiti would emerge and it turned out to be Ganesha. “I love Ganesha. I have a huge Ganesha idol at home,” he revealed. “When I was a kid, my mom got me a toy elephant and I loved it. Though I grew out of that, I never grew out of my fascination for the creature. So when I started searching and came across Lord Ganesha, I realised we share a lot of features. Both of us like to eat. Both of us like sweets, looking at him makes me nostalgic (for the elephant doll he played with as a child),” he sighed, and said he had named his work ‘Nesh’ after Ganesha.
It had been more than an hour and Nelen was beginning to look restless. He denied being bored when I asked him, but his “not really” gave him away. As we parted, I passed the painting I admired again. But somehow its eyes looked alive, as if it was watching me. I wondered again, how long would it last?