Niels ‘Shoe’ Meulman was a pioneer of European graffiti in the ‘80s before moving into graphic design and fine art in the ‘90s. He has been deeply immersed in that world since, with his pieces being part of the permanent collections at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, as well as Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Heading to our shores for the Calligraffiti Upside Down tour, we caught up with the artist, designer and creative director to get the lowdown on his graff roots, his friends Dondi and Rammellzee, and his thoughts on today’s graff scene.
Hi, welcome to Australia. How are you finding it?
At the moment I’m waiting in Terminal 3, London Heathrow airport, so I couldn’t say yet. I have good hope it will be excellent!
Why and when did you start writing?
It was 1979 in Amsterdam when I wrote my first SHOE tag. Why? One answer: because all the kids were doing it. The other answer: to prove and celebrate my existence.
So you’ve been writing for a long time. Are you still active on the street?
Not really. I’d been chased by cops in a dozen countries in the ‘80s, I then went off the graffiti radar working as a graphic designer/art director, and since a few years, I’ve been focusing completely on showing my art to people with unruly taste that have too much money.
I still have a crate of cans in the trunk of my car and do the occasional drunk bombing spree.
I also still do legal walls, but I don’t think that’s what you mean by ‘active on the street’.
What was it like meeting DONDI, Rammellzee and co in the ‘80s? What was it about them that inspired you?
They showed me how to use a fat cap, I showed them where to get drugs in Amsterdam. But on a more serious tip: the idea that these guys invented graffiti art—actually created it out of nothing—and the dedication they had…that was amazing then, and still is now. Apparently some people think that I only briefly met these men you name, at some art opening. In fact, they were dear friends who I hung out with about once a year since the early ‘80s until their deaths. RIP.
How do you feel about where graffiti is at now? How is it different to when you began?
I don’t really feel it is up to me to judge the state of graffiti these days, since I’m not that active. But, when pressed I could tell you that I see four major directions within the scene… I’ve tried to name them: Silly/Def style, Purist/True style, Airbrushy/Fantasy style and Arty/Farty style. These days I fit in the latter category.
It is a collection of many different styles and artists who successfully translated graffiti to the art world. I think it is necessary to become more personal and unique, when making the transition from street to gallery. The other styles… I think all writers fit in this categorisation of mine. Try it!
When/how did you make the transition from writer to fine artist? Was there resistance from the art community?
The art community can be somewhat elitist. But it’s all good. I’ll just keep evolving and we’ll see who picks it up.
Your recent style has been described as ‘abstract expressionism with a calligraphic origin.’ Do you feel this is accurate?
Your Calligraffiti handstyle reminds me a little of that LA latin gang member kinda style. What can you tell me about that?
The blackletter originates from the monks who copied books by candlelight in their medieval monasteries in Europe’s Dark Ages. They would also create wonderful gold leaf initials. They were ‘turning darkness into light’, just like the alchemists were trying to turn lead into gold. In the beginning of the 20th century, only the German empire was still using this blackletter writing. My theory is that, since the Germans didn’t behave very well during that century, the black letter became synonymous with ‘dangerous’. And that’s why it’s being used by all types of gangs, worldwide. Me, I have a completely different association with these shapes. To me, they are about craftsmanship, beauty and enlightenment.
It seems that more and more writers are taking a progressive approach to art and making the switch to fine art. Do you see this as a good thing?
Yeah sure. Like QUIK said, “Go ahead, be an artist!”
What’s the art scene in Amsterdam like? Do you feel there are lots of similar artists, with the same sorts of work ethics and styles, that you can bounce ideas off?
I run a small gallery in Amsterdam with my girlfriend Adele, called Unruly Gallery. Local and international artists have exhibited last year.
I was ‘world famous in Amsterdam’ as a teenager. Now, I focus more on the rest of the world. That’s where the people with unruly taste that have too much money are.
What’s coming up for 2012?
I have a solo show at White Walls (941 Geary) in San Francisco that opens on March 24th. Also looking forward a solo show in Lyon, France at Lorenzotti Gallery. And of course lots of beer drinking, paint throwing and doing the do!