Where Walls Can Talk: How to Find the Best Street Art in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is world-renowned for the works of Vermeer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and other Dutch masters of the 17th century and beyond. Yet its cultural scene extends to contemporary creatives who’ve left their marks on walls, warehouses, apartment buildings, public sidewalks and urban utilities.

Spanish street artist Andrea Michaelsson, aka Btoy, turns a utility meter into art in Amsterdam’s Nieuw-West.

By tagging the city, street artists can maintain a sense of anonymity while expressing their creative visions and messages of resistance, protest and hope. Along the way, many develop distinctive personas that catapult them into mainstream culture while keeping them inextricably rooted underground.

Street art appears not only on building walls, but also on city sidewalks and public utilities.

In a city that reveres tolerance and personal expression, an eclectic range of provocative, socially conscious street art includes everything from giant murals like the one of Anne Frank at NDSM Wharf to quirky statues like De Blauwe Vioolspeler (The Blue Violin Player) in the Jordaan, and colorful mosaics of aliens by French street artist “Invader” in numerous neighborhoods. In the Dutch capital, these are among today’s survivors of a perishable genre.

Some think The Blue Violin Player in the Jordaan was created by a local doctor. But no one really knows. Sometimes called “Man Trying to Catch Tram 10” or “Man with Violin Case,” the sculpture mysteriously appeared on the Second Marnixplantsoen in 1982.

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

By its nature, street art is impermanent—vulnerable to vandalism, corporate greed and neighborhood gentrification. Casualties in Amsterdam’s former street art HQ in the historic center include the flamboyant street tiles and graffiti art on Wijdesteeg and Spuistraat’s magnificent “snake house.” Once a haven for squatters, the latter has been reincarnated as pricey beige condominiums above posh boutiques. Spared from the wreckage on Spuistraat is bold, blue Vrankrijk, now a legalized squat and center for political activism, vegan meals and punk concerts.

Bold, blue Vrankrijk is the sole survivor of gentrification that removed much of the street art on Spuistraat, former HQ of the genre in Amsterdam. Long gone are flamboyant street tiles and graffiti art on Wijdesteeg and Spuistraat’s magnificent “snake house.”

The urban poetry of local legend Laser 3.14 also is routinely removed by the municipality almost as soon as it appears. Known for provocative soundbite-like tags on boarded-up windows at temporary constructions, his graffiti is elusive by design, created to reveal an ever-evolving urban discourse. Recognizing its cultural significance, the Amsterdam Museum has added several of Laser 3.14’s salvaged pieces to its collection.

A Changing Genre

While the Dutch capital may no longer be an open canvas for graffiti artists, the city is punctuated with mini to mammoth artistic surprises by local and international artists who’ve made their imprint. As street art has shed its reputation for being nothing more than vandalism and gained status in the art world, local organizations have commissioned major works by both individual artists and collectives.

Street art at NDSM includes an ever-changing array of works in an eclectic range of artistic styles.

Rather than stealthy, illegal tagging in the dead of night, large projects require concerted efforts that can entail the use of lifts and projectors, as well as traditional brushes and spray cans. Unlike old-school graffiti tags, most major works in Amsterdam are now created with both local and municipal input and consent. In the city’s democratic spirit, a lengthy approval process typically involves community meetings that allow everyone to have their say.

Street Art Museum Amsterdam

SAMA intern Jesse Scott leads walking and bike tours that showcase open-air artistry in Nieuw-West.

When Ukrainian native Anna Stolyarova immigrated to Amsterdam in 1998, she couldn’t help but notice the poverty, crime and unemployment of her Nieuw-West neighborhood. With its bland, functional architecture and endlessly repeated identical apartment blocks—a stark contrast to the gabled, Golden Age canal mansions in Amsterdam’s historic center—the post-World War II district may have reminded her of the homeland she left.

Colombian street artist Bastardilla uses a multi-story chimney to symbolize cultural barriers in diverse Nieuw-West. As a Muslim woman peeks through it, she can connect with those on the other side.

Recognizing urban art as a tool for engaging her predominantly Turkish and Moroccan neighbors in social dialogue while re-branding Nieuw-West, Stolyarova founded the Street Art Museum Amsterdam (SAMA) in 2012. Conceived as “an eco-museum where art and stories come together,” SAMA has no gallery walls. Its growing collection of 200+ artworks by internationally acclaimed street artists is spread over the streets and buildings of Nieuw-West, a little-known district about 20 minutes west of Amsterdam’s tourist-packed canal ring by public transport.

Vermeer’s milkmaid appears with a cheeky bit of thigh in “Glory,” a SAMA-commissioned mural by street art icons El Pez and Danny Recall in Nieuw-West.

The process for creating SAMA’S urban art is both lawful and democratic, explains Canadian intern Jesse Scott. “After we gain legal access to a site, we conduct research, find an artist, commission work, and gather input from the community.” Locals have a voice in all works through a series of focus groups that typically lasts from four to six months.

Think street art is about stealthy tagging in the wee hours? Watch this timelapse video of the creation of “Glory” to see how the genre has changed. Video credit: Anna Stolyarova

“Fatherhood” by Colombian artist Stinkfish will soon be lost to gentrification in Nieuw-West. SAMA is in the process of digitizing the art to preserve it for posterity.

You can view much of SAMA’s collection on a private or group walking (or bike) tour that follows a ±4km route through Nieuw-West. Along with stories about immigration, inclusion and environmental justice, the two-hour adventures showcase a range of open-air artistry designed to connect the diverse Nieuw-West community while inspiring a change of perception about the area. The goal coincides with the city’s aim to draw visitors to lesser-known neighborhoods outside Amsterdam’s tourist-packed center.

Tragic details about the creation of “Destiny” by Skount are revealed on 2+-hour SAMA walking and bike tours.

Street Art at NDSM Wharf

Since 2015, Street Art Today founder Peter Coolen has been inviting international street artists to Amsterdam to create mammoth works for what he says will be the largest street art museum in the world. Painted on canvases as tall as a four-story building, the works represent a new generation of street art that will be less vulnerable to urban threats and accessible to a wider audience in a single venue.

Coolen and his team have amassed a collection that now includes 100+ works by leading street artists from around the world, all specially created for the still-unnamed museum. When building renovations and curation are complete, the paintings will hang inside Lasloods, a former hangar at NDSM Wharf, Amsterdam-Noord’s defunct shipyard that’s risen from the ashes of its industrial past, transforming into a mecca for creatives and hipsters.

A giant mural of Anne Frank by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra marks the spot of Amsterdam’s future street art museum at NDSM Wharf.

Now projected to open to the public in 2020, Coolen’s project gained momentum with the unveiling of “Let Me Be Myself, ” a 24-meter-high portrait of Anne Frank on the facade of his future museum. Created by world-renowned Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra, the striking work features the geometrical shapes and bright colors that characterize the style of the official artist for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. With his 3,000-square-meter wall in Amsterdam-Noord, Kobra holds the record for world’s biggest mural.

NDSM Wharf’s street art scene is ever-evolving.

A Map for Finding Amsterdam Street Art

Since it’s scattered throughout the city, Amsterdam street art can be difficult to find if you don’t know where to look. Thanks to an interactive map by defshop, 24 artworks in the historic canal ring, the Jordaan, Oost and Amsterdam-Noord can be easily located on a free, self-guided walking or bike tour. Download the interactive map and open it on your smartphone to navigate your way to specific paintings and sculptures. Map icons are color-coded according to location; click on each one to learn the backstory about the artist and neighborhood of each work, as well as details about how to get to it via public transport.

Contemporary street art combines the tagging of yesteryear with bold, colorful graphic images.

The Future of Street Art in Amsterdam

Whether you choose to view Amsterdam street art on your own or on a guided SAMA tour through Nieuw-West, your experience is likely to yield one big reveal: as in other cities around the world, what was once considered guerrilla art is now a legitimate genre.

As the controversial graffiti tagging that began in New York City in the rebellious 1960s has evolved, artists who previously vandalized public spaces are now being paid for work that engages, entertains and provokes. Rather than criminalizing and erasing their artistic statements, organizations and municipalities are partnering with street artists to make their work accessible to everyone, in non-traditional venues with little resemblance to museums.

It’s easy to miss this cheery wire sculpture on a utility pole in non-touristy Nieuw-West. Learn the backstory on a SAMA walking tour.

While street art has always endeavored to bring about change, it is inherently subject to change itself. Even as it’s evolved, it remains an art form with an elusive timespan, subject to the whims and desires of politicians, developers and municipalities. With its fate out of its maker’s hands, how a work of street art changes or disappears is ultimately decided by the city that frames it.

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