Amsterdam ranks as the mother of the graffiti street art scene in Europe. Youngsters were ‘putting shit’, the inner circle jargon for spray painting public fixtures and fittings in the middle of the night, as early as the 1970s. This was well before anyone in London or Paris even thought about engaging in such questionable nocturnal pleasures. The gangs that emerged around the art form tended to be involved with the punk and hip hop scene in those early days, and later on skating and BMX bikes were associated with the ‘crews’, as the artists refer to multiples of their kind.
Currently, the most famous Amsterdam crews are USA (United Street Artists), TMP, 3rd Eye or LF (The Lame Face), which have been in existence for over a decade. The scene is relatively influenced by New York street art. Graffiti artists call themselves ‘writers’ or ‘bombers’ and a can of spray paint is a ‘bomb’. Getting caught is something a writer/bomber still dreads, despite increasing recognition even from public officials for this art form. Police usually lock up crew members for the night, but have the power to keep them in custody for up to three days. A judge will be lenient only once, but repeating offenders can get themselves into a real financial pickle, as they are held liable for the cleaning costs which are €150 per square meter.
In a bizarre twist of fate, puts its own stamp on graffiti art, as most of it emerges in spots that are relatively easy to scrub down, such as doors, gates and fences. Whether what the population of Amsterdam is forced to look at when dawn rises is ever any good is open for debate, but the city authorities do commission various artists to produce works on canvas, and promote exhibitions in official museums.
For those who want to experience the art as raw as it is on the streets, there are various ways of getting involved. You can go on a tour of the most recent works with AllTourNative, an organisation that specialises in street art, as well as many other weird and wonderful things (of which there are many in Amsterdam, believe me). The guides are flexible and you will have the option of going on foot, taking a bike ride or touring the canals by boat. All three types of tour will take you around the coolest spots that the regular tourist industry habitually ignores. You will see graffiti, stickered and wallpapered posters, off-the-wall art galleries, visit artist communities and even see a few little natural wonders.
You can also join Amsterdam’s resident street artist, who takes groups of people on two hour walking tours starting in the red light district. The tour covers large chunks of the origins of street art in the Dutch capital, as well as numerous walls of fame, tag and sticker activities.
There are various shops that cater to graffiti activities, the most famous of which is Henxs Henxs. The staff there can put you in contact with the crews. You can buy graffiti related art in this shop, which is located in St. Antoniebreestraat, just a stone’s throw from the Waterlooplein. There’s also an art studio called Hanazuki at Vijzelstraat 87, which pretty much does the same thing as Henxs Henxs.