The freedom of art

By Annewil Schippers

(Contributed reporting Dimitra Karapanagiotou)

Chances are you’ve probably seen the artwork below before. The mural, painted onto the wall next to the police station in the centre of Groningen, is one of the pieces that both Klaas Lageweg and the city are known for. What many don’t know, however, is that Lageweg has installed numerous other artworks around the city. We talk to him to discover what else there is, besides the pigeon, and how he identifies himself as an artist.

Klaas Lageweg’s mural at Rademarkt, titled “Vervlogen Tijden” (Time Flies)

“I’m so sorry, I wasn’t expecting you, I must’ve mixed up the times!” Klaas Lageweg (40) says, while he lets us into his house. Nevertheless, he welcomes us cordially, and so does Billy, his two-year-old dog that Lageweg adopted off the streets of Spain recently. The house is what you would expect from an artist: filled with CDs, plants, and of course, his own artworks.

Lageweg started his career early, as he always enjoyed drawing as a child. But he never went to art school. Only later on in life, he got into graffiti and realised that making art was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. “I was standing naked in front of the mirror when I was 18 and I was thinking what I wanted to do. And I thought about this. ‘This is what I wanna do’. And I did it. So my dream came true.”

Now he makes art that he himself calls “mural art” or “paintings”. His art is known for its bright colours and pixelated details, which Lageweg coined as “realpixelisme”.

Part of what made this dream so appealing to Lageweg was the idea of freedom of expression. For him, making art is a way of living autonomously, of living life his own way. “In my early life I thought I wascrazy, but now I turned it around and think: ‘you are crazy’,” says Lageweg. He follows his own course: “Are you with me? Great! Are you against me? Fuck off!”

That freedom of expression now also comes with literal freedom for him. Lageweg has established himself as an artist, and this way he is able to choose his assignments. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out with customers: “They tell me ‘I don’t want this’, okay, ‘bye bye!’. You have to learn to say ‘no’,” he says.

Freedom to choose is crucial for the art Lageweg makes. Because even though he is known for more manifest works, like the pigeon at Rademarkt, many of his murals are located in places that are hidden. Lageweg likes the obscure, the unknown. He tries to constantly create a feeling of anonymity. And as long as he is satisfied with the artwork and can add it to his collection, it doesn’t really matter if the location is popular or not. “Every place has its own fantasy,” according to Lageweg. Especially if that place is “fucked up” and “spooky”.

Lageweg’s favourite mural in this category is the one he painted onto Fort La Chartreuse in Liège, Belgium. The fort is completely abandoned, but it is a popular Urbex spot, visited by photographers from all over the world, looking for the thrill of sneaking into places that are under tight watch.

Klaas Lageweg’s mural at the Colosseum skatepark, titled “Give me the food and let me grow”

But in Groningen, too, Lageweg has left his mark in unexpected places. Take the Colosseum, on the outskirts of the city. The large concrete building, mainly used as a skatepark, is covered in graffiti and mural art, including a colourful bird that Lageweg painted in 2016.

However, nowadays, the artwork is completely covered in ivy. But Lageweg doesn’t really care. In fact, he was aware that the piece would eventually disappear under the ivy, even before he made it. “They were already busy trimming the tree on the wall, but I said ‘No, stop! I want to see it!’ Because I want to put the piece into the environment like it is. So I played with that,” he says.

Klaas Lageweg’s mural at Oosterpoort, titled “The Pheasant”.
Looking at this photograph, he said “kids play balls and I spray walls”, quoting another mural artist.

The role of the environment is also why many of his works are centred around birds. But the eye plays a large role in his murals too. “The eye is the soul of everybody, it’s like a diamond. But people hardly pay attention to them,” Lageweg says. Just like the “Pheasant”, one of his murals in the East of Groningen, people pass by the things that really matter, the hidden corners, without stopping to take them in.

“We’re in a rat race,” he says. “School, work, making money. After this interview, you’re probably running off to get back to university in time and write the article. It never stops. The whole system is ready to collapse. So we’re living on the edge with a lot of people on this planet. But could I change it? Maybe, yes. Maybe with my art.”

Lageweg believes art can help us through self-expression and identification. “Maybe we all have ‘it’, but it’s hidden, by society,” he says. “We have to break that wall.”

A story of loss

By Annewil Schippers and Juliane Glahn

The synagogue in Groningen, located on the Folkingestraat, is one of the few noticeable landmarks that hint at the street’s connection to the Jewish community. But there are also several smaller artworks that commemorate the losses the community suffered during the Second World War. One of these artworks is Portaal by sculptor Gert Sennema, a shut door with no handle, which symbolizes a story that cannot be told.

As part of the project Verbeeld Verleden (which translates into “images of the past”) commissioned by the municipality of Groningen and the Jewish community, five artworks were installed in the Folkingestraat, more than 20 years ago, in 1997.

“They had the idea of making artworks as a remembrance of the history of the Folkingestraat,” says Sennema. The street was the center of the Jewish community in Groningen. Due to the war, most of the community disappeared – only few returned.

In this video, Sennema explains how he created that piece that now almost blends in with the wall of the building, which now houses a café.

Gert Sennema was born in Grijpskerk, a village in the province of Groningen, in 1962. After briefly following classes to become a drawing and sculpting teacher, he eventually switched to studying sculpting at Academie Minerva, an art school in Groningen, and graduated in 1989. He’s been creating art almost nonstop since.

Hidden artwork

After being asked to design a piece for Verbeeld Verleden, he started thinking of an idea. While doing that, he took the logistics of the street into consideration, aware that a large piece would obstruct the narrow path. “I like art that tells the story in relation to the space in which it is made,” Sennema explains.

Rather than creating a large monument, he kept the door simple and barely noticeable. “I made a small stone step before the door, and that’s my pedestal you could say. It’s the only thing to get attention for the door,” Sennema says.

Hiding the artwork is part of Sennema’s intention in telling the story. Much like the window next to the door – blocked by bricks – the door is not something that can be opened. “A window where you can’t see through is interesting as a metaphor for inaccessibility,” he says, adding “I wanted it to be a secret story.”

Everyday, countless people cross through the street that connects the main train station and city center. Sennema doesn’t expect many passengers to notice the door. He sees it as part of what his artwork represents.

“I wanted to tell the story of a loss of a people, a loss of space, a loss of story. That’s the consequence.”

The Godfather of Tattoos

by William Macmaster

Captain, Bouncer, Mayor of the Red-Light District and the Godfather of Tattoos. This the story of a true living legend.   

Sitting in a class one day, a 9-year-old Willem Meijer tattoos a snake from the top of his right finger, down past the knuckle of his left pinkie using a crown pen. This was the first tattoo the man who was to become The Godfather of tattoos ever got.

More than 60 years later and with “tens of thousands” of tattoos under his belt, this same 9-year-old boy sits before me. Now a monster of a man, tall and bulky, Willem leans back looking at me from a black leather chair in his studio. Visible is this very same serpent. Only slightly faded, the tip of its tongue points toward a butterfly in the centre of his backhand, on the opposite hand, a tiger. Below his rolled-up sleeves, a forearm covered in tattoos lead up behind his jumper and remerge at his collar, where an inked chain loops around his neck. He is a careful, thoughtful man. A serious man, intimidating in presence. A man bristling with stories.

What led him to his work as a tattoo artist, and perhaps his numerous other ventures throughout his life, was the same scant disregard for authorities he demonstrated in that same classroom as a young man. He claims he began tattooing for the simple reason that it was a taboo. “I was in a taboo sphere,” he explained, “The people who got tattoos back then were attractive to me and I loved the idea, so I thought I could make some money from that.”

From age 11, he worked on the streets alone, tattooing his friends, himself and anyone else who could find him.  At the time, there was only a handful of other tattoo artists, none of which would share the secrets of the art and threats of violence to each other were rife in the community. The only way to do it was to teach yourself.  Willem stayed away from the threats though. “I was a big kid” he chuckles, revealing his smile for the first time. A smile that resurfaces more and more as he continues recounting tales and the intimidating persona fades.

From The Streets to the Seas

Willem left school at 14 and headed into his first job as a factory worker. However, this was short-lived, as he accidentally started a fire and had to flee to avoid retribution. He escaped the Netherlands by finding work on a riverboat sailing to Germany.

He worked up the ranks in this trade to the point that he achieved Captain status. As a Captain, he was able to travel the world, out at sea for months at a time, sailing to exotic locations across the world, arriving in distant ports as far from his homeland as Argentina and Pakistan.              

Willem & Friends in the 70s

In each port, he found new canvasses for him to practice his skills on, taking every opportunity he got to improve. “One time in Sri Lanka, in two days I tattooed two arms” he explained. This was how he managed to hone his skills. “The more you do it, the better you get. I met a lot of people and they all wanted different stuff, so it forces you to be an all-rounder.”

The Mayor of The Red Light District

Upon finishing his time at sea, he returned to The Netherlands, turning his hobby into his profession. Opening his first shop in the 1970s. The store was placed on the street adjacent to the Red-Light District of Groningen. He still remains there today, just a few doors down from the original location.

Here he committed himself, alongside tattooing, working as a club bouncer and occasional gardening, to helping the girls working on the street.

The proprietor of 48 windows, he oversaw by far the most and was in charge of the day to day operations of a significant section of the district. 

He dedicated a huge amount of time and effort to this cause, making sure the girls were ok, picking up the rent and creating a cosy and pleasant atmosphere for the girls to work in. He stayed in close contact with the Mayor of Groningen who listened intently to his requests to improve the area.  

Much of the infrastructure you see on the district has come as a result of Willem. The toilets that pop up in the evening, for example, were the brainchild of Willem and he once managed to convince the council to repave the whole street. 

His notoriety with the girls and restless effort convincing the city to improve the street eventually led to many referring to him as the “Mayor of the Red Light District”.

A Remarkable Figure, Quite The Character

For more than 30 years, he worked day and night tattooing people from miles away and helping to ensure the girls on the red-light district lived as comfortably as it was in his power to make them. Until he decided to move to Thailand for 9 months. 

Thailand is a place that remains close to his heart. He tells me he went there “for the girls” and indeed, he met 3 of his 8 previous wives there. It is also where he still spends the rainy Dutch winters each year and another place where he is also a well-known character, even after a 7-year absence.

“He was still such a boss there,” explains fellow tattoo artist and close friend, Jenny, who joined him one year. “Everywhere we went together it was like ‘Hey Willem!’ It was amazing, really special” she laughs. Jenny is a charming lady, full of laughter who translates the conversation between Willem and I.  She is carrying the torch for Willem now in his shop, and he refers to her as “the boss now”.

More than merely a co-worker though, the pair clearly have a strong bond and are birds of a feather in many respects. Even after nearly a decade of working in close proximity, she is still learning about this man and enthusiastically describes his tales with endearing pride. “You can go anywhere with him, and people know him. He is a remarkable figure, I think. Quite the character.”

Willem and Jenny

Willem is clearly a legend among those who know him, as well as being notorious in the tattoo world. Back in 2010 at Amsterdam Tattoo convention, he was invited as a member of the Golden Oldies teams. This is where he claimed his title, after 60 years of tattooing, as The Godfather of Tattoos.

With so many years in the industry and gaining such notoriety in his trade, you would think it would mean a lot to the man. However, in sobering modesty, he simply shrugs, and says “It’s nothing to be proud of. It is what it is”.

These comments are somewhat misleading though, as even after 60 years in the game, making him the longest operating tattoo artist in the Netherlands, his passion remains burning, with no plans to hang up his needle anytime soon. “As long as my hands and my eyes will allow me, I will keep doing it”.  

Despite his opinion, it cannot be denied, he is a true icon who has made his mark on the world his own way. He will live on long as a legend to those who have known him for exactly that reason. At 72, Willem remains as truly one of a dying breed. A member of a generation that can never be illuminated and the living embodiment of an old school spirit which like an old tattoo has faded over time, but will always remain a part of history.

An International Theatre Festival in the Heart of Groningen

By Dimitra Karapanagiotou

Jonge Harten Theaterfestival, a performance arts festival for young people that brings theatre to the spotlight, is coming back to Groningen for nine days, from the 16th to the 24th of November. The festival will take place in five different locations in the heart of the city.

With a 20-year history, Jonge Harten is an international festival that gives young performers the stage and the opportunity to showcase their art. The wide range of performances and activities that include experimental theatre, live music, movie screenings, discussions and more, attract around 10,000 visitors each year.

At Jonge Harten theatre and art enthusiasts can enjoy a wide selection of theatre, music and art performances in both English and Dutch. “The last few years we’ve been quite Dutch-oriented, but we now see the importance of our international population here in Groningen,” says Marc Maris, the director of Jonge Harten “We wanted to create a balance and make it approachable for both Dutch and non-Dutch audiences.”

The festival is made possible with the help of its team and over 70 volunteers, including internationals. Stefana, an international student with a love for theatre, joined the volunteer team because she “would like to get to know people from this world of theatre, and become more rooted in the theatre culture of the Netherlands.”

This year the themes that are explored through the performances focus on awkwardness and discomfort. “We chose this theme because we believe that the polarization we see in the world right now may be a result of not being able to deal with our own awkwardness and the tension we feel when meeting someone different from us,” says Maris.

The subjects of the performances range from human relationships, intimacy and inequality, to sensual pleasures and the power of silence. Maris notes that he “chose themes that are taboo, performers that look awkward or that have a different kind of look than the dominant notion of beauty.”

During the festival there will also be “awkward after performance talks” where the audience will get to share their experiences.

Every evening a party with a DJ set will take place behind the Grand Theatre and the festival will end with a party on the 24th of November in the Grand Theatre.

The festival aims to bring young people together through art for an affordable price. In addition to single performance tickets, day tickets are also available, with a special discount for people under 30.

For more information, visit http://www.jongeharten.nl/.

Stolen Van Gogh Paintings Found “By Chance”

By Gabriele Cruciata

Back in 2016, the Italian police discovered two stolen Van Gogh paintings in a suspected mafia boss’ house. An anonymous source told The Stand that officers weren’t looking for the missing paintings.

On the 7th December 2002 two men climbed a wall of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. They broke in through a window and stole two paintings that hung on a wall on the first floor. Fourteen years later the Italian police found the paintings in Castellammare di Stabia, 25 kilometres away from Naples. “Those paintings were found by chance during an anti-mafia inspection,” tells an anonymous policeman The Stand.

“By chance”, a key expression. “That day we were called to inspect a mafia boss’ villa. We didn’t expect to find those masterpieces at all”, the source said. Raffaele Imperiale, the suspect, had collected Van Gogh’s works for many years. He’s on a trial now. His lawyers are trying to get his sentence reduced because of his collaboration with the police. But our scoop provides information not known to the judges, who are ruling in the Imperiale trial.

One of the stolen paintings is titled View of the Sea at Scheveningen (1882) and it is “one of the first works Van Gogh made without the supervision of his teacher Anton Mauve,” says Axel Rüger, Van Gogh Museum’s Director. The other one, Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen (1884), “was made while the painter was living with his parents, therefore this work is of biographical value as well” he adds.

After the two paintings were returned to Amsterdam two years ago, the museum organised a press conference. On that occasion, Rüger declared: “We can close the door on this particularly painful period in our history. I’ve been looking forward tremendously to the day when we could show these two gems to our public again. That day has come, and they finally have a face and a voice again.”

The Italian policeman told The Stand Imperiale could not have easily sold the paintings on the illegal market. “People who steal artworks are generally excellent thieves, but terrible art critics” he said. “They usually don’t know how important some documents are. Nobody will illegally buy a Van Gogh without the documents stating the painting is original”.