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.”

What lies beneath Groningen’s surface

By Edward J Szekeres and Gabriele Cruciata

There’s more to Groningen than just Vismarkt and Sunny Beach. Those who live differently, in places we see but don’t notice, are forced to the fringes of society. Fiona is trying to tell their stories.

A stately, brick-walled building looks over Hereweg, in the southern part of Groningen. Dotted with rows of windows neatly arranged under the cover of battered roof tiles, it reminds passers-by of its old age. Quirky motorbikes with oversized trunks hanging over their front wheel, nearly block off the entrance with their haphazard parking.

As you come in, hesitant at first at the sight of darkness lurking behind the front door, a long but narrow corridor opens up right in front of you. The dim light is not enough to conceal the pervasive bleakness of the place. White walls on your right, on your left and above your head. “A countless number of people lost their lives in these corridors. Can you imagine it?” says a deep voice coming from a tall woman with a few sporadic freckles under her eyes. “This used to be a hospital.”

Her name is Fiona van den Bergh (30). She’s touring a group of young international students eager to explore the hidden parts of Groningen. But the former medical institution is not just another stop on a hop-on hop-off tour. It’s also Fiona’s home.

The hospital

Fiona runs the Alternative Groningen Tour, a three hour long cycling excursion around the city with an eccentric twist to it. Instead of climbing up the Martini tower and indulging in spectacular views of the surrounding architecture, Fiona takes her guests to the raw, unpolished backside of the city. Guests, not clients, as the tour is only supported by voluntary donations from participants.

“These are places a tourist would never find. Autonomous communities, squats built from scratch with imagination and street art, are the essence of this tour,” she says.

The former hospital where Fiona lives, has been occupied by squatters for nearly half a decade. It is now home to more than 200 people from all over the world. But most of them do not consider themselves squatters anymore. “We are a unique and close-knit community, but we are living here legally. I have my own apartment in the building that’s officially registered with the municipality,” she explains.

The imposing building Fiona calls home, now has its own bike repair stand, a restaurant that cooks up dishes from recycled food, and a vegetable garden. “We all have a role to play here. Some people cook, others help out with general maintenance or tend to the garden. We all do this for free. As a true commune,” explains Fiona as she walks through the rows of vegetables resting on the cultivated soil.

Nothing above Groningen

Fiona, a history graduate, became fascinated by the underground scene after she had travelled around Europe, only to realise how forgotten this group of people had become. “A world without consumerism makes life all the more interesting. People do things not for money, but for idealistic and moral reasons. It makes everything so much more real. Yet, no one seems to care.”

Non-commercialism is Fiona’s main inspiration. She is convinced that a do-it-yourself lifestyle can help people get out of their misery. She serves up her own experience as the best example. “I didn’t have a job before, so I came up with this tour,” she giggles.

But the monthly cycling journey she’s been taking along with a dozen or so participants for three years now, is more than just an extra means of income. It gives Fiona a sense of personal liberation. “It’s an intimate tour about my life. I can be a history teacher and speak about things that I find important and interesting.”

According to a popular local saying that refers to the city’s position in the very north of the Netherlands, there is nothing above Groningen (er gaat niets boven Groningen). But Fiona is on a mission to expose what lies beneath. During the tour, participants visit several spots of street art and alternative living spaces.

Inevitably, they take a peek into the most private parts of complete strangers’ lives. The tour, Fiona says, is the embodiment of personal trust. ”I am not showing monkeys in the zoo. We’re not just visiting buildings on the tour. We’re visiting people. They are all aware of the non-commercial, educational background of the tour and trust me as well as the participants.”

“I love these people”

Although Fiona’s home has now been officially recognised by the municipality as a living space, other squatters and independent communities were not so lucky.  Squatters in a trailer park in Betonbos, a small forest in the east of Groningen, are facing eviction threats from the municipality. Another community occupying an old glass factory in the city’s industrial area, has already received a note of eviction.

Fiona tried to help the squatters by setting up a petition to delay the ejection. She succeeded. The squatters were allowed to stay in the factory for a couple months longer.  

Her activism has had other positive impacts too. People’s interest in Groningen’s alternative scene is growing, and more and more of them offer to volunteer for the tour. “I have become an offbeat information point for several groups of people. A circus and a feminist reading group recently asked me about squatters in the city,” she says.

Fiona cherishes returning customers who are often long-time residents of Groningen. “It shows that there’s always something to be surprised about and inspired by, in this city. Sometimes I learn more from the participants than they learn from me.”

She talks of the city as if she was singing a lullaby to her child. She points to a coffeeshop where she works part-time. Just behind the squeaky front door, a customer tries to tap his credit card onto the payment terminal. It makes an error sound. He tries again.  Error. And again. Error. On the fifth try, he rolls his eyes and says: “Oh, it’s the wrong card”. A sudden stoned laughed fills the room.

Fiona is smiling. She looks up and whispers: “I love these people”.