Amsterdam Street Art
In the 1980s, John Nation of Bristol visited Amsterdam. At this time the Dutch city was at its high watermark of creativity and subcultural excellence. John Nation was particularly inspired by the quality and inventiveness of the street art which he found there. He took this inspiration with him back to the ‘difficult’ neighbourhood of Barton Hill in Bristol and almost single handedly started the graffiti movement in that city, which in turn led to an explosion of subcultural diversity there which blossomed in the triphop of Massive Attack and Tricky and the phenomenon of street art which gave the world Banksy.
In the ’80s, Amsterdam would lead the world in aligning local issues like homelessness, city corruption, lack of public space, lack of funding for creative work, with wider global left leaning movements. Anti Apartheid, Anti Fascism, Squatters Rights, Gender Politics, Drugs Legislation and so on.
In New York, Basquiat was beginning to be noticed, partly because of the support from Andy Warhol, and some street art was tentatively moving into galleries. But graffiti and urban spray can art was mostly associated with tags and bombs on the side of speeding subway trains. In Amsterdam however, because of the burgeoning squatters movements from the 1970s, many properties moved from private ownership into public space, what once had been semi derelict unused buildings were now becoming vibrant social centres, run by communities. Large warehouse were being transformed into cultural, social and artistic urban hubs. As the old buildings were possessed and renovated by local autonomous groups so they were also painted, gilded, decorated, adorned and beautified. And not just tags and slogans. It became commonplace to walk around the city of Amsterdam at the height of the squatters activities in the ’80s and be overwhelmed with images of delight and fun. Political cartoons, post-modern ancient Egyptian wall paintings, anarcho punk landscapes, psychedelic murals, Rivera-esque social commentary artworks, stencils referencing a vast array of characters from our collective cultural history, the streets of the city became a riot of colour (these were not the only riots the city would experience in the 80s).
In the ’90s the city fathers of Amsterdam introduced a new mayor, new ideas and regulations, and the squatters movement and the squats were all systematically squeezed until the subculture was asphyxiated, sucked dry, brutalised by corporate ideology and beaten into the ground. There are hardly any large social alternative centres, squats, autonomously run urban projects any more. The old buildings are left to stand empty, decay, fall down or be knocked down, to be replaced by luxury apartments, generic shopping malls or safe businesses. The city is a shadow of its former self, almost a museum to what it once was. In the city centre, once a hive of artistic activity and life, there is hardly a lick of creative paint to be seen.