Calligraffiti pioneer Niels “Shoe” Meulman tells us that he’s been having a great time during the opening of Beyond the Streets in London, where he is showing some new work that meditates on his path and represents this moment in his evolution. The unruly and elegant Dutch contemporary artist, designer, and calligrapher says that seeing his peers and heroes in person and on display in the exhibition reminds him of why he fell in love with graffiti in the 1980s.
Now principally a painter, Shoe continues in calligraphy and design and even teaches, but to get him excited here at the opening, show him what appears to be a precise replica of the “Duck Rock” boombox carried by Malcolm McLaren in front of Keith Harings’ wall on Houston Street in the 80s. Featured on the album cover of the same name in 1983, the artwork was designed by style writing master Dondi and designer Nick Egan against a backdrop by Haring. It’s a perfect nexus point for this prominent figure in the world of urban art and design – a point he doubles down on by rolling up his shirt sleeve to show you his bicep tattooed with a wild-styled “Duck Rock.”
We asked Shoe to tell us about his three-year triptych presented here at Beyond the Streets in London’s Saatchi Gallery, and he took us on a trip through his own memories and experiences to arrive at this moment.
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be an artist. Even though I didn’t see graffiti as an art form in the beginning. I mean, all the kids were writing some kind of sobriquet in 1980’s Amsterdam and –apart from Dr. Rat (1960-1981) and friends– there wasn’t much artistic going on. Until I saw what they were doing on New York subway cars, and later in museums and galleries.
When Dondi (1961-1998) and I were hanging out in Amsterdam in 1984, I proudly told him, my mentor, that I was going to drop out of school to study graphic art. There, I was just in time to learn many obsolete graphic techniques. One of them was metal typesetting (letterpress) with its typical case; a big, undeep wooden drawer with compartments for each glyph of the alphabet, cast in lead. Every size would have been cut by hand, in reverse. It was real easy to mix up the d, b, q and p.
Ever since those early days of writing graffiti, I always felt that what we were doing was part of something much bigger. Something old and dirty, as Ol’ Dirty Bastard (1968-2004) would later tell us. Maybe it was because of the teachings of my other mentor, the iconoclast Rammellzee (1960-2010) who stated in his rhymes with Gregorian chants that what we were doing started in Medieval catacombs.
Before Gutenberg invented his wood block printing press, which lead to this moveable type setting, books were being copied by hand by monks, who I see as the graffiti writers of their age. Just like us, they were traveling with books, comparing handstyles, driven by competition and togetherness. But of course writing itself is much older than that. The oldest cave drawings (mostly done by women, recent research shows) were the beginning of letters. The letter ‘A’ derives from the sound and drawing of an ox. Letters have figurative origins. Words are images. Writing is painting.
I feel connected to all of this and very excited to see where writing culture will go in the future. Already so much has happened. For instance when I first named my work Calligraffiti in 2005, I never imagined that it would become the world wide art form it is now. And whether is was in caves, catacombs or the subway systems, the culture began under ground and is having a peek above ground. My piece for Beyond the Streets is about that.”
Artist: Niels Shoe Meulman
Title: WRITING IS PAINTING AND PRINTING
A triptych consisting of three pieces:
Title: THE INVENTION OF WRITING MARKS THE END OF PREHISTORY
medium: acrylic and ink on linen
size: ± 400 x 280 cm (± 13 x 9 feet)
Title: FROM PAINTING TO PRINTING AND BACK AGAIN
medium: acrylic and spray paint on ten stretched cotton canvases
size (total): ± 160 x 160 cm (± 63 x 63 inch)
Title: UNAMBIDEXTROUS LETTER R
medium: stone lithography print on handmade Japanese paper
size: ± 32 x 43 cm (± 12.5 x 17 inch)
Beyond The Streets – London is open for the general public at Saatchi Gallery and tickets are available now for booking through saatchigallery.com/tickets
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