‘This is going to be the heart of the upcoming street-art festival in Rotterdam’, says creative director Daniël Claessens (46) of ALL CAPS, artistic lead for the festival. Sitting on a picnic bench in front of the listed domes of the former Feyenoord gasworks in the Mallegatpark, with the Persoonshaven in the background, Daniël continues: ‘Everyone is welcome to this free festival from 4 to 11 September’.

‘To my mind, Rotterdam is a pre-eminent city for street art because of the many artists here. But every Rotterdammer is also familiar with ‘opzoomeren‘, the project which encourages you and your neighbours to make your immediate surroundings cleaner, pleasanter and more sociable – and so more liveable. Just like ‘opzoomers’, street art artists want to make Rotterdam a nicer place to be. After all, street art helps us to experience our environment differently. It does that for me at any rate. I feel more comfortable and secure when I am surrounded by beautiful art on the street. Rotterdam has a huge appeal for artists; hardly surprising given the many splendid museums in the city’.

RET 'Aardig Onderweg Award'

This will be the 5th edition of the street-art festival, so how did it all start? Says Daniël: ‘Dave Vanderheijden, the founder of All Caps, called me about 10 years ago with the idea of bringing street art to the city. The municipality of Rotterdam were initially thinking of throwing a big party, perhaps on the Coolsingel and Schouwburgplein? The idea was to increase the appeal of the city for young people, but Dutch weather is a bit unpredictable, and any outdoor event can easily be spoiled by rain, so we decided against it. After that, the idea was raised to have Rotterdam artists produce wall paintings. Dave had seen something like that in Lisbon. One bonus is that the city benefits from a lasting asset. We defined a route that could be followed using an app. The wall paintings, routing and app won us the RET ‘Aardig Onderweg Award’. Among other things, we won a trip to Hawaii, which is a street art paradise as well as a tropical one. We saw more than 100 artists working on walls of varying sizes there. The vibe was so impressive that we wanted something like that for Rotterdam too’. And that is what happened. 

Zero tolerance policy

When Dave contacted Daniël, there was still a zero-tolerance policy in Rotterdam where graffiti was concerned. Says Daniël: ‘The Roteb (municipal cleaning service) responded immediately to any reports of graffiti, even if, for example, a shopkeeper had commissioned an artist to spray a roller shutter or a wall. Nowadays we have practice walls and tolerance zones in the city’.

Wow effect

For this year’s festival, Daniël has carefully selected 17 international street artists, among them 5 Rotterdammers: ‘They will be crafting street art exclusively for our festival. In making the selection, I took into account who really has the wow factor and who is innovative in terms of using colour and shape’. Visitors will have the opportunity to watch the selected artists working out in the open, but also within one of the gas domes. Daniël explains: ‘Three artists are going to make sculptures; they have moved on from painting walls to making sculpture. Our line-up also features intervention artists, who make you see the city from a different perspective’. He mentions a work of art by street artist Spenser Little by way of example: on the Noordereiland, Spenser has made a work depicting a woman playing a harp, using a roll of steel cable and a pair of pliers. The way in which he has positioned the work transforms the Erasmus Bridge into a harp.

Summer camp feeling

Daniël promises that this going to be an exciting festival, although he prefers to keep the precise agenda to himself for a while. He feels it would be better for us to attend the festival and experience the ‘summer-camp’ feeling for ourselves. Eventually, though, he takes us to Rotterdam-Zuid train station, near the Mallegatpark, to admire two large wall paintings made during last year’s edition of the festival. One of them is ‘Sheep creep in wolf garb’ by Nils Westergard, a Belgian-American street artist and film maker from Richmond, Virginia. The other is ‘Enjoy the Journey’ by the British artist INSA. The special thing about this artist is his use of augmented reality. Using the GIF-ITI app, aiming a camera at the artwork triggers an animation.

Adrenaline boost

Daniël was 13 years old when he first came into contact with street art: ‘My sister, who is 4 ½ years older than me, had classmate whose hobby was graffiti. Later on, when I studied Architecture at the Polytechnic on the G.J. de Jonghweg in Rotterdam, I got graffiti commissions for roller shutters, children’s rooms and shop interiors. At first it was just a hobby, alongside my studies, but when I’d finished college there was such a flow of enquiries that I plunged into the graffiti business. That is how I ended up in applied arts, the commercial side of graffiti, carrying out commissions from large brands and government institutions, but after a while the lack of artistic freedom started to oppress me more and more. Fortunately, that was when I got the liberating phone call from Dave that eventually led to the annual street-art festival. It still gives me a tremendous adrenaline boost’.

My selection