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Salvation through Street Art: a conversation with Judith de Leeuw
Photo provided by Judith

Photo provided by Judith

Two years ago, Dutch artist Judith de Leeuw spotted a street corner in Amsterdam that captured her attention. The location was perfect. It was the wall of Boulangerie Le Mortier, at the corner of Vijzelgracht and Fokke Simonszstraat, right in Amsterdam’s Central district. She created a solemn portrait of a Amy Winehouse.

The wall was covered in ugly graffiti, and the owner of the building was more than happy for Judith to paint over it with a new creation. This wall was the perfect opportunity to express herself in a public space, right in the center of the city she loves.

This new creation changed her life.

Over beers at a little cafe in central Amsterdam, we spoke with Judith about the inspiration for this mural, how it transformed her career, and why she thinks art saved her life.

Photo provided by Judith

Photo provided by Judith

When did start making art?

I’ve been drawing portraits since I was four years old. I still have a portrait I drew of my father when I was five years old. As I got older, I started doodling in class. I’d always get poor scores on my Biology tests because the teacher didn’t like my drawings. To be honest, no one really liked my drawings back then.

How did you start doing graffiti?

Around 13 years old I became a pretty big problem child. I was smoking too much weed and at one point I just stopped going to school. I became more and more rebellious until I found graffiti. I found a paint shop around the corner called HENXS, which I still visit every week. I was so nervous at first, because I thought graffiti was something associated with criminals and aggressive behavior. I was so nervous when I walked in that my hands were shaking. In the end I chose a color that doesn’t work well at all. I chose pink and painted arrows everywhere. That was terrible and pretty shameful but oh well, you’ve got to start somewhere!

street art - judith image high res

I then found a group of friends through graffiti. All we did together was drawing, painting, and graffiti. When I look back on it, I think it saved my life. If I didn’t find graffiti I think I would have done something else that would have taken me down a bad path.

How did you go from painting arrows to creating amazing pieces all over the world?

I started studying art education and began to combine my love of portraits and graffiti. For the first time I tried making portraits with spray cans. At first it was really bad. When people see my work now they say, “how do you do that?” but they don’t know that it’s taken years of practice to get here. The past few years, I’ve been using spray cans pretty much every day and every night.

Then I did the Amy Winehouse painting. At that point in my life, I was just doing it for myself. At that time, I was just a very shy start-up. Then that portrait changed everything. It was the biggest moment of my life to have people appreciate my art for the first time.

What was the inspiration for it?

I watched the documentary on Amy Winehouse, and was listening to her music a lot. Even though she had died a few years prior, she kept coming up again and again in conversations I had. I realized that most pictures of her were when she was smiling, before she got addicted to drugs. I wanted to leave a portrait of Amy as she really was. But it was also to express my own state of mind. It was a number of things that all came together at this one focal point. It’s the first true creation from my heart and soul.

It’s crazy because I didn’t expect anyone to like it. When I finished it I thought I had messed it up, so didn’t even take a picture of it! The piece becoming famous is really weird, because I was just making something for myself.

Photo provided by Judith

Photo provided by Judith

What’s the latest project your excited about?

Last week I had the opportunity to do a mural at Rotterdam’s Central Station. It’s really insane! I had been dreaming about doing a huge building in such a prized location. It’s weird when you dream of something for years and years and then are standing there and doing it in reality!

What’s the street art scene like in Amsterdam?

It’s pretty complicated. It’s difficult to get a wall in Amsterdam for a piece, because all of the houses are protected monuments. Mostly you have to do stuff semi-illegally, or wait years until you can get a wall in Amsterdam. As for now, Rotterdam is a much easier place to create a public art piece. When I think of street art and innovation I think of Amsterdam as the rich whining person and Rotterdam as the young playful one, throwing candy everywhere. But my best friends are here in Amsterdam, my colleagues, my best friends. A lot of my colleagues are older but I can instantly talk to them and there has never been a problem of them accepting me. I get along with them really well. That’s how you know when you belong somewhere I guess. If it wasn’t for people helping me along the way, I’m not sure it would have happened.

What are your dreams for the future?

I accomplished one of my dream one week ago at the Rotterdam Central Station!. It would be amazing to paint something in the center of Amsterdam. I mean a really big mural. I want it to be in the center. I really want that. Maybe I should do it, just like I did with the Amy Winehouse portrait.

Keep an eye out for Judith and her stunning portraits. She has a number of international plans on the agenda, so who knows - she just may be in your city! You can find her work on her site here: www.jdlstreetart.com and on Instagram.


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This Art Collective Makes Murals with Tape
 

We meet with Robert König, co-founder of TAPE OVER, at his Berlin-based studio and talked about the organization’s electro club origins, tape as an artistic medium, and the process of growing an international tape art crew.

 

The Origins

It’s not every day that you hear of an international business getting its start at electro-clubs. But in a city where the nightlife and creative pulse are intertwined, it isn’t crazy to think your next venture might be the result of a late-night conversation.

What started as  Lamia Michna’s idea for a class project quickly evolved into a new medium for artistic expression at clubs and festivals. In these early days at the clubs, co-founders Lamia and Rob were easy to spot in a crowd. Not only were they taping on the club walls, but also on people’s faces and bodies. Rob describes this use of tape as a type of makeup and says the duo always arrived...taped.

He paints a picture of the electro-clubs scene in Berlin, saying:

Robert König, co-founder TAPE OVER Berlin

Robert König, co-founder TAPE OVER Berlin

Partying here [in Berlin] is a creative thing. It's not just about going [to a club] to have fun, but also about the people you meet. It's about the musicians, artists, and others who use the space to express themselves and do something creative. It’s a place where you have a lot of freedom.

For us it was normal, but I notice it’s not the same feeling, atmosphere, or group of people in other cities. For example, in New York, you go out to party and then you go home. In Berlin, the club opens on Friday and closes on Monday so people have time (and yes, they're probably also on drugs). They are more open to meeting new people. It's the mindset that connects the people and the possibility.

As they become more known, the business-side of the project grew and they decided to establish TAPE OVER Berlin officially in 2011. Soon after, brands began approaching them to work on commissioned projects. Today, they work with major brands and organizations across the world (including Adidas, NIKE, Converse, Vodafone, Telekom, Hermes Mercedes, Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Porsche and Red Bull) taping objects, people, and spaces with their captivating geometric creations. Today, TAPE OVER consists of 10 tape artists, making them the biggest tape art crew worldwide.

Growing a business and a team

Rob attributes the growth of TAPE OVER to finding the right people to work with.

The first person to join the crew was a determined teenager, Enni, who called and asked if she could do an internship.  Rob says, “we laughed at the time because we were just some people doing art and of course we didn’t offer internships.” But when they met Enni a year later, “we thought, why not, she's half our age but let's give her a chance. We're so glad we did - she is really inspiring.”  Even though she's still the youngest in the crew, she is often the lead on projects. Rob says, “To see an 18 year old girl manage the group and do all the business communications is incredible.”

As for the others who have joined the crew, Rob explains, “it just happens on the way. It's why we like collaborating. You can see if the energy and the chemistry is right. If it is, we invite them to join. Collaborating with other people always makes work more interesting so we love to do it."  

It’s evident that Rob doesn’t take his job for granted. He says, “I love my job. On my ideal day, I would work on this. I hardly consider it work. Like everyone tells you, it’s about the team, about passion, and putting the time in. This has everything."

Tape Art: the medium & the process

The TAPE OVER Berlin team are pioneers in using tape for art, and they're constantly experimenting. Beyond taping walls and bodies, they are always looking for new ways to connect with other art forms. One of their favorites methods is what they call "Tape Mapping," where video mapping and tape art work together to create enchanting visuals.

Title: champagne shower type // tape art installation size: 4x2m // material: duct tape & adhesive foil // artist: LaMia & ROB // place: épernay france (www.tapeover.berlin.com)

Title: champagne shower type // tape art installation size: 4x2m // material: duct tape & adhesive foil // artist: LaMia & ROB // place: épernay france (www.tapeover.berlin.com)

Tape has unique benefits. Rob explains, “if you don't like a line, you can just take it away and try again. It's not like other methods. If you have a pencil, you have to use the rubber. If you have spray paint, it's just there. Tape makes it really easy to experiment. But it can be hard to know when to stop. Sometimes you just have to say, it's done.”

Check out their work:

To work with Tape Over Berlin, reach out via their website. And keep your eyes peeled, their work is all over the world!


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A look inside Ho Chi Minh City's emerging creative scene

Linh Nguyen’s influence on the creative community in Ho Chi Minh City is palpable. The first venture he opened, Saigon Outcast, filled a gap the city didn’t know it had: a space for people to congregate, to create, to feel inspired, and to feel at home. He has since opened two additional unique venues in restored, creative spaces: Rogue Saigon, and SOMA Art Café.

Linh Art Vietnam

A few days after we first met and interviewed Linh, we spent an evening at Saigon Outcast. Kids scrambled up the climbing wall, a group of artists focused intently on their live model session, a graffiti artist painted the entrance wall, and friends sipped on beers at picnic tables…this was all happening at the same time. Everyone relaxed, treating the space as his or her own. A fellow patron explained, “Linh’s places are such amazing hubs. I felt like even though I didn’t know anyone, I could go there and something would happen or a nice conversation would spark.”

Finding space to share art, music, and creative thought can be hard to come by in a city infamous for having exhibits, shows, and entire venues shut down by the government. Opening places like this is financially risky, pouring effort into hosting a concert that might be shut down at the last minute is not for everyone. But Linh’s passion for creating platforms where people don’t have to feel intimidated to share their work and opportunities for expression inspires him to continue to pursue these venues. The young creative community is "really hungry and restless but shy. They seem like they've been suppressed and they have so much to prove and achieve and get their name out there. They have so much energy. Really, they are very passionate. But they need encouragement and places to work.”


Saigon outcast

Beer garden meets alternative events space, graffiti, climbing wall, craft beer, live music, flea markets... 

Opening Saigon Outcast with a small budget in 2012, Linh and his friend Ha, found an inexpensive piece of land and pulled together containers and an old VW camper van in an artful way. “When I opened Saigon Outcast, it was for myself really. I didn’t know there was a demand for this type of space…but clearly there was." Immediately, the space filled with artists, skaters, and friends. Saigon Outcast became known as a destination for graffiti art, music, and collaboration: “The first couple years we had so many graffiti artists on the walls so that when it peels, you can see the layers of all the previous art works.” Today, Saigon Outcast hosts events most nights of the week, from drawing classes, movie screenings, farmers markets but many also stop by for a beer with friends.

Rogue Saigon

Rooftop specialty beer and music venue. 

Looking for a new place to host concerts (after receiving noise complaints from Saigon Outcast) Linh opened second venture. “The craft beer scene boomed a few years ago, but there weren’t any craft beer spots. At the same time, we didn’t know how long we would have Outcast because of noise complaints with our music. I needed to move the bands somewhere else, so I opened up a place that could have music and great beer!" Located on the top three floors of an old building, Rogue Saigon is a perfect spot to sip on one of the local craft beers on tap and overlook the city below.

Soma Art Cafe

Organic (and local) coffee and art gallery featuring up and coming artists.

“Saigon is really small. We know each other. There are only five galleries in Ho Chi Minh right now and they are all booked out with really famous artists selling their work at high prices. Soma is different, we feature up and coming artists who might not otherwise have a place the show their work." Situated in a beautiful building in District 2, Soma is a fantastic place during the day to have a delicious cup of brewed coffee with a friend. Stop by at night for art openings and a cocktail!


What’s Next for linh?

Linh hopes that he inspires other "business to do the same and to open spaces here for sharing creativity." Promoting music and arts in Ho Chi Minh drives Linh to keep working. He has observed that young artists lack confidence, and hops to set up more opportunities for mentorship with foreign artists. In the music scene, he wishes there were venues that could host international musicians. There used to be two: Cargo and Outcast, but with Cargo closing and Outcast's neighborhood growing, they've recently they have had to turn away amazing acts (such as Damien Rice!). "Right now we’re depleted of our capital since we work alone. But until I get it out of my system, that’s what I want to focus on."

Stop by one of Linh's three hangouts and stay tuned, we're certain Linh will have more up his sleeve! 

 

 

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Kilomet109 seamlessly blends traditional techniques with contemporary fashion.

You likely own clothing that was made in Vietnam (brands like Target, H&M, Gap, and Zara all manufacture clothing here). But there’s more than fast fashion coming out of this country. Fashion label Kilomet109 is leading the charge with traditional artisan techniques adapted for contemporary design. Bigger than a trend, they are setting the stage for a new, sustainable fashion movement across Vietnam.


After winding through narrow streets in a quiet northern section of Hanoi, we knocked on an unmarked door and hoped for the best. Taking off our shoes as we entered, we were greeted by people sitting at sewing machines and arranging textiles. Relieved, we knew we were in the right place.

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We carried on upstairs to where designer, Vu Thao, and her family live. Sitting at the table with Thao and her husband, we drank a cup of tea, ate Mung Bean Cakes, and chatted for hours. Later on, we toured her museum-like racks of traditional clothing and her label, Kilomet109’s previous collections.

About six years ago, Thao decided to take the leap and started her own fashion label, Kilomet109. After two years of intense research Thao launched her first collection in 2012. Like every collection since, each piece preserved traditional artisan techniques while blending contemporary, functional, and attractive design. Her 2014 collection, SEEDS, marked her first hand woven “100% sustainable collection, [using] home grown fibers and natural dies. A – Z made by us from planning through the end.”

Early Days: There Was No Word For Design

“In Vietnam during the 80s and 90s we had few choices. We had to make our own clothes. Everybody developed self-made skills from parents and grandparents and others in the community. I grew up with that.” Despite “always having a really strong connection with textile,” the thought of becoming a designer never entered her mind. “Design wasn’t a viable career. You could make something, but you were a laborer or tailor. It was more about making, not about the idea generating of design. We actually didn’t have a word for that at all.”

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A major turning point for Thao came in 2000, who was working at a magazine at the time. When “open policies in Vietnam were passed, it changed the whole scope of how Vietnamese dressed. Society was changing a lot and people started to pay attention to appearance [as a way to] express yourself.”  It was then that she decided to return to school for fashion design. After graduating, she worked for other designers and also taught at a fashion school. Teaching her students about sustainable design inspired Thao to do it herself. “I knew Vietnam could be a leader of this movement [of sustainable design], and that I should be one of them.”

Named in homage to Thao’s hometown, situated 109 kilometers from Hanoi, Kilotmet109’s designs appear to be effortless, simple, and high quality. To be clear, simple does not imply boring or thoughtless—quite the contrary. Each button, color, and thread is a thoughtful decision; every decision is a negotiation between design, functionality, and traditional craft.

The art of Thao’s work is in naturally “weaving together the message of protecting local [craft] in a contemporary form.” She hopes her work will help Vietnamese people realize “we can use what we’ve got and transform it in a modern version. It’s not the fashion from the past, it’s the now fashion. It’s the future.”

Blending contemporary design with traditional artistry comes with its fair set of challenges. But, by forging strong relationships with the artisans themselves and working through issues of communication and process, Kilomet109 has not only gained global recognition, but has set the standard for integrity, quality, and collaboration between old and new.

The Design Process: Experiments, Shifting Mindsets, and Play

Thao is the sole designer at Kilomet109, but she works closely with artisans in nearby villages who have passed down their craft for generations. Collaboration, particularly with a language barrier (each of the villages near Hanoi has a different language), is a delicate art. “In the beginning [when I suggested new designs] they were quick to say no, it won’t work. They would do it, but without believing in it.”


The process of adapting the Batik technique to new designs     “Batik is a technique that I applied in our latest collection. I spent two weeks with the group of Blue Hmong observing six women sit around like we are, in the kitchen. They make designs of flowers and animals by looking at each other and doing the same thing. It takes so long to make one piece and they use five to ten tools for each one.    [At the end of our time there] I asked them to use only one tool, whichever one they liked. I gave them a simple sketch of geometry, lines and dots, and told them to play around with it. The young girls were okay trying that, and the older ladies just laughed. All of them thought this [exercise] was only for the moment, not to make to a design.    Later when I came back with the design for the collection, they couldn’t believe I used this work. They were shocked and thought ‘is this design from that day?’

The process of adapting the Batik technique to new designs

“Batik is a technique that I applied in our latest collection. I spent two weeks with the group of Blue Hmong observing six women sit around like we are, in the kitchen. They make designs of flowers and animals by looking at each other and doing the same thing. It takes so long to make one piece and they use five to ten tools for each one.

[At the end of our time there] I asked them to use only one tool, whichever one they liked. I gave them a simple sketch of geometry, lines and dots, and told them to play around with it. The young girls were okay trying that, and the older ladies just laughed. All of them thought this [exercise] was only for the moment, not to make to a design.

Later when I came back with the design for the collection, they couldn’t believe I used this work. They were shocked and thought ‘is this design from that day?’

To try and overcome this challenge, Thao spent more time in the village in order to better understand the subtleties of process and tradition. Quickly, collaboration improved. “When you are willing to spend time with people, the relationships are so much easier on both sides…they know I make an effort to work with their tradition…now, we really inspire each other. Sometimes I have ideas that are too ‘out there’. I can make experiments in the studio, but when it comes to cost and production, their input is really valuable.”

The biggest shift Thao observes is that “[the local artisans] are not saying no when I have designs. They ask for it! ‘What do you have next, what’s the next?’ Before it was [resistance] but now they talk about next idea, next collection, next project. It’s really nice to see.

Hanoi: A Village within a City


When a young woman noticed a glass button on Thao’s dress, she invited Thao back to her house in search of buttons handmade by her late father years ago. After hours of searching in a dark room, they found and admired the stunning collection. At the young woman’s request, Thao took home the buttons. “She said her father wanted the buttons to go to someone who loves them. Hanoi has these kind of surprises. Even for someone like me who’s lived here so long, you always find something that wows you.”

“There are so many hidden places where people are making things. It’s very helpful for my design. Whether it’s simple silk thread or hand make glass buttons, we can make them ourselves here. It’s a really wonderful thing that we still have here. It is like a village that exists within a city.

 I’m so fortunate to live here and work in the countryside. Hanoi provides a great balance for my personal life and design. I love the speed of Hanoi and how it’s always moving.

When you live in the city you have to consider so many things – traffic, air, movement. So my design considers that. When I make a jacket, I have to think about how to get on a motorbike without the material bunching up. The city is so many things at once. Even the colors of Hanoi are really inspiring. It’s endless visually.”

We’re excited to watch as Kilomet109 continues to pave the way for fashion design in Vietnam. Shop their past collections here: http://kilomet109.com/shop/


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Vietnam Creative Essentials
 

What is indispensable for creative life in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City?

We asked designers, musicians, writers, and artists where they feel inspired, where they collaborate, and where they create. From their answers, we have created a list of the five essentials to creative life in Vietnam.

 

Red Plastic Chairs

Sitting on a red plastic chair, watching the world go by.

Vietnamese Coffee

Vietnamese Coffee

Fueling your day with coffee, served hot or cold

Motor Bike

A Motorbike

Finding that perfect moment when traffic is light to hop on your bike a explore a new area of the city.

Creative Cafe

A Creative Cafe

Discovering the perfect nook in a hidden cafe for a brainstorm, an impromptu gallery opening, poetry readings or concert.

Beer Bia Hoi

Bia Hoi

Keeping the creative juices flowing for happy hour and enjoying a glass of bia hoi (fresh beer) with friends.


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Best Creative Cafes in Vietnam
 
 

Cafes are central of Vietnam's creative scene. They are a place to work, a place to collaborate and are places where poetry readings, open mic nights, art galleries, and musicians come together.   

Tang Tret Cosmos Cafe, Hanoi

Hop up to the second floor to find a cozy nook to make your own.

SOMA Art Cafe, Ho Chi Minh City

In District 2, this graffiti art clad venue not only makes a mean coffee, but also features up and coming local artists. 

Manzi Art Gallery, Hanoi

This art gallery and cafe in Hanoi in an old French Villa where you can enjoy your drink while seeing art from leading Vietnamese contemporary artists.

Mockingbird Cafe, Ho Chi Minh City  

In what may look like a rundown apartment building from the outside, leads up 4 flights of stairs to this wonderful little cafe.

Tranquil Books & Coffee, Hanoi

Leave you shoes downstairs and sneak on up to the second floor to find a silent retreat. Swing by in the evening for their open mic, piano night, or movie screenings! 

 

More Biased Bests

The Dream of Roots: a Conversation with Kelly Spencer

On a sunny day in Lyttleton we met Kelly Spencer (making art using the name Kell Sunshine) in an empty lot next to where the historic Harbourlight Theatre stood before the 2010/2011 Earthquakes. Lyttleton, a town of under 3,000, is just a twenty-minute drive from Christschurch. Despite its small size, it packs in more local coffee spots and artistic spirit than cities far more populated.

We came to see the mural Kelly just finished the night before as part of the 2017 Street Prints festival. Across the street in the Lyttleton Coffee Company, we sat outside along the port to hear more about her piece, sense of place and roots, and the joy and vulnerability of painting walls.

Kelly

I had to paint on walls.

It's social. It's outdoors. It's moving—moving my body. It's talking to people and meeting new people. It's listening to music, loudly.


On Painting on Walls

I dabbled at first, but then I got the bug and I had to paint on walls. It's social. It's outdoors. It's moving—moving my body. It's talking to people and meeting new people. It's listening to music, loudly. To do a wall, I feel more involved in everything that's going on around me, in the space and in the community.

People say the weirdest things when I’m up on a wall painting….so often positive, but a lot of people just don't know what to say. You're exposed and vulnerable so people are really ready to talk to you which is good, but then they don't know what to say. They’ll say things like, “did you paint that? Are you being paid to paint it?” But it's also really beautiful—people share little bits of their life with you because it's there in the public realm.

About the Piece

Choosing a mural with the word Place was fitting for so many reasons. I wanted create a piece that holds place—people stuck it out here to rebuild [after the earthquakes] and everything that goes into having something like this happen to your home.

Place seemed like a bold, solid word to hold the main composition. I was actually going to write the full quote [from Salman Rushdie], but I didn't want it to sound cheesy—which is a concern doing type. If they don't know the idea behind it they might not think about it in the same way. The [word] journey is the idea of the seeds traveling across the area from the flower to the bird, since birds are one of the few ways that seeds can travel. The bird is there to symbolize travel and freedom and transience and the poppy is there, rooted in the ground. And [I chose] a poppy—because around the corner I saw a little patch of poppies when I arrived in Lyttleton.

On place.

When people talk about looking after your mental health, they often talk about putting roots down. When I try to visualize that place of “roots” I get caught up in this whirlpool...even though I love my homes—of Gisborne and Wellington. It wasn't until reading The Ground Beneath Her Feet and saw characters who are most themselves when they are moving that I realized I'm just carrying these roots with me and that's fine.

"The dream of Roots. The mirage of the Journey" - Salman Rushdie

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follow Kelly: @kell.sunshine