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Brussels’ absurd relation to street art

In 2017, Belgian street artist Bonom caused a lot of controversy when Brussels locals discovered a huge mural of a naked bleeding hanging corps on Rue Des Brigittines. Everyone was mystified how he managed to paint it without being caught.

From comic book characters to tags, masterpieces and art installations, the history of Brussels street art tracks subculture movements and illustrates the city’s, at times paradoxical, relation to graffiti. While municipalities support graffiti pieces that fall in line with their cultural views and commission artists to create big frescos in controlled environments, they erase and try to prevent other types of street art.

Bronx to Brussels

30 years ago, graffiti artist Chuck “Kool Koor” Hargrove moved to Brussels. Koor grew up in the South Bronx, the birthplace of graffiti, and was one of the pioneers tagging New York’s streets and subways. Koor started writing on the inside of subway trains in ’76 and by ’82 did his first work on canvas. These days he mixes graffiti and other art forms to capture the idea of motion itself, a motif present in his older works. “My mission was to the take things I like, which was space and science fiction, transform it into this letter and word graffiti context, and stay true to who I am”, Koor said. “As the years progressed, I came to the source of my work, which is this movement, sort of like a labyrinth, that you can find back in my early work as diagrams for futuristic cities.”

Graffiti flew in from the Bronx in the ‘80s but took longer to catch on in Brussels compared to other European cities. “The scene in Belgium started in the mid to late ‘80s, Koor said. “In Paris and Amsterdam, they were already well into their first generation by then. As early as ’79 you had New York artists travelling to Europe for art exhibitions. When they went out bombing, some local guys tagged along and started their scene. Belgium was a little slow.”

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Chuck “Kool Koor” Hargrove moved to Brussels from the Bronx 30 years ago. He was one of the first street artists in Brussels and an inspiration to others who joined in after.

Koor’s first European art dealer was Belgian, which is what brought him to Brussels. In 1984, Koor’s work was part of a Brussels exhibition that also featured American graffiti artists Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Futura 2000. After going back and forth between an art studio in Brussels and an apartment in Milan, Koor moved to a loft building near the Midi station in ‘89. “From that point on I was really fixed in Belgium,” Koor said. “Back then there was hardly anything on the walls, it was like a ghost town. There were a few tags here and there but it was very remote, which was interesting and strange to me.”

Graffiti became more prominent in the ‘90s, and was usually found in the more impoverished areas of the city. “Into the ‘90s, that’s when it really started becoming apparent,” Koor said. “There was a phenomenon happening and questions arose about vandalism and whether it’s art. I feel they are being asked again every five years, which makes me think, ‘Where were you for the past 30 years? We addressed this already.’”

The first illegal piece that was made into a legal piece was done by Koor, Rage, also known as Jihef, and Arme. “We did a Miles Davis piece at the time of his death next to de Wand. I did the “Miles”, Jihef did the “Davis” and Arme did the face”, he said. When the city painted over all the graffiti in the area, they left the homage to Miles Davis intact, making it the first piece to be endorsed.

As early as 1991, Koor was involved in workshops with inner-city youth. “Graffiti was being used as a vehicle to bring about social awareness and to let young people use spray paint in creative ways,” he said. By learning the names, tags and faces of the artists, the Brussels police also wanted to gather information that would help them take down the same artists they had invited to the workshops. Some of the more experienced artists would come to a workshop, spot the police, who might be there undercover, and leave. “They were trying to cut off the tail and the head of the snake at the same time,” Koor said. “Sometimes it was cool but at other times it was blatantly obvious that they were trying to catch people.”

Graffiti Now

Today, various non-profits organise events to promote street art such as guided graffiti tours. One of them is Fais le Trottoir, which translates to “do the sidewalk”. Founder Caroline Vercruysse makes a clear distinction between graffiti and other kinds of street art. “For us, graffiti means temporary, illegal art”, Vercruysse said. “It does not include works granted by the city.” When the city uses street artists to promote itself, these commissioned works do not have the same creative energy. “It is not better or worse, it’s just not the same thing,” she said. “With our tours, we look mainly at graffiti and tags.”

Fais le Trottoir wants to highlight the graffiti you walk by and might dismiss as just a doodle. They show the artfulness behind a tag or piece you otherwise would not notice. “At times people come and think they will only see big frescos and are rattled, which in the beginning was hard for us”, she said. “But this creates a good opportunity for us to pass things on to people. We don’t want to make them love tags but want to provide them with the knowledge and keys to read graffiti.”

Tags are usually the artist’s entry to graffiti. Kool Koor thinks that any wall with tags can show artistry. “If you look at any wall that is covered with tags for a significant amount of time, you will see that certain things are done in an artistic way”, Koor said. “A tag is something like a sketch, a doodle. It’s something an artist has to repeat over and over to get better before moving on to a three-dimensional piece and then to more elaborate things with backgrounds.” Repetition is the only way to develop style. “In the end of the day it’s all about style”, Koor said.

In the past two years there has been a comeback of the “ignorant style,” which was created 30 years ago in Paris by Fuzi UV TPK and takes elements of the original graffiti from New York. “This is just my point of view but I think it is a way to challenge how graffiti is seen now”, Vercruysse said. “People today say, ‘graffiti, it’s wonderful, so much colour,’ but in its essence, it’s a gesture of protest, so the artists want to use this early style to see whether people will like it as well.”

Koor remembers when the Bronx was a hotbed for creativity and the first styles of graffiti emerged. “In my neighbourhood there were a lot of popular DJ’s like Grandmaster Flash,” he said. “DJ Red Alert lived across the bridge from me. There were also a lot of gangs. It was violent, vibrant, energetic, and creative. Everybody was creating.” Rivalry spurred artists to become better and graffiti did not have guidelines or set styles. “We were making rules as we were creating”, he said. “There was no proper way to do an outline, there was no proper way to do a tag. The only rule was no copying, no biting.”

Between art and law

Graffiti is illegal in Belgium and artists have spent time in prison. In 2000, the Belgian police registered 14 counts of graffiti in Brussels and 402 nationally. 2009 was the year with the most violations, with 1,055 in Brussels and 6,358 nationally. During the first half of 2017, 315 cases were registered. The last arrest happened in 2012 when a man suspected of painting the Palace of Justice was detained for 20 days. In Belgium, temporary custody of a suspect is an exceptional measure that is normally only used for serious felonies. Activists and lawyers denounced the detention as out of proportion.

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Sleeping pigs on a facade on rue de la Chaufferette in the city centre, just some 100 metres away from the Grand Place. They were painted by famous Belgian street artist ROA in 2008.

The city of Brussels offers free graffiti removal for the owners of the painted properties. At the same time, the cultural authorities fund fresco street art projects. “Ten years ago, the city and municipalities did not use the street art frescos for their tourism promotion”, said Vercruysse. “Right now, it’s something that is in fashion. In 2010, the city sued Bonom and he stopped. One year later they started supporting him.”

Between 2013 and 2017, Vincent Glowinski, also known as Bonom, painted a bleeding corpse, a child’s beheading and close-ups of sexual acts. Bonom also allegedly painted a man’s genitals on a façade across from a Catholic all-girls school in Saint-Gilles. While the council of Saint-Gilles initially vowed to remove the painting, they later changed their stance. “This raises questions, because with the new frescos, they erase existing graffiti,” Vercruysse said. “At the same time, they leave the sexual, illegal works there and support them. Why do they leave that work and not the others?”

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The depiction of a decapitation of a child has been left by authorities. It is thought to be inspired by a painting by Italian artist Caravaggio who depicted Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac from the Jewish Old testament. It shows the distinct moment when a divine messenger stops him.

Koor thinks that, to be accepted by officials, a work must appeal to the right person at the right time. “There is always someone somewhere who is touched by what they see. It has to fall on the eyes of the right person for it to be left there”, Koor said. “Bonom’s work deals with sexuality, sexual liberation, freedom and human rights. I think if he was just doing his dinosaurs and stuff like animals, his pieces would probably be gone. Instead, his controversial works were in political hotspots where the locals had divided opinions and raised their voices.”

Compared to other places, the acceptance of graffiti in Brussels as an art form has a long way to go. “This is 2018 and I think there are less than ten large scale works supported by the city, whereas remote places like Lodz, Poland have had 65-meter murals since the ‘90s”, Koor said. “But I think the city is on its way.”

Global Art

With the advent of the internet, graffiti was affected practically and stylistically. “Now, you have what we call the “fame internet”, which means that some guys who don’t paint a lot, maybe once a year, but are good communicators, will have their paintings seen by many people,” Vercruysse said.

Styles used to be more regional, you had a Parisian style and a Brussels style, for example. The Brussels style was sharp and biting, thorny and not easy to read. “In the beginning in Brussels, there was the ‘style Bruxellois’. But today it doesn’t exist anymore because there are so many influences”, she said.

“Now you can see what happens in Sao Paulo, Mexico or Bangkok, whereas in the beginning you just had some books or magazines.” Graffiti writers themselves have changed too. According to history books, graffiti artists in the past were usually uneducated and from difficult backgrounds. “Today, most of the writers have an education in art, either through school or from going to museums”, Vercruysse said. “One of the original writers told me that in the beginning he didn’t know that he was doing art, whereas today people, in general, immediately have an artistic focus.”

Graffiti always moves around and Fais le Trottoir, where everyone except for Vercruysse paints graffiti, continuously updates its tours. Twenty years ago, most graffiti was found in rougher areas like Schaerbeek and Laken. Today, it is found more easily in artistic neighbourhoods like Saint-Gilles. For someone passing through Brussels and wanting to get a quick glimpse of its non-commissioned graffiti, Vercruysse recommends taking one of their tours, going to the Brussels-Chapel train station or walking around the neighbourhoods of Saint-Gilles and Ixelles. 

By Jelter Meers

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