“I’m not political. I just do this for the people,” says street artist Hero de Jeneiro pointing to his multicolored creations along Wijdesteeg, an alley in Amsterdam just off Dam Square. Jeneiro and friend Ottograph began pimping up the alley in May and it’s been a growing hit with locals and tourists ever since.
Hero, who’s a DJ and artist “You pay, I play—or spray,” he jokes, is painting the Wijdesteeg from his own pocket and has spent 700 euros to date. The goal, he says, is to make Amsterdam beautiful, but also to reawaken the city’s progressive roots.
“Street art makes the streets more democratic. It’s open to everyone. When people enter the Wijdesteeg, they just smile,” says Hero.
Spend just five minutes here and it’s easy to see why thousands of tourists, cyclists, deliverymen, pedestrians and the like have funneled through: the alleyway is a spontaneous gathering spot. The Wijdesteeg has welcomed wedding parties, dancers shooting a music video, middle aged tourists, school children and even tour guides target it.
“This used to be one of the ugliest streets in Amsterdam,” says one guide handing out cubed cheese from Albert Hein to his group, who are largely taking selfies. “Now it’s my first stop. You see how cool it is here.”
Hero’s effort to reinvigorate art on the streets may well help spark a larger discussion about the role the arts play in society. Since the financial crisis forced countries across Europe to slash government spending to the arts, resulting in a 200 million euro cut in the Netherlands in 2010, there has been little debate about its effects.
Many Dutch artists regard the cuts as conservative revenge. Halbe Zijlstra, the State Secretary of Education, Culture and Science, has often flaunted his disdain for culture, confessing he prefers Dan Brown to “heavy novels.”
Slashing arts funding raises an interesting question when it comes to tourism. Continuing globalization equals more tourism, but what do governments actually propose to offer tourists?
In Amsterdam, the answer seems to be bierfietsen a kind of party bike and moving pub that seats 17 riders, and popular with tourists staging stag parties. But this kind of tourist attraction has left locals disgruntled and complaints have skyrocketed as city dwellers are forced to deal with drunk, shouting tourists with little or no interest in the city’s cultural heritage. Recently, it was announced six floating bierfietsen might also be allowed on the city’s central canals.
“Amsterdam is becoming like the Venice of the North, like an amusement park full of yuppies,” says Hero. “It’s all about consumerism rather than art. What I’m doing here is not a product. I’m making a playground that brings out your inner child and lets him loose again.”
Hero hasn’t received permission from the city to paint the alleyway, and has been fined several times for working there, not for painting city property but for not carrying the proper ID. Yet still, Hero has become an unofficial city ambassador of sorts, building bridges—in this case a Technicolored one—to reach tourists through art.
On September 20, Hero and Ottograph will hold a party to ‘officially’ open the Wijdesteeg. Hopefully city officials will attend and recognize, just as art proponents have frequently argued, that art stimulates people and brings them together.