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NIELS ‘SHOE’ MEULMAN for Artillery


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Like many artists with roots planted firmly in graffiti, Niels ‘Shoe’ Meulman looked to the Subway Art era for inspiration and early influence. What separates Shoe from so many of the rest, however, is that he was dissecting the movement as it was happening – riding the shockwaves of the New York City graffiti explosion some 3,600 miles away in his native Amsterdam.

Applying his talents from an early age, Shoe explored and experimented with a varied array of media. Through a fortuitous turn of fate, and the opportunity of an advertising apprenticeship, he took avidly to print design – and the beginning of a career in art and design that has most recently led him to Australia to continue on his path of creative destruction, or exhibition at least, and the demonstration of (in a word) ‘style’.

The latest direction to be adopted by Shoe is the fusing of traditional Gothic calligraphy and it’s Ye Olde England-ish flair with the more contemporary approach of graffiti, getting loose with the brush and, in doing so, shaking off the Old World stigma associated with the calligraphic letter forms.

He calls it ‘Calligraffiti’.

We can see why. -Kristoff the Russian.

Going back to the very beginning for a moment, do you think that coming up and creating your style in Amsterdam helped you to separate yourself from your European neighbours?

Back in the 80s there were just a few people in Europe painting graffiti. First we were copying the New York pioneers and then each other. We were just trying out all kinds of styles before settling into an individual style. Looking back, I think my style was (and is) influenced by Dondi White and Herb Lubalin, to name just two.

Did you draw your style inspiration from Amsterdam writers at the time? Or was more of it pioneering, even at the start?

It was definitely pioneering but the real pioneers were of course the kids painting the New York subway trains in the 70s and 80s. They invented this shit! Without them there wouldn’t be any graffiti as we know it today. During those years there was a pioneer in Amsterdam too, called Ivar Vics aka Dr. Rat aka Dr. Art.

What drew you to the name ‘Shoe’ for your work?

When I was 12 years old, in 1979, I did my first ‘Shoe’ tag. It was a drawing of a shoe in a style that I had seen in MAD Magazine. But, because it was such a bad drawing, nobody could see what it was – I had to write SHOE next to it! Later, the drawing went. But the name stayed with me for all that time. Some friends that have nothing to do with graffiti still call me ‘Shoe’.

Is this your first visit to Australia?

Yes it was. Loved it! Both Sydney and Melbourne.

I know it’s only the front-end of your tour (Calligraffiti Upside Down Tour) right now, but what is the most distinctive thing you’ve noticed about Australia – the people, the places? Any highlights from the tour so far?

Well, we didn’t see any kangaroos, but we did eat some! No, seriously, there’s a lot of interesting graff here – great styles. It seems to me that a large part of the population accepts the fact that it’s part of the city. I am born, raised and based in Amsterdam, and many people there think it’s something of the past and have no clue what’s going on in the rest of the world. 

What is your greatest, most large-scale aspiration for placing your art in the public space? Do you have a dream artwork in mind?

Calligraffiti piece on the moon would be nice.

Obviously, to many, the marriage of calligraphy and graffiti might be challenging and new. Was there a single event you can recall that brought you to bringing the two together?

It was in Eric Haze’s basement in Brooklyn, in 2007, that I first did the pieces like I do now. That’s also when the name came about.

Do you see the incorporation of calligraphy to your handstyle as simply another weapon in the writer-designer’s arsenal? Or is there more to it than that?

It’s just a personal way to translate street work to gallery work. And I like the Zen-like aspects of calligraphy.

Being that your career as an artist began on the city streets and train networks, do you still feel a connection to the urban-scape as a canvas that makes you inseparable? Does painting in public spaces continue to appeal?

I’ve painted way more walls than trains and I’m not that fanatic about steel as some artists are. I still like painting public spaces but it’s big linen canvasses that grab me more these days. Walls have a temporary character and are more about experiment and practice. Linen is the real deal – that shit is forever… whatever that means.

As a successful and accomplished commercial artist and art-director (Caulfield & Tensing, BBDO Group, MTV Europe, a seemingly endless assortment of high-profile clients, and now your current enterprise Unruly), what advice would have to offer any aspiring creatives with their eye on a similar path?

Be unruly. Whenever you have two options, take the third one.

You achieved your illustrious career, up to this point, without any formal qualification or degree. What are your thoughts on the importance of a degree in the modern era for young, would-be creatives?

If you don’t have a degree you’ll need something else. You must have the Force – Ahaha!

Can design intuition be taught? Further, is technical ability through rigid education enough?

I really don’t know. I’m a lousy teacher.

hanks for taking the time to talk to us, NSM! Do you have any parting words you’d like to offer our readers?

Well, thanks to all the people we’ve met in Australia and made us feel so welcome!

Niels SHOE Meulman (NSM) is currently being featured in the Calligraffiti Upside Down Tour, at RTIST Melbourne until Feb 12 and also appearing in Auckland and Singapore, presented by Unruly Gallery. Please see below for extra information.


Published: 10 February 2012
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