Niels ‘Shoe’ Meulman talks to Installation about his appearance at TEDx Brussels 2013 and the performance of his stylized work called Calligraffiti. Microphones were attached to the surfaces of the canvas and to the various brooms the artist used during his presentation. His work is not only gestural but for the first time it was transformed into a sonic experience where the audience could hear the sound of creation. Composer and musician Tim Exile joined “Shoe” on stage mixing the recorded sound with music. The Amsterdam based artist celebrates the ancient tradition of calligraphy, the beauty of words and the power of their presence.
Installation Magazine: Your career began as a street artist. Your work was recently included in the group exhibition Calligraffiti: 1984-2013 at Leila Heller Gallery curated by Jeffrey Deitch. When did you first become interested with language and its visual potency?
Niels “Shoe” Meulman: I guess at a very young age but there is something I didn’t figure out until a couple of years ago. I came to the realization that a word is an image. That’s something I use a lot in my work. From a young age I realized that I was looking differently at texts and letters, the written word. For me there’s always two ways to look at texts- from a visual or a reading perspective.
As a teenager I got interested in design. I didn’t really know the word design yet, but I was looking at signs everywhere, buildings, store fronts. At the same time I was figuring out the shapes and origins of letters. Even sans serif typefaces find their origin in calligraphy and hand written works. At this time the graffiti movement started, some of the early pioneers came over to Amsterdam working at a gallery near my house. I would go into the gallery and every couple of months there would be another crazy New Yorker who needed my help finding his way around Amsterdam. And so a lot of them became friends. Graffiti really took over my life when I first visited New York and I realized its impact on the city.
Among the artists that were visiting Amsterdam, who had the greatest influence on you?
Definitely Dondi White. He died, but he is still considered one of the most important figures in graffiti art. It’s all about the shapes of his letters and his innovation within the unwritten laws of graffiti lettering. Another great character who came to Amsterdam a couple of times and who became a real good friend was Rammellzee, sadly he died two years ago. He was a very unique person who also created music. Dondi made me part of his crew, a really legendary crew called “CIA.” If I go to New York and I tell people I’m down with that crew it opens doors for me even now, thirty years later. I never expected it to be like that, but it’s wonderful that it is, it’s special. So basically there were three kinds of worlds I was immersed in, obviously the graffiti overwhelmed my calligraphy and typography interests.
How did your interest in calligraphy and typography inspire your decision to become an entrepreneur in the graphic design industry?
Around age 18, I decided to start my own company, my first company. After doing graffiti jobs, painting storefronts and all that. I wanted to do more than just spray paint, I wanted to explore graphic design. I never studied it, I just started a company and learned from experience. In the early beginnings, it was just two guys renting a space doing mostly graffiti jobs, lettering, decoration, that kind of thing.
When people look at graffiti they don’t necessarily understand the choices behind the typography or the shapes. Your work is something we can identify with because it has yet another level of impact. It’s not just the shapes of the letters that make them visually striking but it’s the meaning embedded in the words you choose.
That is something that I’ve been exploring for the last few years. Since I started doing calligraphy the form of the shapes was more important. I also realized that I couldn’t keep on writing “Shoe” all the time, or maybe I could but I didn’t want to. I knew that there was something important in working with repetition. I wanted to explore the shape as well as the meaning of a word, I found a way to have both, as you may have noticed I use the letters “U” and “N” a lot, because there are repetitive strokes within them. Just like in graffiti, writing the same name over and over again for thousands, or hundreds of thousands of times, it becomes part of you, just like handwriting. That’s why I choose to do mostly one sort of lettering, I could do many more but I think it’s important to focus and specialize in one, become excellent at it. On the other hand, I have to think about the meanings of the words, I think I’m slowly becoming a bit of a poet. I hope actually. I’ve never been into poetry and I’ve always tried and fail to read it but maybe that’s because I look at the words as visuals and not only as text. Basically, I have trouble reading. I read the words but I’m easily distracted because as soon as I open a book I know the exact typeface that it was used.
So you see the world through the lens of typography?
Exactly. Well I don’t know if you realize this, but the word typography is commonly misused. I have to clarify, there is calligraphy which is writing, and then there is lettering which is the drawing of letters, and then there is typography. People use the word “typography” a lot but typography is actually just printing. It’s just the printing. The word came from the arrangement of the woodcuts.
Your work has a great gestural aspect as well as a performance element to it. In the Louis Vuitton video with Mos Def, you sweep paint across the boxing ring to create lettering on the mat. You used modified instruments that you made out of brooms or brushes in order to accomplish these visual effects. What materials do you typically work with?
I left spray paint behind me a long time ago since I started doing calligraphy in 2007. I also decided to leave the whole marketing and design work behind me and finally dared to call myself an artist. I was taught that being an artist was a really special thing and I was waiting for the right moment to embrace it. But anyway, I only use spray paint sometimes, I mostly use brushes, flat brushes, and paper. I started with a regular paper sheet, and then it got bigger as I started to experiment. I treat my brushes really badly. I forget to clean them sometimes so they are really fucked up and this adds to my experimentation. I’ve become a bit of an expert on brooms. I have a broom collection from all over the world. Each surface asks for a different broom.
I’m really proud of the Louis Vuitton project with Mos Def reciting words from Muhammad Ali. I enjoy doing performance much more than talking, I let the work speak for itself, the performance aspect comes naturally when I’m focused on the surface detail of every piece.
When you start doing calligraphy you realize that it’s not just you who is painting or writing but that there are many factors influencing what the end result is going to be. The person holding the brush might have an idea of what they want to create but the outcome is never the same. So you have to let go of the idea that you have complete control, just the fact that there is gravity and many other natural forces in this world, you learn to welcome all those “happy accidents.” This truth is important in abstract art as well as calligraphy and graffiti.
If you were to name the type used in your calligraffiti, what would it be called?
Well it’s a Fraktur type, a German word which is used to describe very bold, black typeface. It’s been associated with the Nazis but that’s bullshit because it’s been used since the Middle Ages, if you look at old manuscripts that is where it originated.
At one point I was really interested in Japanese, Chinese calligraphy and Arabic calligraphy. But I am none of those things, I am European. I actually like the fact that Europe is very divided because we get to travel and discover all these little countries with different cultures. I’ve been travelling to Spain, Italy and France every year since I can remember. I can jump in a car and drive to Paris in a few hours, I’ve always done it. I like that aspect of my work, that it originates from Europe. Monks and scribes used to do the same thing, they would walk to monasteries in Rome from Ireland to talk about making ink and writing styles. I’m not absolutely sure about how accurate my historical facts are but that’s what I choose to think, we’ll never really know. It was an intuitive decision to write in this way, it was not consciously It constantly changes a little, and it has pretty much become part of me.
The theme for TEDxBrussels this year is “ex nihilo,” which is Latin for “out of nothing.” What inspired this theme? How do you see it fitting into your practice right now?
Walter de Brouwer is the organizer of TED Talk in Brussels. We met when he invested in my graphic design company in the 90’s. I didn’t see him for a long time then we went for dinner about two years ago with his wife, Samia, and my girlfriend Adele. During our conversation he mentioned “ex nihilo,” and I had never heard of that expression. I don’t really know Latin but I figured it out and it stuck with me. I created a couple of pieces saying “ex nihilo.” In a way, I’m trying to unravel the secret, the big questions, a theory about everything. I aim high, I think creativity deals with the stuff that we can’t find the answers to. This is my understanding of this term, Walter’s decision to use this as the motto for this TED talk may be different than mine.
Featured Video: Niels ‘Shoe’ Meulman, Ex nihilo, Session I, TEDxBRUSSELS 2013 – Belgium – Brussels, 28 October 2013 ©TEDx Brussels/Scorpix
Featured image: All images ©TEDx Brussels/Scorpix