Have you sometimes thought that a strange public sculpture looks rather like a skate park? That there are some house numbers missing, or that a bit of brickwork looks a bit like a pizza oven?
If you are street artist Frank de Ruwe, that means that it is crying out for an intervention. This 41-year-old from Eindhoven, a creative director of ad agency Natwerk, has a mission to raise a smile on the faces of Amsterdam’s city dwellers.
On dozens of street corners and public sculptures, at tram stations and on buildings, you can see his tiny, humorous models: a little skateboarder balanced on the edge of the ‘skatepark’ sculpture at Surinameplein, some lines written on a black wall on ‘school’ street, a ‘for sale’ sign at the end of a row of house-like pillars.
De Ruwe has been making street art for about 15 years, sometimes just for fun, sometimes for his Parool column, and sometimes on commission – for example, making a tiny, confident statue of late mayor Eberhard van der Laan for the Paradiso music venue or plaques featuring classic Dutch singers and their lyrics for tram stops.
‘I never have a political message – it’s just making jokes,’ says the lithe, energetic man in a red beanie, as he gives DutchNews.nl an exclusive cycling tour of some of his best lines. ‘I do think the city could have some more jokes sometimes – there’s a lot of frustration and fear. If I can bring a bit of a smile, that would be good.’
A former product designer and sometime graffiti artist, he was inspired by a book by British street artist Banksy to aim higher. Now – while his day job in advertising brings him into contact with clients such as Jamie Oliver and Heineken – he has shown his street art at the Wallplay gallery in New York, the O.D. Gallery in Amsterdam, and is coming to Tokyo next year in time for the Olympics.
A stained glass window he made of football legend Johan Cruiff for a tram 14 stop earlier this year brought plenty of attention, as did a ‘sauna’ he created over North-South line works at the Weteringschans.
‘They were drilling the North-South metro line, everybody was complaining, and the NS installed what looked like a steam thing,’ he recalls. ‘I put a €50 mannequin on it, it was removed by the police, and somebody filmed them trying to get it into a car – and it went viral.
‘Then at the end of the year it was sold in a city auction. I bought it for €400, and replaced it on the same night! This was the first one that really did well.’
He’s at pains to point out that he isn’t making a commentary on consumerism or politics, but Frankey (as he calls himself) probably does represent a certain idea of civil disobedience in the face of Dutch bureaucracy. Taking lessons from Banksy, he kits himself out for the job with a nod to officialdom when he is installing a model.
‘I wear an orange jacket and hat, I have two orange traffic cones, and my own permit – where I give myself permission to place things,’ he says, pointing out that he also only ever works in the daytime. ‘It looks really official but it says nothing, and in all these years, I’ve only showed it two or three times.’
Like a city worker, he finds the best deflection is to say that he’s just doing his job and doesn’t know anything about anything anyway. The only downside, in fact, is that his unauthorised work is often removed, especially in the Jordaan and the Vondelpark areas.
‘I do a lot of small interventions but they often clean them up,’ he tells DutchNews.nl, as we dive down an alleyway but find that a work isn’t there any more. To counter that, you might see him cycling with a ladder, to place his street art out of reach.
He takes pictures of potential sites wherever he goes, and, as for the Olympics next year, he already has some thoughts about the famous rings. ‘Did you ever put Hula Hoops on your fingers when you were a kid?” he says, with a smile on his face. And then, with a cheerful goodbye, cycling on the pavement and against the traffic, he is gone.