Hugo Kaagman is a true stencil pioneer, probably the first stencil artist in Europe (in the text below he states that he made his first stencil in 1978, meaning he had stencils out long before Blek le Rat got busy in France). In the USA, John Fekner allready put stencils out in the streets in 1976, but these were texts only, contextualizing the environment.
Hugo has got it all: punk, reaggae, politics, geometric patterns, humor – and a great sense of colour.
I have collected some of his early stencil works and had the pleasure of making a great book book with him: Stencil King, which was published in 2009 by Lebowski Publishers. I interviewed Hugo, asking him about his artistic roots, his love for Africa, for punk, for the do it yourself movement. I transcribed the interviews, and turned them into four ‘prose poems’, each dedicated to one of the decades he has been been active in: from the seventies up till 2010. I am still happy with the result; reading the texts now, six years after, they still evoke Hugo’s mindset.
‘The graffiti landscape was barren until Banksy appeared.
I only read about him in 2005, he picked up the stencil style, content-wise it was good and I loved the fact that he painted tags on cows and pigs.
From 1985 until Banksy, working with stencils was looked down upon, with the exception of that other stencil pioneer, Blek le Rat from France.
I thought Banksy was a just kid, working alone.
But it turned out he was the vanguard of an entire group.
I was afraid my stencil technique would be made obsolete by technological advances, I considered myself to be the last traditional spray-paint stencil artist.
I happen to cut faster than I draw.
Then Banksy came along and he made life-sized works on the streets of Bobbies pissing, snorting and kissing. That was unprecedented.
I found a soulmate in Banksy.
I was honoured to be asked to participate in the first Cans Festival, in May 2008, in Leake Street in London. A tunnel was transformed – guerrilla style – into an open-air gallery, people were flown in from all over the world to paint: in addition to Banksy, a group of people including Blek, Vhils, Jef Aerosol, Faile, Eine, Pure Evil and a huge viking of a man from Norway, Dolk.
I was thrilled to be working alongside everybody, to be a part of that scene, a global movement, with Poles, Italians, Brazilians, you name it. A city like Melbourne played an important role, too.
There it was again, my life’s recurring theme, the desire to be connected to the world, or rather: to connect worlds, because I had been operating solo for a decade or so. For example, Sarajevo in 2000, the war was over, the bullet holes in the walls had been plastered over, I wanted to offer some moral support to the people over there.
So in my pieces I used Arabic motifs, and Escher tessellations – Escher had been inspired by the Alhambra – and I felt there was a link to the Muslims over there.
That work was called Peace Talks.
Maybe it helped.
That was also the time that Internet grew explosively, cyberpunk, all of a sudden you could communicate with the entire world, look for and find anything and everything.
The world as an open archive.
Banksy turned out to be an eye-opener in that respect, too. The graffiti we were familiar with in the Netherlands was American graffiti, which set the scene globally.
But it turned out that there was so much more out there.
Anyhow, Banksy put street art on the map. It evolved from graffiti, its scope expanded, it was more than just letter images, it had humour, it was political and it brought back social criticism.
I rather liked that, of course.
The stencils of rats that Banksy painted all over London and Bristol, the rat as a symbol of all those who feel unloved, who find themselves at the frayed edges of society.
Dr. Rat is back!
As a graffiti artist, you want your work to jump out at the world, but as a person you prefer to keep a low profile, the artist’s persona remains in the shadows. The identities of many street artists are still completely shrouded in mystery.
There was a lot more machismo involved in hip hop graffiti, the size of the letter matched the size of the artist’s ego.
Banksy was enormously productive, both with stencils and slogans, in prominent locations throughout the city. This drove people to play around with icons, with Che Guevara, whom I had already cut a stencil of in 1981 (and which was even corny back then), Marilyn, Mona Lisa, everybody started making stencils in their own unique style, I thought that was fantastic.
I particularly respected Logan Hicks, who made extremely complex stencils of buildings, but he no longer does that kind of intricate work.
Cutting out stencils is a technique, and its limitation may be that it’s always black and white, but by working with multi-layered stencils, you can construct a realistic colour image.
Street art was a global invasion, something everyone could understand, and I noticed that everybody left work everywhere. I found a Faile on a fence in the Red Light District in Amsterdam, I had no idea that these guys travelled around to all of these capital cities to leave their work, like Invader, Dolk and others.
This stencil technique also corresponded perfectly with a concept from house music: the remix.
I could remix my own past, Delft blue with zebra, punk with Delft blue, sampling, mixing, distorting. I constructed my works much like songs: motifs like drum patterns, the bass adds an extra layer of pattern, the chorus, coloured in with instruments, you can dub stencils by moving them as you spray, it creates an echo-effect, the abstract work was more instrumental and the singing consisted of the texts and images.
I have been working alongside a train station platform for four years now, and all the passers-by can see straight into my studio, you could say it also serves as an exhibition space.
Because that is what a street artist is after: you go out in the streets to find an audience, to gather immediate response, because you want your work to evoke a reaction.
The city as a canvas. the canvas as a reflection of the city.
And because my work is always topical, I can read something in the paper in the morning, cut it out and spray it in the afternoon, and then hang it up at night.
You know what?
I feel like a new man!’
Stencil King was published by Lebowski Publishers in 2009.
For the book I interviewed Hugo, and wrote four texts: about Hugo in the seventies, eighties, ninetees and zeros. The texts were written in Dutch and translated into English by Judith van der Wiel.
Tristan Manco wrote a great introduction: From Waterloo Square to Waterloo Station, referring to Hugo’s monumental work made on many wooden panels around Waterloo Square in Amsterdam in the early 80ties, till the invite by Banksy, to create work at Waterloo Station (Leake Street) in London, in 2008.