Meet the Artist Delighting Amsterdam

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In the spring of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, the always bustling Dam Square in Amsterdam was deserted, silent and surrounded by concrete counterterrorism blocks. The Dutch street artist Frank de Ruwe, who goes by the name of Frankey, decided these daunting studded blocks resembled something more innocent — giant Lego blocks — and that the city needed something to lighten the gloom.

The result? Later that summer, Frankey created and placed a giant yellow-and-black Lego figure of the Dutch folk singer André Hazes, whose songs have been pub favorites in the Netherlands for more than 40 years.

“It’s all about seeing the right thing,” Frankey said recently, over coffee in his Amsterdam neighborhood. “I think everyone was searching for a bit of bright news during these dark days.”

Frankey continues to delight Amsterdam with his whimsical, witty street art. Yes, every Saturday, he publishes a new piece in the Dutch newspaper Het Parool, as well on Instagram, but those are just the tip of the iceberg. He turns any unassuming spot in the city — a street sign, an oddly shaped brick, a ledge — into something more playful. You’re bound to run into his work on any trip to Amsterdam.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I just want to make people smile with my work, that’s the greater good. A 6-year-old and a 90-year-old can smile at the same thing; it’s amazing that you brighten someone’s day with just one object. It’s so easy to be a bit more friendly in the streets, and I think that’s what I’m doing. And if people want to call them urban interventions, I’m cool with that. It feels a bit like a buzzword, but people have been making fun stuff to brighten up the streets for centuries — it’s always been there. I’m just one of those guys who’s also doing that.

No. It’s illegal. I do have some rules for myself, because I love Amsterdam a lot. I don’t want to harm the city at all, so all the pieces I make can be removed quite easily without leaving any damage. I work a lot with magnets and tie wraps — I probably own every type of double-sided tape in the world. Sometimes I may not know how to construct a piece without using screws or kits or whatever. Then it becomes a nice challenge to connect it so it’s still safe and people could remove it easily. But it’s still illegal.

Sometimes the streets just get cleaned, and the cleaner doesn’t even notice there was a piece of art to begin with. There’s also a group of people collecting the art to sell online, thinking my work is worth some money. But what I really like is that I’ve seen government vehicles with my work on their dashboard. So they removed it, but kept it as a trophy. But if people want to take it away or take it home — it’s all fine with me. I think it’s a win-win. Even if it’s gone.

I always do it during the day. And I wear one of those orange jackets with fluorescent stripes, so I look like a guy working with the municipality. Whenever I do a big piece and need some space, I bring some orange traffic cones with me. It’s been my method for 20 years and I still get away with that one.

It’s just a piece of paper with a lot of stamps, saying “I, Frank de Ruwe, give a permit to Street Art Frankey to place so-and-so …” But it looks somewhat official because of its layout and because I always add a lot of appendixes. You’ll have an officer standing there with all these papers, all with date stamps — which by the way, say “Frankey official” around the date — and they think: “If it’s got a stamp, it must be official.” It’s the same with the orange jacket.

I was really proud that I was able to make our former mayor for Paradiso, the music venue. The best musicians in the world have played there. It’s an old church, right in the city center — it’s a cultural temple. When I heard that it might not stay a music venue forever, I thought that can’t be possible! It’s such a part of Amsterdam. And our former mayor, Eberhard van der Laan, who was so beloved, was also really into arts and culture.

So I made a little bronze sculpture of him, and he’s sitting on top of Paradiso, holding the building and protecting it with a little smile. And every time I go there, I look up and say: “Yeah, this is a good spot, protect that building.” I have a lot of pieces I don’t check out whenever I pass them. But I’m really proud of that one.

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