Very Nearly Almost
VNA Does Amsterdam
So we booked the cheapest flights and accommodation we could find and went away for the weekend. Sure, we’d just missed the incredible Project ASA show by a week, full of top street artists like Ortica Noodles, Fark, Galo and Pez. And yeah, the weather forecast was as bad as could possibly be for a June weekend in Holland, but hey – this was to be the first international VNA trip ever and we were going to the mythical city of sin that is Amsterdam, so it wasn’t all bad.
It all began on Friday at 1:30am when we all crammed into the VNA-mobile and headed from Shoreditch to Luton. Five grown men and their luggage in a VW Polo; it was cramped, we were tired, and we hadn’t even reached the M25 – booking flights for 6 in the morning sure didn’t feel like a sensible decision at that point.
Most of us had never been to Amsterdam before, and as a result every few minutes we were very nearly almost killed by trams, cars coming in the wrong direction, or hoards of cyclists. This carried on for the entire blurry trip, with our poor road-crossing skills not helped by the staggering number of distractingly attractive girls on bikes.
Our photo-man was already firing away within minutes of leaving Centraal Station where we found a 20-metre steel barrier covered in stickers. Already we could see The London Police everywhere. Their stickers and paste-ups were hard to miss – as was their front cover of the latest Time Out magazines all over the city’s kiosks.
We were starving and on a mission to find a very specific pancake place highly recommended by the one VNA person who’d been to the city more than once and therefore became our ‘guide’ for the weekend. After almost two hours of searching, we gave up. We’d just spotted a three-storey TLP piece and felt that was a sign to rest our legs and get some grub. As we turned to sit, the ‘guide’ finally spotted the hallowed pancake joint and we all celebrated madly before realising that it was, in fact, shut.
Thankfully, our pancake pain was short-lived. We sat down at a picture-perfect little cafe on an idyllic cobbled street. Girls on bikes still cruising by, food and beer served with a smile, it was 9.30am – we had arrived.
Bellies full, we strolled around a few bookstores and talked shop – this was a business trip after all. And with this in mind, we headed off to Spuistraat, getting some dope shots of work by artists including C215, Invader and Logan Hicks among others. To see it for yourself, check out Google Street View – it’s well worth a gander. After finding the highly recommended Wolf & Pack store to be closed, we went off to find our pre-booked 2-star luxury accommodation.
Sometimes you get lucky with hotel bookings, you know? You arrive and it’s just better than you expected on all levels. Other times though, you arrive like we did to find rat traps in the rooms, walls literally being knocked down in reception, and something called ‘chicken ham’ on the complimentary breakfast menu. Hotel Janson on Frans van Mierisstraat was comedy bad. When one of us suggested we were a little disappointed to find rat traps in the room, the manager angrily assured him they had no rats and that “some organisation” had forced them to put the traps there. Sweet, so nothing to worry about then…
Safe in the knowledge we’d not be spending much time in our rat-free rooms over the weekend, we set off to explore more of the city’s renowned bars and coffee shops until it was time for our first ‘official meeting’. Joe Holbrook (featured in VNA 11) suggested we meet him at the YOUR:OWN Gallery on the Oude Waal canal, just outside the Red Light District, so our guide confidently led us there in only twice the time it would’ve taken us if a) he’d known where we were going, and b) at least one of us had not been too battered to read a map.
Strolling along a quiet canal, we were convinced we were lost and not really bothered about it. Eventually, we noticed a buzzing gaggle of likely looking people outside a basement with double doors wide open. Jeroen, the man behind the gallery, greeted us with open arms and turned out to be one of the coolest and most Dutch people any of us had ever met.
After a couple of hours boozing and schmoozing, Joe and Jeroen led us and half a dozen other misfits from around the globe to a bar to watch England take on Algeria. Apparently, the match was two hours of solidly dull shit, but in our state, it was all massively entertaining.
Our evening then took us to the Cafe Belgique, which is where things start to get a bit blurry. The next day, photos helped us reconstruct what had happened: one of us got kicked out of Burger King for industrial espionage, a strange Canadian followed us back to our hotel, and the last pictures taken that night suggest we ended up attempting to fumigate our rooms.
We woke up to find the much-hyped chicken ham was off the menu. As we all struggled to get over this crushing disappointment, we quickly drank the watery, tepid hotel coffee, left the selection of neon white bread and non-descript meats well alone, and set off in search of a breakfast that wouldn’t give us all diphtheria.
After pancakes, we split up: three of us hooked up with Joe and Jeroen to take pictures of Mr Holbrook’s new studio in a shared warehouse space, whereas the remaining two decided to go watch the Holland game on a giant screen in the city’s biggest park with a bunch of orange-clad locals, a few beers and some top-notch weed.
Near the end of the match, they received a text from the warehouse guys: “Dude… My finger is a mess. 18 stitches. See you later.” The park duo were both very concerned: Holland were playing poorly, and Japan were looking dangerous on the break. Thankfully, the Dutch won, and they called to make sure their injured comrade hadn’t lost too much blood or anything.
Turns out the padlock at the warehouse had been changed, so they’d decided to jump the entrance fence. As one of them jumped down, he landed, bent double and grabbed his hand, repeating: “Oh shit! This is not good. This is not good.” Everyone stopped laughing when he let go of his hand to reveal a large chunk of his left index finger hanging off.
After freaking out a little, they found a ladder and got him back over the fence, into a cab and to the nearest hospital. They were asked to fill in forms and wait their turn, so Jeroen casually mentioned to a nurse that they could see our man’s finger bone. She had a look and immediately took him away. After a quick gory photo opp, the mangled digit was bandaged up and all three were on their way back to the Belgique to meet the others.
Thankfully, this whole incident hadn’t stopped our incredible Polish photo machine staying on at the warehouse and taking plenty of pictures of the area. It sounded a bit dodgy to walk around, with “sharp wires” sticking out from the ground and “that dry shit that crackheads leave behind” in our photographer’s own words. As for the pieces on the walls, he compared it to the hall of fame, with a mixture of local writers like Gregg, Fums & Raz from MTS, international crews that have traveled through the area such as the UK’s ATG and RT and even a couple of old vintage pieces by the legend Delta. So all in all a worthwhile visit, despite the bloodshed.
Once reunited at the Belgique, four of us carried on drinking while our walking wounded relied on his Michael Jackson-grade painkillers to make our ‘hilarious’ banter bearable.
As evening approached, we were sat outside a bar when a toothless crackhead appeared out of nowhere and attempted to sell us a bicycle. As the two most English VNA members avoided eye-contact in true British style, Jeroen haggled with him and bought the bike for a bargain 15 euros. We were all pretty impressed at the smooth transaction, but as we cunningly disguised the bike with several dozen VNA stickers, Jeroen coolly explained that kind of stuff happened all the time in Amsterdam. Two of us started talking about the possibility of moving to this incredible city while rolling another joint, and the evening was spent discovering more hidden gems, chatting to great people and learning a great deal of things that we’d not remember the next day, let alone a week later when trying to write this column.
We checked out of the ‘Ratz Hotel’ after negotiating a discount on our rooms and proceeded to have ‘Pannekoeken’ for the third time in as many days. We split up at lunchtime for a couple of hours and all met back up, once again, at the Belgique for a few beers and a chat with the elusive Chaz from TLP. Half an hour before we had to say our goodbyes, some random dude, known locally as ‘The Beer Guy’, cycled up, bought everyone a round of beers, and then just left. We were all baffled, but happy – which pretty much summed up our whole trip.
Thanks to Joe and Jeroen for being awesome hosts and helping with ‘the incident’. And thanks to Chaz for meeting us for a chat and all the other creative-types we met and got drunk with.
Words: Zang Greiner & Ben Kellerman
Photos: Pete Piotr Modrzejewski