Entertainment & Arts

'Calligraffiti': The graffiti artist inspired by medieval scribes

Image caption Niels Meulman imagines medieval monk Eadfrith like a fellow graffiti artist "straight outta Lindisfarne"

Dutch graffiti artist Niels Meulman, also known as Shoe, has been commissioned to paint six pieces inspired by the Lindisfarne Gospels as part of an exhibition celebrating the return of the medieval book to north-east England.

But what does graffiti art have to do with a 1,300-year-old copy of the gospels?

On a wet afternoon in Durham a flash of gold illuminates the grey. A 13-metre tall banner painted in shimmering colours is lying on the floor of a vacant shopping centre unit. It is here Niels Meulman has a temporary studio.

The impressive piece, ready to be installed at Newcastle upon Tyne's Castle Keep, is a modern tribute to the incipit of St John's Gospel in principio erat Verbum - "in the beginning was the Word."

"That's funny, because in the beginning for me there was a word too, and the word was 'shoe'", says the artist, referring to his graffiti name or tag.

He has been calling himself Shoe since the age of 11, when he drew a picture of a shoe but, as nobody could really make out what it was, he had to add the word next to it to make it more obvious.

The life of a graffiti artist who grew up in 1980s Amsterdam might seem far removed from the world of scribes copying religious texts in medieval England. But Shoe says it is quite the opposite.

"There's a similarity between graffiti writers and scribes in the way they're dedicated to playing around with letters and words. They both see words as images," he explains.

Holding copies of the illuminated pages from the Lindisfarne Gospels, Shoe points at the delicate yet intricate script. The way letters melt into each other, forming words and pictures at the same time.

At first this might seem strange as we are normally taught that images and words are two different things. But when an artist draws or paints a word, it becomes an image, an abstract unit, he says.

Image caption "Some things are universally liked, like things that glow. That's why gold paint was so important in illumination," Shoe says.
Image caption The artist says: "The repeated characters started out as a trial, but also to get the hand flowing. It's not really a letter - basically it's the same stroke."
Image caption Shoe discovered a new technique while painting the banner on the floor and letting the paint drip off the brush. He says it is a "nice reference to the Celtic knot - a little more free, a little more Jackson Pollock."
Image caption "I'm not the best calligrapher around, but I try to make it my own. I'm not a calligrapher, I'm an artist," says Shoe.
Image caption Shoe admits he did not know about the Lindisfarne Gospels before this latest commission and says he approached the text from a non-religious perspective.

This, explains Shoe, is the fundamental idea behind what he describes as calligraffiti. The form of art he says he conceived in 2007, which as the name suggests, is a fusion of calligraphy and graffiti.

Shoe says he feels a link between himself and the anonymous monks who worked on illuminated manuscripts for many years.

He recalls reading the Irish Gaelic poem Pangur Bán, which is thought to have been composed by an Irish monk working on a copy of St. Paul's Epistles.

The poem draws a parallel between a cat catching mice and a monk "hunting words" all night long; a metaphor that deeply resonates with Shoe.

The result was a piece of art centred around the words "Turning darkness into light", echoing the last line in Pangur Bán.

Image caption Shoe's 'Turning darkness into light' piece of art was inspired by the Irish Gaelic poem Pangur Bán

Shoe also feels, that like the monks who spent hours working on manuscripts to spread the word of God, so too are the graffiti artists dedicated to a cause.

"For people it's really hard to understand why graffiti artists would go out at night painting, when they risk getting caught and they're not even getting paid," he says.

"Why [do they]? Because they're dedicated to the cause. And what's the cause? We don't know, it's a feeling, an internal thing, and I guess the cause was God back then, and in different groups the cause can be something else."

Shoe also believes another similarity is in the wandering nature of the two communities.

"Graffiti artists travel a lot and wherever they go, they know other graffiti writers and stay with them.

"It must have been like that back then - if you were going from Rome to Ireland you needed somewhere to stay. And you exchanged styles. And that's probably how these styles evolved," he says.

Shoe admits he did not know about the Lindisfarne Gospels before this latest commission and says he approached the text from a non-religious perspective.

As well as a tribute to God, he sees in it a celebration of nature and of the beauty of contrasts between night and day, good and evil; which the medieval man would have been particularly aware of.

Shoe's five contemporary interpretations, funded by the Arts Council, will also be tributes to Eadfrith, the monk credited with being the mastermind behind the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Shoe sees Eadfrith as a precursor to a generation of artists who are painting words.

The Dutch artist says he would love to organise a show on the painted word, where he could gather like-minded artists.

"It's a shame Eadfrith could not be there," jokes Shoe.

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