Art with a surrealistic twist

They named their company after the toxic storehouse in the old agricultural storage facilities where they used to work. Since then, Niels van Swaemen (40) and Kaspar van Leek (38) have been beautifying the world with their surrealistic murals under the name of Studio Giftig. Initially, this was mainly in Eindhoven and the surrounding areas, but now all of the Netherlands can enjoy their work, not to mention all of the international recognition they have gained.

Text: Rachel Sloven
Image:  Studio Giftig

“Sometimes our work may rub people the wrong way a bit”

Anyone who regularly spends time in Eindhoven knows the Silly Walk mural with John Cleese in the railway tunnel at the TU/e, the portraits along the PSV-laan, the hands in the Vestdijktunnel and the woman with the skeleton on the Nieuwe Emmasingel. Even the interior of Café Thomas at Stratumseind is filled with the gigantic murals of Studio Giftig.

Autonomous work

“That job at Café Thomas in 2018 was a turning point,” Kas explains. “We were given the freedom to decide what to do with the space. The architect would adapt the interior to our design. Sometimes we incorporated the symbolism of a place in our ideas, or add details like the spoonbill at Thomas, as a reference to the restaurant. But if someone says that they insist on having this or that, then they will have to find someone else.”

They met in 2006. Niels was a graphic designer with an advertising agency and Kas was studying at the art academy. Both were active in the graffiti world. They clicked and decided to take on some jobs together. Kas: “Before we knew it, all our weekends and evenings were full. In 2007, Studio Giftig was started. Then we took the leap of faith and made it our profession.”

Growing closer together

“We’ve grown closer on an artistic level,” Niels explains. “The style and the way we work emerged through our intensive collaboration. It’s very rare for us not to agree with each other.” For each design, the two create and photograph a setting using models. The photos are then processed into their own designs, which is then executed as a mural.

“We create stand-alone artworks with an added value for the given location. We work as realistically as possible and then throw in a surrealistic twist. We don’t expect our work to change the lives of the average passer-by, but when people are impressed, then we’re happy. Sometimes our work may rub people the wrong way a bit – like that skeleton – but provocation is not really our thing, neither are politics and religion. In that respect, we are very fortunate to have the public space as our canvas, because it makes our art accessible to everyone.

Music Murals

Just when the foreign commissions started coming in, the first lockdown happened. That’s why the duo came up with Music Murals. With it, they sought out collaborations with well-known artists in a number of Dutch cities. In Eindhoven it was Fresku, and musicians like Typhoon, Spinvis, Racoon and Di-rect also participated. “We asked them to contribute a song, which we then used as the starting point for a mural,” says Niels.

“The project with Di-Rect in The Hague, on the side of an apartment building. At fifty metres, it’s going to be the highest mural in the Netherlands,” says Niels. “That was terrifying for Kas, so high up. In the end we started anyway, until the box we were in started to sway in the wind. We’ll continue in the spring. Having such a prominent spot is a great story, but big is not necessarily our goal. We would rather do five façades at ten metres high than one 50 metre façade. That’s what our work is best suited for. We work in so much detail that you want to see it close up. In that respect, a towering apartment building like that is a handicap.”

Best mural worldwide

One of their artworks was recently projected onto Petra, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and the duo received a commission from the Dutch Embassy in Jordan for a mural in Amman. It became a 24-metre-high work of art, based on the agricultural cooperation between Jordan and the Netherlands. The mural, a woman on a citrus branch, earned Studio Giftig a nomination for Best mural worldwide 2021 by Street Art Cities. “Amman is surrounded by six hills and everything there has that same sand colour,” Kas explains. “One of those hills now has this immense, colourful artwork of ours on it. It’s very special.”

Keeping control

Studio Giftig is not exactly lacking in projects. Expanding the team would be a logical next step. But these gentlemen will hear nothing of it. Kas: “We want to grow in fame, not in scope. We are doing this because we enjoy creating together and it’s still just the two of us working on each mural. We’re not going to split up so that we can be faster and do more. If you make compromises, you lose control and slowly drift away from your base.”

“We have an accountant,” Niels continues. “That we do have. The option of hiring an assistant is an idea we’ve abandoned for the time being. We want to decide for ourselves whether we can and want to take on a project. That’s often a difficult decision for us to make. We do work with interns who are involved in things like photography, video and marketing. But when it comes to painting, the most we can do is ask them to colour in the flat areas. We do the rest.

Focus on the world

Their works are also currently on display on canvas in a street art gallery in Paris. “The greats of the urban art scene exhibit there. That was an opportunity we had to take, even though we didn’t really have the time for it.”

There are no new plans for the Brainport region at the moment. Niels: “We had a great start here and were able to develop our style. Now we are focusing on the rest of the world. The Paris exhibition will be followed by a large project in Edinburgh. There is still so much to discover. But we are far from finished in the Netherlands. We will soon continue with our Music Murals project. We already have agreements with some great artists, but won’t reveal them just yet.”

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