Picturesque canals, ornate medieval buildings, an imposing castle, a line of towers, flowers galore, a dramatic Gothic cathedral, and the superb Renaissance masterpiece, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.
When I headed to Ghent earlier this year, I was all about the Flemish Renaissance and Gothic encounters. And beer and waffles, obviously. So I was intrigued to learn about a small alleyway in the heart of town that’s a little more modern in both appearance and concept.
Werregarenstraat connects Hoogpoort and Onderstraat. Once a dull, unimpressive alleyway, it was transformed during the 1995 Ghent Festivities (Gentse Feesten) cultural festival, when organisers encouraged graffiti artists to decorate its walls. The colourful, chaotic result was such a success that officials declared it a permanent graffiti exhibition, open to all. With one rule – don’t paint over works that are better than your own.
Graffiti Street doesn’t compare with some of the magnificent street art I’ve seen recently, like that in Valencia, Lisbon, Berlin, London, Jerusalem or Sète. But that’s not the intention.
This gritty urban initiative is a living canvas. Like street art, the work is sanctioned, in part to prevent the historic buildings of Ghent from being tagged with illegal graffiti. But unlike street art, the pieces aren’t intended to become individual iconic landmarks. The alleyway is an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of colour, images and writing, as layer upon layer of graffiti is thrown into the mix. It never looks exactly the same two days in a row. Yet, it’s become a landmark in its own right.
As I turned into Werregarenstraat, I initially felt a touch overwhelmed. This graffiti artists’ playground is a battleground, as artists vie for attention. The images and words swirled together, often ending in a confused jumble.
However, it’s a little like entering a dark room. Slowly, as your eyes adjust to the atmosphere, the images become clearer.
As I walked along the alleyway, things began to catch my eye. First was the glorious green head above, tagged by an artist named Juice. The head was adorned with a wreath headband, while a black eye mask gave the impression of a superhero. (Perhaps it is? My comic book days are long gone!) It was a striking piece and I found myself hoping it would stick around for a while so others could enjoy it too.
Next to catch my eye was the battle of the porcupines. Animal mash-ups were a popular subject, with these cute porcupine-panda critters competing to be the biggest in the pack. Humorous, yet with an edge of competitiveness that highlighted the artistic rivalry between some of the more established graffiti artists operating here.
Of course, graffiti artists have to cut their teeth somewhere so there’s a lot of bad stuff in there too, as people get used to using spray cans and play with the medium until they find their style. Or maybe just dip in for a one-off tag to leave their mark. Though it won’t be there for long – most works last an average of a few hours to a few days.
Ghent’s a beautiful city and I gazed in wonder at the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. Yet I also enjoyed my wander along this vibrant alleyway, which gave me a glimpse at another side of the city. At a world far from timeless old buildings and Renaissance masterpieces, yet equally relevant and hidden in plain sight of the main tourist attractions. Next time you’re in the city, seek out this colourful contemporary world. Tell me what you find there…
I visited Ghent on a day trip while housesitting in Brussels, although there’s lots of good value accommodation to be found on on Airbnb. To check hotel accommodation, see Agoda. Read reviews about hotels and other accommodation on TripAdvisor.
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