Who Is Amsterdam’s Graffiti Enigma Laser 3.14? Part One: Introduction

While walking or cycling through Amsterdam, as I have been doing regularly for almost ten years now, I often wondered: who is Laser 3.14? He is a street artist, that’s obvious. His tags and cryptic mini poems are everywhere. But who is he? What are his motivations? Is he even a man?

To avoid misunderstandings: yes, Laser 3.14 is a man. It took me some years to get to it, but once I started Googling I found that there was quite an overload of information about Amsterdam’s graffiti enigma. He started tagging in the early 80s, at the age of 10 or 11. Out of love for science fiction he adopted Lazer — as in ‘laser guns’ — as his graffiti moniker. In 1992, he gave up on tagging to focus on painting and writing short poems. A creative impasse brought him back on the streets at the end of the 90s. Lazer became Laser 3.14, with the affix referring to pi (π), which in turn stands for ‘public image’. “As a graffiti artist you always try to create a public image because you’re in a public environment,” the Amsterdammer later explained in an interview with ArtSlant.

Laser 3.14’s work has become an integral part of Amsterdam’s cityscape. Turn a corner and you’re likely to find something like this:

'Keep it vague, get their votes, ignore them later.' - Laser 3.14

Or this:

Laser 3.14 - Tears run dry by holy wars

(More on this Flickr group.)

The city is Laser 3.14’s canvas. His poems are usually written on temporary surfaces, mostly wooden panels at construction sites. Sometimes the words seem nonsensical, but more often they evoke an immediate emotional response. At least with me. I came across the one above that says ‘Keep it vague / Get their votes / Ignore them later’ in early September 2012, right before the Dutch general election. It’s not hard to understand what the graffiti artist is getting at here. And he sure has a point.

Laser 3.14 takes pride in his anonymity. Some Amsterdammers (claim to) know who he is, but the vast majority has no idea. The reason for his secretiveness is simple: he has no desire to be a public figure. He shared his view on the relationship between the artist and his art in an interview with David Beckett, writer of Amsterdam… The Essence:

“I have seen some artists sitting next to their pieces, being photographed and talking about them, almost like used car salesmen! For me, that takes the power away, because often they over-explain. I chose anonymity because of my art. I want to be in the background and let the work speak for itself. Mystery has always been special for me.”

In an era where a lot of people seem to believe that they deserve their five minutes of fame, Laser 3.14’s self-imposed obscurity feels fresh and pure. “I want to be in the background and let the work speak for itself” — you’re not likely to hear these words a lot nowadays.

Laser 3.14 - Life, Lazarus, Ludicrous

Of course anonymity can be an effective marketing tool for an artist, especially if his art is omnipresent and thought provoking. You could argue that, in a way, Laser 3.14 is Amsterdam’s very own Banksy. Much like the infamous English graffiti artist and his American counterpart Shepard Fairey — who garnered notoriety with his Obey Giant sticker campaign in 1989, which later spun off the popular OBEY clothing line — Laser  3.14 isn’t just a street artist, but also an entrepreneur. On his website laser314.com he showcases and sells his work: silk screens, a book of photographs called Are You Reading Me? (2009), and original art. The fact that he remains anonymous has a strange appeal, but only because his work stands out. It’s authentic. If it wasn’t for that, nobody would even care to have an opinion about Laser 3.14, let alone buy his art.

Politics, love, life in general — Laser 3.14 has an opinion about everything. The question is: what is the relevance of his presence in Amsterdam’s cityscape? What are we to do with lines like ‘Life: a great misantrophic [sic] experience,’ ‘Lazarus where are you now?’ and ‘The ludicrous and crippling fear of offending’? I think it’s important to keep in mind that this is the work of one man who is putting his feelings and insights into (no more than ten) words. His lines are snippets, merely scratching the surface of a far richer inner world. It’s up to us, the passers-by, to make sense of them, to create context and meaning. We are as much part of the artwork as Laser 3.14 is. ♦

NEXT WEEK: Part Two: An interview with Laser 3.14, courtesy of the fabulous CFYE.

Journalist Tom Springveld (1986) is the founder and editor-in-chief of Isle of Holland. He writes about music for Dutch monthly OOR and loves a good story, either spoken, written or recorded on (video)tape. Tom lives and works in Amsterdam.

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