Ostend’s walls come to life for Crystal Ship festival


More than 20 artists from across the globe have covered Ostend’s buildings with giant murals for the second edition of Europe’s largest public art festival

Untamed colours

More than 20 Belgian and international artists have taken over the coastal city of Ostend. Following on the success of last year’s edition, The Crystal Ship, Europe’s largest festival of public art, has added 20 mind-boggling works to the increasingly colourful streets of Flanders’ windiest city.

Street art is not to be confused with graffiti. While the latter is an originally American game of spray-painting between daredevils with a penchant to outrun the police, street art has evolved into a discipline respected by the art world at large. Street artists know what they’re doing: Their aesthetically relevant, often activist-oriented, work, is often sanctioned by the local residents and city governments.

In Ostend’s case, the artists were not only permitted to paint on city walls, they were commissioned to do so. For last year’s inaugural edition, the city council reached out to Bjorn Van Poucke, who’s been curating and organising street art festivals from Hasselt to Amsterdam since 2010.

With more than 50,000 visitors, The Crystal Ship turned out to be a success. The city decided to give it another go this spring, instead of waiting until next year, as was originally planned.

Larger than life

And they haven’t gotten rid of last year’s works; they’re adding to them. “We intend to collect 60 works by renowned international artists by 2018,” said mayor Johan Vandelanotte at this year’s opening. For now, Ostend boasts 38 works, spread out all across the city.

One of this year’s eye-catchers is the head of a girl evaporating into thin air, located on the corner of the Belle Époque-era Velodroomstraat. Even before finishing the piece, London-based Norwegian Henrik Uldalen had become something of a tourist attraction himself: While painting, he wears a business suit – a wink to street art’s origins in graffiti, as someone wearing a suit would never be suspected of wrong-doing by the police.

On top of the city’s tourism office, Bruges-based Stefaan De Croock, who works under the pseudonym Strook, has built a 50-square-metre wooden portrait of a man looking at the ocean. For the abstract piece (pictured), Strook used only second-hand wood collected from Ostend’s inhabitants – and from the city's beloved Mercator, a three-mast sailing ship from 1932 that now serves as a floating museum –  and left the patina untouched.

The artists all have strong messages; they’re committed to and in tune with the spirit of the time that we live in

- Curator Bjorn Van Poucke

Artist Francisco Bosoletti, meanwhile, has emerged as the audience favourite. Drawing inspiration from classical art, the Argentinian paints portraits of people he meets while working.

But his giant portrait of an Ostend girl comes with one modification: on the wall of an unfinished residential building, the negative image can only be viewed properly when reversed on a phone or camera.

A two-hour guided walk (coffee and chocolate included) takes visitors through the highlights of both editions. Included on the tour is a beautifully weathered painting of a female couple in embrace, wedding rings visible. It’s on the side of a building housing an erotic sauna, just across the street from a rest home.

‘A pioneering spirit’

The painting, created for last year’s edition by South African Faith47 – the only female artist of the entire 38 works on view – gives a new meaning to the cycle of life. According to the organisers, the rest home residents weren’t in the least bothered by its nudity, nor its gay ethos. (Neither was the owner of the sauna.)

Arguably the most touching piece on display is the tombstone painted last year for the victims of the terrorist attacks in Brussels. Covering the front of a multi-storey car park, the work by Los Angeles-based duo Cyrcle is an obligatory stop.   

In selecting the artists, Van Poucke says he was not motivated by their reputation on the street art scene. Their one shared characteristic, he says, is “a pioneering spirit; new strong ways of dealing with art in unexpected ways”.

In fact, more than half of the participants aren’t technically street artists but painters or installation artists with backgrounds in more classical art forms. “Uldalen, for instance, is an up-and-coming expressionist painter. I was amazed by his talent,” he says. “The same goes for Strook – this is his first street art project.”

Next to their exceptional talent, he continues, “the artists all have strong messages; they’re committed to and in tune with the spirit of the time that we live in”.

But more than that, he adds, the festival owes its sharpness to its diversity. “It’s the mix of themes, backgrounds and styles that keeps it interesting for anyone.”

Photo: Ian Cox